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There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

            The exciting development of Paul Thomas Anderson continues to astonish with the arrival of his anxious epic There Will Be Blood. A showdown between the twin forces of capitalism and religion at the turn of the twentieth century, it is the most self-consciously important project yet from a director who has quickly established himself as one of the nationís very finest. Here is a film that makes its enormous intentions abundantly clear, then follows up on them magnificently, resulting in what seems destined to become a bona fide American classic. Hypercontrolled to the extent that comparisons to Kubrick are not off base, There Will Be Blood shows Anderson further maturing his already considerable formal prowess. Its opening scenes deliberately recall the mysterious power and otherworldly menace that inhabited the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, fusing score, sound and image together to create an extended, breathtaking, nearly wordless expository sequence the likes of which have rarely graced cinema screens. Itís just a warm-up, though, for the astoundingly sustained series of set pieces to follow; a sequence which is firmly held together by a towering performance from Daniel Day-Lewis that surely must qualify as the best of his - or practically anyoneís - career.

            Literally no director in the history of cinema has been so skilled at sustaining nervous tension, or has been so willing to sustain it throughout a movieís entire run time, as Anderson. In retrospect, it seems that the rightfully celebrated drug deal scene from Boogie Nights would come to define the directorís career trajectory. In that supreme example of edge-of-your-seat filmmaking, Anderson made the most of his nine minutes of nerve-wracking anxiety. Two pop songs on the soundtrack, histrionic performances, impeccably timed camera sweeps, randomly deployed firecracker explosions, nervous laughter, and an endless, forty-second close-up of Mark Wahlberg conspired to put the audience in a place that they couldnít escape from quickly enough, even as they felt certain they were in the hands of a budding master. Like no one else, Anderson exhibits virtuosity at every moment, but deploys it like those firecrackers. He doesnít want to wow us. He wants to always keep us on uncertain ground. He revels in making his characters, and his paying audience, squirm in an extended fit on discomfort.

 

            Andersonís two films that followed Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, saw the director striving to stretch the dynamics of that scene to feature length. In each of them, the overcranked score was often allowed to unfurl for several minutes, robbing the audience of a chance to catch their collective breath as a given scene concluded. This oppressive, almost operatic, tendency probably does much to explain why his films have been so consistently divisive. For all of their undeniable brilliance, they arenít uniformly pleasurable experiences. Even Punch Drunk Love, which could be classified as a romantic comedy, mines more energy from social awkwardness and discord than unfettered happiness.  Anderson operates at a fever pitch, and relies somewhat on bullying the audience to work his magic, but if he manages to capture a viewer, the effect can be positively exhilarating. 

            With There Will Be Blood, then, itís entirely satisfactory to see that impulse further refined, even as Anderson takes on his most classically structured narrative to date (this is, not coincidentally, his first adapted screenplay). Centered in the uncertain, but clearly observable, machinations of Daniel Day-Lewisí Plainview, the film is as resolutely internalized a character study as any supposed epic has ever been. The resounding bulk of the experience of watching Blood centers around viewer fascination about how Plainview will modulate his responses to a given social situation. As a misanthrope first and an oil man second, heís forced to work with (and exploit) people to meet his ends, and itís that predicament which provides the movieís drama. Nearly every scene past the opening moments sticks close to Plainview and his sheer ambition, placing the audience itself in a situation where theyíre keeping uncomfortable company for far too long.

 

            The practice of watching There Will Be Blood, though, is breathtaking. Andersonís masterful control ensures that the inevitable audience response of revulsion is equally met with fascination. He sets scene after scene at a frighteningly high pitch, maintaining a level of energy that never flags. He forefronts the importance of everything, from the process of the drilling operation, to the character relationships, to Plainviewís murky past. It becomes obvious that as a counterbalance to his control as a director, Andersonís meticulous elusiveness as a writer is a godsend. Throughout the movie, Andersonís pet themes of family, exploitation, and capitalism are brushed against but not belabored. Behavioral motivations are left open enough that one continues to view Plainview as a curious onlooker instead of a satisfied psychiatrist. Nonetheless, as this vile oil man sits bemused or annoyed by all comers, the audienceís understanding of him as a formidable force is only further enforced.

            The ultimate trajectory that Anderson points Plainview on is as bold as anything else in this masterwork. There Will Be Blood inevitably lives up to its ominous title, but not before the director ratchets the level of tension to the literal breaking point throughout the filmís final hour. He does this via a series of astoundingly well-acted confrontations that see Plainview putting to death the idea of both man and God alike. By the time it reappears to close the film, the title There Will Be Blood reads like a defiled Biblical commandment. As the megalomania wrought by his success corrupts Plainview, Anderson risks alienating his audience, but the ambition, and talent, of the director inarguably matches that of his subject.

 

97 

Jeremy Heilman 

01.04.08