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Drilling for Art: There Will Be Blood, Take 1

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Drilling for Art: <em>There Will Be Blood</em>, Take 1

Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama There Will Be Blood—in which Daniel Day-Lewis’ prospector-turned-robber baron antihero, Daniel Plainview, pick-axes his way toward an oil fortune—isn’t perfect or entirely satisfying, but it’s so singular in its conception and execution that one can no more dismiss it than one can dismiss a volcanic eruption occurring in one’s backyard.

It cannot be diminished—as Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia could, and to my mind, rightly were diminished—as another instance of a facile, energetic director hurling homage at the audience.

In Blood, as in Anderson’s fourth, most distinctively original feature, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, the director lays his influences on the table (in plain view, as it were). But he isn’t content to quote and rearrange with his usual hyperkinetic fussiness. There are moments, scenes, and an entire section that I think veer out of control, and not in a good way. But for the most part, Anderson seems to have absorbed his influences and created a singular work; there are so few tonal or dramatic miscalculations—and so few reversions to the cinematic karaoke machine mode of his first three pictures—that when one does pop up, it’s a such a shock that it takes you out of the movie. From the opening section, in which Daniel the prospector finds and stakes a crude oil claim and inherits the young son of a worker who died in his employ, through the complex, moving, frequently upsetting midsection that depicts Daniel amassing his fortune, acquiring and betraying allies, out-thinking and sometimes terrorizing his rivals, and destroying people he should treasure, Blood becomes as pointed a critique (and celebration) of capitalism as the Godfather movies—and other things besides.

For a decade now, ever since his second feature, Boogie Nights exploded onto screens like a string of Chinese firecrackers, Paul Thomas Anderson has been American cinema’s giant-in-waiting—a self-taught writer-director-impresario-icon who aimed to be not just the last great 1970s filmmaker, but all of them rolled into one: Altman, Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Penn, Demme, Ashby and many, many more. In Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he cherry-picked situations, setpieces, even particular shots from his heroes’ movies and re-imagined them (or sometimes simply regurgitated them). I was among his early detractors, admiring but not quite embracing Hard Eight, and finding Boogie Nights and Magnolia almost insufferably imitative, superficial and self-satisfied. His second and third films, in particular, were spectacularly inconsistent. Flamboyant camerawork, jigsaw-puzzle montages and scripted-to-the-commas dialogue jostled against actor’s workshop hysterics and amateurishly improvised banter, and both films’ midsections seemed glommed together with gaffer’s tape. At times Anderson reminded me of another deeply musical but often incoherent director, Spike Lee: his films played like grandiose ’60s/’70s double albums, comprised of finely wrought singles and jam session filler held together by nerve.

Yet parts of all of his features amused, enthralled or moved me. Magnolia’s go-to shot—a vertigo-inducing whip-pan that became a combination high speed dolly-in/zoom-in; a shot so closely identified with Goodfellas that any director who uses it might as well stamp “Property of Martin Scorsese” at the bottom of the frame—was a trite signifier of energy, and there was too much yelling, stammering and sobbing in place of acting; but the movie was shot through with visionary sequences (the “Wise Up” musical interlude; the rain of frogs) and surprising, affecting performances (by Tom Cruise, Melora Walters, William H. Macy, Jason Robards and Melinda Dillon especially). Half of Boogie Nights made me wish I was at home watching Raging Bull, Saturday Night Fever, Midnight Cowboy or any of the other touchstones that Anderson made sure we all knew he’d seen; the rest—especially the scenes that focused on someone besides the horse-hung Candide, Dirk Diggler—was as sweet and unsettling as its influences. Was Anderson a fearsome impressionist, or an original talent who had not yet found his true voice? After seeing Punch-Drunk Love, I figured it was the latter. For the first time, Anderson had applied his virtuoso technique, his rapport with actors and his archivist’s memory to a film that was impossible to dismiss as pastiche. The merger of Anderson’s droll wit and long-take choreography and Sandler’s agitated man-child shtick sparked an alchemical reaction; Love was so peculiar that it could indulge in baldfaced shout-outs (most notoriously in the madcap montage scored to “He Needs Me,” from Popeye) without breaking its obnoxious, endearing spell. Was it possible that his first three films constituted nine hours of throat-clearing?

