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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood

There will be blood

* * * * *

I was nervous before seeing this film because of the magisterial praise given to it by several critics, a few referencing Citizen Kane. Usually a film never lives up to its praise and hopefully this review doesn’t further that.

For those expecting a traditional Hollywood epic, or an Oscar season tragedy, you will most like dislike this film. To my surprise there has been a film made this year that is just as perfectly crafted and more certain to divide its audience than No Country for Old Men. Both films were shot in the same part of the US, and besides that, do seem to deserve to be considered together briefly.

No Country was about the evil lurking around us, in our towns and in our homes, but outside of us. There will be Blood has the effect of a sort of Edmund Burke funhouse mirror, and shows just how quickly man can turn from divine vessels of the Lord into demons. It is very much about the capacity for evil in all of us, which like oil, bubbles, builds, and sometimes explodes.

The film is rated R and has an ominous title. But like a lot of techniques in this film the title is used in a modernist sense of irony, specifically in a blasphemous context revealed at the film's conclusion. Its content doesn’t deserve the rating. In fact, there’s hardly any blood in it at all. But the tone of the film is another matter. This is not a film for the uninitiated. Unless you know what Anderson is going for and what preceded him you will probably hate this film. This is a familiar film, bringing to mind films like Giant, Days of Heaven, and Greed, and in its inevitable disaster and horrifying punch line it is quite like Von Stroheim’s masterwork (likewise Anderson said he went to bed watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the other great American film about greed, each night during filming). This is, however, unlike any American film you’ve seen. While it looks like the golden age classics of Hollywood it’s thematically more tied to modernist poetry, literature, and music, as well as the theatre of Henry Becque (which in tone and impulse similar to Upton Sinclair’s writing style). This is in many ways a modernist interpretation of his “cruel theater” manifesting biting observations on humanity, often at its most depraved, as well as delivering delicious wit. Likewise this film is quite funny, though on a knife’s edge with horror.

The closest film experience that I can come up with is Apocalypse Now. Like Apocalypse Now the sound and music is as integral and is as important to the film as the images. Johnny Greenwood, of Radiohead, has crafted one important musical score. A swelling orchestra of dissonance and beauty used contrapuntally it stands up with and brings to mind Schoenberg. Like Schoenberg, the film, as with the music, is beautiful, but frightening and keeps you off balance, but you know you are experiencing something magnificent.

Like Apocalypse Now this is a modernist horror film and a landmark in American film in general. The opening shot, sound included, is just as at home in the original The Hills Have Eyes, than in a turn of the century oil epic. Some of these film techniques have been used elsewhere, there’s some Herzog, some Kubrick, some Fassbender, and some Wenders. It has literary ties to Camus and Dostoevsky, and while it is only partially faithful to the Upton Sinclair novel it’s based on, it is very faithful to Sinclair’s tone. The film also brings to mind the other Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, this being as much an adaptation of Elmer Gantry or Babbitt, as it is of Oil!. There are also some incredible compositions by cinematographer Robert Elswitt. Elswitt, who did Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, and Michael Clayton, may have established himself here as the best American cinematographer of his generation. He shoots scenes of vast natural beauty, and then is able to shift into the moody, dark and gothic.

PT Anderson, before this film, was known for making quirky LA based ensemble pieces. I loved Magnolia and liked Punch-Drunk Love. The last few years he served both as Robert Altman’s insurance policy, and as his protégé. Like Altman, Anderson’s previous work had his mark all of over it. Here, Anderson has assumed a quieter role, but asks the same questions. This is a film concerned with human relations, especially families, social institutions, and religion. Its conclusions are dire, and like Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, leave really only one response, “Oh my God.” This world is so beautiful and so horrific that’s it goes past the point of nihilism, to the point where, left with only human demons, there has to be at least a hell to put them in.

First and foremost, however, this film was made by Daniel Day-Lewis. It would not have worked with any other actor, and had it not worked, the entire film would have failed. The first actor who played Eli Sunday reportedly left the shoot after three weeks because of the stresses with working with Lewis, and his extreme method techniques. That speaks very highly of Paul Dano, who deserves much more acclaim in dual roles playing opposite him. Before this role Lewis was considered a great actor, maybe one of the best of his era. This role puts him into the discussion as being the most gifted screen actor in film history. This performance not only demands an Oscar but the lifetime achievement award as well. He finds a way to bring this complex, larger than life character, to life, and play him subtly and aggressively, frightening in one second, humorous the next, and at varying levels of pathos. He is believable as a monster, a loving father, a louse, a melodramatic self-loather, a sly salesman, a guilt-ridden sadist, and a shameless self-promoter.

The ending of the film is where you see Becque’s techniques fully realized. The grotesque and humorous colliding in an inevitable and absurd confrontation capped off by the inappropriate use of Brahms violin concerto. It is funny, tragic, and reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange in its ability to disturb.

I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t an easy film. It demands multiple viewings. But it is the most self-assured and dense American film, about America and the institutions that shape it, since David Lynch’s Blue Velvet 21 years ago.

1 comment:

patrick said...

finally got to see the infamous There Will Be Blood... Daniel-Day Lewis' performance was top-notch. He takes well to the overbearing, violent father-figure role -- he also did this in Gangs of New York.