A Guilt-Soaked Epic

Nov 11 2014 | 01:52 AM

    There Will Be Blood Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

    “No!” is the first word spoken in There Will Be Blood, and it should be the last said in response to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest pretend epic. That obstinate “No!” is Daniel Plainview’s refusal to accept the fate awaiting him when he falls on his back and breaks a leg in his California silver mine in 1898. “No!” startles our concentration on the mystery of who he is and what he’s doing. The lonely willfulness of an American pioneer is also the stubborn tenacity of a born isolate and naysayer. As Daniel Day Lewis plays the part, Plainview is also a ferocious psychopath. His curious position as There Will Be Blood’s central character makes one recall the question Paul Newman asks in his soliloquy in Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians: “How come you took him to be a hero?”

    The key problem of There Will Be Blood is that Anderson takes Plainview to be a hero—personifying everything that’s wrong in American character: greed, selfishness, stinginess and unchecked ambition. He’s a shock-and-awe hero who reduces all to shame. Mounting a large-scaled epic around such a characterization would be unthinkable before the 2000 presidential election unleashed the Left’s rage, and yet Altman-acolyte Anderson isn’t asking sympathy (like Altman did in his Richard Nixon movie, Secret Honor) because Blood is a guilt-soaked epic. Americans are meant to identify with Plainview for the worst aspects of themselves.

    That makes the movie an oddball showcase for Day Lewis. His twisted charisma and commanding skill galvanize the 30-year plot developments and the parade of sketchy subordinate characters: a charlatan preacher, Eli (Paul Dano); an estranged brother (Kevin J. O’Connor) and a loyal but deaf adopted son (Russell Harvard). Plainview’s family-narrative tree suggests what Pauline Kael said about Days of Heaven: You can hang all your old metaphors on it. It’s never clear what Anderson intends these characters to mean—for Plainview or us. The movie’s interest lies simply in how Plainview reacts to them. Day Lewis digs deep into primordial madness—evoking Western culture’s most memorable freaks from Prospero to Captain Ahab to Gordon Gekko.

    Plainview is the most remarkable movie performance since Eddie Murphy’s Norbit trifecta. One must recognize that Day Lewis’ is also a postmodern comic turn. He gives Plainview the insinuating growl of John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown—a Biblical allusion already tied to both Hollywood dynastic history and the corrupt pioneer spirit. And because Anderson anxiously pitches himself into American cinema tradition, Day Lewis’ flinty characterization resembles the same obdurate old man that Jason Robards Jr. etched so magnificently in Anderson’s overweening Magnolia—only Day-Lewis has two and a half hours to do it. A thousand times better than his Gangs of New York butcher, he keeps coming up with actorly surprises from his own British theatrical tradition. The way Plainview shames his son by calling him an “Oooorphan” combines cruelty and self-dramatization in a way that recalls the hammy grandeur of Olivier and Charles Laughton at their best.

    There may be no contemporary director more self-dramatizing than Paul Thomas Anderson, always attempting a true epic and this time coming close. But Blood is an insipid epic. Anderson adapts Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil, partly in response to the blood-for-oil arguments about the Iraq War—as if going back to Sinclair’s fictionalized history of the U.S. oil industry explained anything about Americans’ dependence on energy and exploitation of their natural and spiritual resources. But Anderson’s argument isn’t muckraking or cogent. Plainview’s robber-baron immorality and atheism—the way he cheats a family out of its oil-rich land, his cut-throat competitiveness and inability to express love—do not represent the essence of American culture or industry. It’s just nihilistic reaching.

    Ironically, Anderson enjoys unearned good will among today’s film nerds. Since the silly Boogie Nights sentimentalized the porn industry with a fake rubber penis, Anderson has been the small white hope for Gen-Xers wishing there was a Griffith, Stroheim, Ford, Wyler, Vidor or Stevens among them. It reveals the naive cynicism that infects today’s movie geeks. (Embarrassingly, There Will Be Blood won IndieWire’s online poll of real and wannabe critics yearning for a film that depicted America as land of the greedy and the home of the great Satan.) Yet, There Will Be Blood isn’t a unifying American epic like Giant or The Best Years of Our Lives; it’s the Worst Years of Our History, a post-Iraq War Termigant. Anderson’s grandiose narrative gives the impression of depth when there’s only jumbled, surface breadth. It’s strange to watch a confidently-made film by a director who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Each dramatic segment is impressively paced—as if Anderson was showing Stevens how magnanimity ought to be done—but the result is piddling; inexpressive of universality. Have Anderson’s boosters noticed, there are virtually no women in this epic? No single contradiction to Plainview’s masculinist cruelty? None of the richness found in Gone With the Wind, Giant, The Sundowners, Sounder? Yes, Blood has photographic detail. Cinematographer Robert Elswit records nature more tastefully than the great Roger Deakins’ show-offy work in the fake-epic Jesse James/Robert Ford, instilling genuine visionary heft. And Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood provides a wondrous emotive score, as eclectic as Carl Stalling and expressive as Max Steiner. Musical wit disguises the story’s incoherence—its meaningless siblings, silences and opportunistic sadism.

    Yet, Anderson’s story becomes stupidly fashionable in its stacked contest of Plainview vs. Eli, capitalist ruthlessness vs. religious fanaticism. The shabby set-up of Plainview and Eli’s ultimate confrontation in a bowling alley is so confusing and slapdash that their symbolic clash—where one forces the other to confess his shallowness and deny his beliefs—comes across as just secular-progressive prejudice and loopy, unconvincing drama. Each man is a thesis position, not a character. Is There Will Be Blood an undeniable expose of American ruthlessness, or a formidable dramatization of the struggle between power and faith? No!