Yes. As muscular and restless as it is, Blood demonstrates greater discipline and confidence than anything Anderson has made—a willingness to hang back, to let scenes play without editorializing music or at medium or long distance; a sense of when it’s desirable to generate excitement mainly through camera movement, cutting, sound design and other overt means, and when such intervention would prove superfluous or reductive. The film’s virtually score-free 1902 prologue, which shows a younger, bearded Daniel rappelling into a cavern in search of precious metal, is photographed (by Robert Elswit) with what Pauline Kael, reviewing Spike Lee’s debut, She’s Gotta Have It, called “a film sense.” Daniel’s dangling, scrambling figure and certain significant rock formations are etched with enough light to allow viewers to orient themselves along with the hero, but not so much that you lose the sense of primordial gloom; the outlining is subjective, a means of suggesting what the hero senses but can’t see. Daniel is relentless, but the work is difficult, the conditions brutal. Like the combat scenes in The Thin Red Line, with their incongruous cutaways to bored-looking animals, and the long section in Cast Away, in which the starving hero teaches himself how to acquire, open and devour a coconut, the first section of Blood reminds 21st century multiplex audiences that the natural world could not care less what humanity wants.

This inaugural setpiece segues neatly into a scene showing Daniel and a crew drilling for oil, which Daniel deduces is the region’s true motherlode. The sense of exertion and exhaustion is even more pronounced (and frightening) because Daniel has drawn other people into his obsession and seems to have as little regard for their safety as he does for his own. The film adopts the hero’s single-minded point-of-view. When a man is injured or killed, Anderson shows what happened and how the crew moved on from there, as if recounting what became of a broken pickax. Daniel’s commitment is scientific in its problem-solving acuity, demonic in its refusal of defeat. In its mix of dynamic need and utilitarian methodology—its understanding of how visionary businessmen regard workers as sentient tools—this may be the finest sequence Anderson has directed. And it subtly sets up the film’s symbolic architecture: its recurring images of men rising (physically or metaphorically) and then falling, complemented by the rising and falling motion of oil derricks, and the rising, falling movement of Elswit’s camera as it rises up over ridges along with Daniel to reveal new territories he intends to acquire. When, towards the end of the first cave sequence, an agonized Daniel hauls himself up toward the surface, Elswit’s camera tilting up to reveal the exit, the sun bursting through the hole feels not reassuring but taunting. Daniel would rather be down in the dark.

The bulk of Blood, set in 1911, follows Daniel as he methodically and sometimes sneakily builds his fortune, accompanied at each step by his adopted son, H.W. (played as a preadolescent by Dillon Freasier). Anderson’s book is based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, which he’s said he encountered by chance in a London bookstore, but this source is just a springboard for a tale that owes as much, if not more, to other prominent sources: Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (likewise a story of a man sacrificing love on the altar of money); Citizen Kane (ditto); the Godfather trilogy (ditto again); the collected works of Stanley Kubrick, specifically Barry Lyndon and the four-movement cosmic spectacle 2001 (a source whose kinship to Blood Filmbrain nicely analyzes here). They all feed Anderson’s fever.

The film is ultimately not as emotionally rich and all-encompassing as those touchstones because it mostly sticks with Daniel, a closed-off man who seems to have little soul to lose, and syncs up his lordly ruthlessness and the director’s style, robbing the film of the greater complexity it might have achieved from having the hero and the style work at cross-purposes (and they surely would have in a film by Altman or Terrence Malick). From the moment we meet Daniel, he’s a terrifying capitalist instrument, telegraphing his objectives (to the viewer, his clients and his rivals) so unambiguously (and with a rumbling, often gleeful voice) that at times he evokes John Huston’s Noah Cross from Chinatown. Between Day-Lewis’ hyperreal performance—always teetering on the edge of theatrical artifice—and Jonny Greenwood’s aggressively dissonant score, Daniel radiates an almost vampiric mix of hunger, patience and indestructibility; midway through the movie, when he’s riding on a train and a shaft of sunlight unexpectedly hits his face, I half-expected him to burst into flame. Yet in characterizing Daniel, here too Anderson mostly transcends his influences, creating a character we haven’t seen before in a movie that feels fresh. Daniel is inarguably kin to Michael Corleone and Charles Foster Kane—a monster of ego, manipulative, ruthless and self-loathing. But there’s more here than Lonely Capitalist cliche. Daniel has human potential, but it can’t be tapped because his drive is so intense and his emotional armor so thick. You can see it in the way that Daniel dotes on H.W. during their initial train ride together in the 1902 sequence. Even though he’s probably already thinking of ways he can amortize this profound emotional investment—sure enough, in the 1911 section H.W. accompanies Daniel on business meetings, enabling Daniel to declare, “I’m a family man” before he commences screwing whoever he’s dealing with—from the start, the connection between boy and man seems intuitive, elemental, real. Later in the film, after Daniel has used and neglected H.W. and then coldly sent him packing, there still seems to be real love there, however mangled. Later, when the newly-returned H.W. walks through a field with Daniel, who is spouting the usual self-justifying bullshit and otherwise acting as if he’s done nothing wrong, the boy hauls off and starts slapping him. Anderson’s directorial detachment—framing the whole exchange in long shot—is masterful.

