Sunday, January 20, 2008

Oil for Blood

I continue to catch up with some of 2007's best. Here's another:

There Will Be Blood (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." -- Matthew 19:24

The American Republican party as currently configured is a curious beast. It is made up primarily of fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. Fiscal conservatives believe that all life's problems can be solved with tax cuts. Social conservatives believe that all life's problems can be solved with Jesus. These two philosophies are not harmonious.

In Paul Thomas Anderson's potent new film There Will Be Blood, those two beliefs are set against one another in savage combat. And it suits them far better than any uneasy alliance.

On one side is Daniel Plainview (awards shoo-in Daniel Day-Lewis). We first meet him as he hacks away at the planet, struggling to force it to surrender its bounty. He slashes his pickaxe at it, stuffs crude dynamite into its crevices, blows a gash into it, then sifts through its dust for flecks of silver. It is arduous, hazardous work.

But then he figures out how to make the planet bleed. And the planet bleeds oil. And the oil makes him rich. And that could be the story of the American Dream.

But it's not.

On the other side we have good Christians, led by Minister Eli Sunday (Little Miss Sunshine's Paul Dano) of the Church of the Third Revelation. He would like Plainview's workers to go to church and maybe not drink so much. Oh, and he also would like a ten thousand dollar "gift" for his congregation.

These two contend for the soul of this microcosm of hardworking, God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth Americans. And more, they contend for each other's soul as well.

Daniel Day-Lewis has been highly praised for his work here, and add my voice to that chorus. As Plainview, he uses the clipped, precise manner of speaking one can hear in turn of the (20th) century recordings of Teddy Roosevelt or William Jennings Bryan. It is at once historically accurate and alien, dreamlike. Physically he dominates every scene he's in, much as his Bill the Butcher did throughout Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.

His opposite number here, Paul Dano plays Eli as a passive aggressive with a tendency to yelp and whisper. I don't know that his choices in the role are entirely successful, but hats off to him for not falling back on the obvious fire-and-brimstone preacher cliche.

Plainview wins the obvious conflicts; he smacks Eli around and literally drags him into the mud and the gutter. But Eli gets his innings as well. When he challenges Plainview to confess his sins, the oilman is surprised to discover that he does indeed have a particularly painful one. And Eli hacks away at it with the same cruel determination that Plainview uses on the oil-rich earth.

There are flaws here: a distracting visit by Plainview's "brother from another mother" dilutes the primary and far more interesting conflict between Daniel and Eli. And Jonny Greenwood's score strives for eerie but strays to screechy.

But the movie ends where it should -- with Day-Lewis and Dano front and center. It is hard to imagine these two characters in the same political party.

Or the same Kingdom of God, for that matter.

3 1/2 stars

Footnote: This is yet another movie where the ending appears to baffle people, just like another critical favorite, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men. As with that one, I'm not sure what the problem is. Without discussing details (I took a vow Never To Spoil), the ending to There Will Be Blood gives an audience exactly what they were complaining was lacking in NCFOM, albeit with some unexpected and bizarre twists. Make up your collective mind, folks!

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