Daniel’s relationship with a young preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), is less perfectly realized, though to be fair it’s much more tangled and overtly archetypal than the Daniel-H.W. relationship, conceived both realistically and schematically. Eli enters Daniel’s life as a potential business contact, bringing Daniel news of his family’s oil-rich property in the town of New Boston; as the years wear on, establishing New Boston as the wellspring of Daniel’s wealth and Daniel as the driving force behind the town’s evolution, the prospector and the reverend become locked in an unending contest of wills, each trying to force the other to bend. It’s hard to say who started it—probably Daniel, who correctly sized up Eli as a young man out of his depth and acquired drilling rights for less than they were worth. The relationship gives the movie its dramatic backbone and sets up a number of terrific moments, most of them tending toward black comedy, the “confession” that Eli coerces out of Daniel being an especially satisfying example. (You know that the kid concocted the situation not to save Daniel’s soul, but to force a strong man to literally kneel, then slap him around in public without fear of retribution.)

Anderson’s attitude toward faith is conflicted, maybe muddled. Here, as in Magnolia, he seems fascinated by piety as a character trait, or a pretext to stage biblically spectacular events or iconic shots of people praying in the vicinity of crucifixes. He’s not nearly as interested in faith’s effect on daily life or the construction of personality. While Eli’s fervor is real, it seems to have less to do with faith per se than with his desire to establish dominance over Daniel. It’s religion-as-racket: Eli is a parasite who has attached himself to a dominant predator (essentially shaking down Daniel for money or prestige) while presenting himself, and almost certainly seeing himself, as a doer of good deeds. Compared to Daniel’s obsession with profit and control of land, which is destructive and self-destructive but at least honest, Eli’s faith carries with it a powerful whiff of hypocrisy; the reverend’s angelic face and polite demeanor notwithstanding (Dano is terrific), his character doesn’t quite transcend the stock conception of the preacher man playing an angle. He’s like the corrupt senators, police captains and other public officials in the Godfather films whose soulless rapaciousness was intended to make Coppola’s mafiosi seem like paragons of dark integrity. The true religion here is profit. Anderson treats the pursuit of entrepreneurship as an unholy (but to practitioners, holy) calling. Blood starts with a black screen, backed by a souls-in-torment Greenwood cue that could be Hell’s orchestra tuning up; as the music rises in volume and pitch, building to a sonic eruption, Anderson fades to blinding white, then fades the brightness back down to take us into the first digging sequence. Here and elsewhere in the opening section, the mix of Greenwood’s atonal cues and the architecturally-framed shots of rock formations and jagged hills evokes (intentionally, I’m sure) Close Encounters, another secular blockbuster spiked with religious motifs and populated by ordinary people afflicted with visionary drives. (Beyond its sci-fi and religious aspects, Close Encounters was a metaphoric working-through of Steven Spielberg’s compulsion to realize his fantasies on celluloid, even if it meant sacrificing domestic happiness and letting the world think him mad. Blood invites similar comparisons between its director and main character, a driven, innovative autocrat who likes getting his hands dirty, knows his trade better than anyone, and desires patrons, not partners.)

What saves the Eli-Daniel antagonism from allegorical preciousness (Commerce vs. Religion, step right up!) is Anderson’s sense of absurdity—arguably the most original and potent aspect of his talent. The preacher and the businessman go at each other like cartoon foes. Their showdowns and negotiations are grotesque and funny—Daniel, in particular, seems to enjoy putting the screws to Eli. Yet the finale and the buildup to it make the film seem like an epic pissing match when all things considered, it could have been, and arguably is, more than that.

If Blood’s bleak wit is the quality that registers most strongly, runner-up is the poignant depiction of makeshift family and its effect on identity. The film is filled with lies that become true after the participants have had time to live in them: H.W. gradually becoming Daniel’s might-as-well-be-biological son, and Daniel subconsciously conflating his own stewardship of the business (which he eventually sells off) and his guardianship of H.W. (“Nobody tells me how to raise my boy!” he keeps declaring, even though nobody has tried to tell him any such thing); Eli and Daniel forging a relationship that seems (though the details are too sketchy to know for sure) to somehow twistedly re-imagine, or re-fight, each man’s relationship with his biological father; the derelict Henry (a deeply affecting Kevin J. O’Connor) falsely but poetically claiming “I’m your brother from another mother; Ernest is my father,” then fessing up to the lie long after he’s been accepted as a “real” sibling. “Having you here gives me a second breath,” Daniel admits to Henry, sounding so grateful that Henry’s fate seems, in retrospect, all the more ghastly. As has been noted many times, family—specifically fathers vs. sons—is the flint that sparks this filmmaker’s imagination. But Blood is the first movie in which Anderson has really claimed this theme and infused it into every scene and relationship, rather than using it to lend a series of dazzling setpieces an illusion of cohesiveness.

I wish Blood were the unqualified masterpiece Anderson (and his admirers) have long dreamed of. It moves the filmmaker’s evolution many steps forward and then, in its final act, it steps back, partly abandoning its controlled, feverish gloom and becoming notably more fragmented, schematic and openly derivative than it had been up till then. While never as blatant in its homages as Anderson’s first three movies, Blood, a film that elsewhere is inspired but rarely dominated by Giant, The Aviator, Citizen Kane and The Shining, too obviously betrays its indebtedness to those works—as well as Deadwood, Gangs of New York, the collected works of David Mamet, and every gangster film in which a control freak criminal gets a rival right where he wants him, humiliates him verbally, then splatters his brains. And its justly praised lead actor, who until then had skillfully walked the line separating metaphor-minded stylization from showy caricature, becomes imprecise and unconvincing. When Day-Lewis galumphs across Daniel’s basement bowling alley, veins bulging and spittle-flecks flying, spinning an elaborate monologue that builds to the declaration “I drink your milkshake!” and then climaxes with a murder-by-bowling pin, it’s the Blot-the-alpaca scene from American Gangster with feeling. It’s Day-Lewis, not just Daniel, who seems to be grooving on the moment’s viciousness; at a couple of points the actor seems to come close to cracking himself up. A tour-de-force performance is enclosed by quote marks; the spell is broken. Suddenly the character is too much the entrepreneur cousin of Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York. That wouldn’t be an inherently bad thing had the rest of Blood been conceived, a la Scorsese’s misbegotten yet stunning film, in exclusively mythic terms. But here—occurring within the context of Anderson’s most naturalistic, carefully modulated, uncharacteristically quiet movie—it seems a miscalculation, one that plays into the hands of detractors who think Anderson a shallow dramatist who believes that Power = Cruelty + Yelling.

I don’t doubt that fans of Blood will rebut my skepticism by claiming that the movie’s final stretch, and Day-Lewis’ performance within it, are about men becoming their caricatures, and that every creative choice is therefore spot-on. I can buy that argument in principle—and Daniel certainly becomes less controlled after the double hit of a death and a crippling of two people he loved most—but its articulation is wobbly, and the idea of it struck me as less impressive than Anderson’s slow-boil buildup. What most shocked me about the film’s coda was how nakedly it wanted to be shocking, like the blobby emoting that marred long stretches of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Elsewhere in Blood, Anderson creates unsettling effects by having Daniel channel his ambition into structured tasks and occasionally let off little puffs of fury. When violence comes, it’s cold, methodical. The movie’s baroque blow-out ending is effective, but too ’70s movie-inevitable. To invoke The Shining—a much-cited source for some of Anderson’s inspiration, particularly in its use of ambient sound and music—I suspect that if Anderson had adapted Stephen King’s novel, he would have kept King’s Creative Writing 101 original ending, which killed raging alcoholic Jack Torrance in a boiler explosion (he explodes, along with the volatile device he’s supposed to monitor—get it?). Daniel seems more of a freezing-alone-in-a-hedge-maze kind of guy.

“His movies haven’t been perfect, but for the most part, they’ve been perfectly open,” wrote Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, in a rare pan of Blood. “Echoing the stammering-confident boast of Warren Beatty’s John McCabe in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the greatest film made by Anderson’s spiritual predecessor, Robert Altman, Anderson said from the start, ’I got poetry in me,’ and wasted no time proving it.” Amen to that. Blood is the sort of movie (like The New World, The Black Dahlia and Inland Empire, among recent titles, only with almost monolithically positive reviews and a far more pervasive PR campaign) that inspires zealous oratory, fixation on marginalia and even pre-emptive strikes against criticism. Karina Longworth, one of the movie’s most devoted boosters, published a list column that attempts to redefine complaints about the movie as “Misconceptions,” including the notion that the last movement is less than perfect. “I’m personally of the opinion that if you can’t roll with the final reel of this film, then your love just is not real,” she writes—unknowingly echoing the sentiments of a dear friend who adores Blood, and tried to convince me that comparing Anderson to Welles, Kubrick or anyone else wasn’t fair, even though Anderson’s whole career has audaciously dared us to do just that. Such intemperate devotion is understandable; this blog was founded on it. And it strikes me as reflexive contrarianism—perhaps even a denial of the images, sounds and performances up there onscreen—to insist that Blood is anything less than an event. If it’s not the masterpiece Anderson has striven (at times a bit anxiously) to create, it’s a work that stakes its creator’s auteurist bona fides with irrevocable force. I look forward to seeing it again, though not, perhaps, as eagerly as I await Anderson’s sixth movie, whatever it may be.

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door.