Tuesday, November 3, 2009

There Will Be Blood

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

In 1941 the wife of Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov finished what would become his lasting triumph: “The Master and Margarita.” In contemporary literary circles it is hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Sixty-five years later a young director began working on a film whose eloquence and power would find significant parallel in Bulgakov's masterpiece. Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is often described as an “American epic.” However, it is far more than that. Its implications and inspirations are intensely universal. Like Bulgakov's late epic, There Will Be Blood is Biblical in scope and content. Its themes are morality, evil usurping good, and the weakness and corruptibility of the human spirit. Its implications are soul crushing. Its ambitions are enlightening. There Will Be Blood represents the point at which a film becomes a world and that world becomes a reflection of hellish truth seething a hair's breath beneath the surface of our own derelict existence.

There are two other pieces of artistic brilliance from the last century that come to mind when thinking about There Will Be Blood. The first is Orson Welles' legendary Citizen Kane and the second is Stanley Kubrick's equally immortal 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's late 60s space age film might not immediately make the same connections as Citizen Kane but the associations are there, subtly. Firstly, there is Jonny Greenwood's classically driven score of unnerving microtonal and monumentally symphonic music. More importantly,  are the themes of moral philosophy and mankind's ethical lineage. Kubrick hypothesized that man was born not out of goodness but out of malice, murder and desire and that these tendencies have increased exponentially throughout our evolution. Citizen Kane shows a man whose inexorable egomania forces him into going against his conscience for the sake of appearances. It shows the madness latent in arrogance and affluence, and how the two are interrelated. Both films purport the disturbing notion that it takes less to be evil than to be good, and thus is a certain degree easier. There Will Be Blood takes this idea a step further, introducing the susceptibility of potential goodness to the gravity of sinister yet lucrative temptation. It suggests a certain powerlessness in the face of easy capital, be it physical (as in the case of Daniel Plainview) or existential (the case of Eli Sunday).

If one considers There Will Be Blood as at least a partial re-narrating of the story of Eden, where Little Boston is paradise, then Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is most certainly the devil. However, the film is not a simple reapplication of the timeless metaphor of creation and invention of consciousness. In fact, Little Boston has all the undertones of a town unsure of its own motivations. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is at first glance a hero in the vein of Elijah. He is the preacher at the local Church of the Third Revelation, a branch of Christianity which believes that God will reveal himself to his believers through a number of “spirits”. Though it may sound like madness one must consider the solidarity of the town's people's lives and the ease at which rhetoric can be become doctrine without any points of reference. Along comes Daniel who instinctively takes advantage of the town's naivete. With the exception of Eli, the town hands over not only its land buts its principles as well. In the fierce emotional and geographical desert there is little resistance to improved living conditions regardless of what form they take. In this case the form is inky blackness of oil.

There is also a theme of de-evolution in There Will Be Blood; of falling into madness. Daniel begins as a cunning, ambitious business man. He is a self proclaimed “oil man,” and the money that can be made from oil always comes first for him. Daniel's vocation leads him down darker paths of solipsism and greed with only fleeting moments of self-realization and regret, the most powerful manifestation of course being his baptism in the church during which he is made to surrender his agony over having sent his young son (who proves, in the end, not to be his son at all, adding to the complex subtext of relationships and family in the narrative) off to private school after an accident leaves him deaf. Daniel, like so many great men before and after him, believe that if he can only achieve peace, stability and wealth that he will reclaim his transient humanity. This is not the case and never is. Daniel's dealings transform him into a raving, drunken monster. Daniel's corrupted capitalist mindset totally overcomes his sense of morality. He viciously beats the "false prophet" Eli who comes to him begging. Eli has lost himself in the ramifications and moral ambiguity of the business world and has landed himself in monstrous debt, which he blames not on himself but on the Lord. His faith in purity has been broken and the two men both wallow in the shadows of graveness and sin. They have both lost their spirit. Where Daniel has given his away in exchange for riches, like Faust before him, Eli has had his ripped away leaving him a vacant shell of a human being filled up instead by loneliness and loathing.

The long and terrible arc that brings these two characters to their respective points at the film's finale is, at every single moment, perfect. For such a young director, Paul Thomas Anderson shows a simply immaculate sense of timing and pacing. He refuses to rush moments. Rather, he lets them breathe organically, allowing his characters to come to life and inhabit a sphere of simulacrum reserved only for the most taught and stunning portraits of reality. There Will Be Blood is as dark as realist cinema gets. The core of the film pulsates with tireless insistence that never becomes overwrought but rather gains momentum, clarity and terrifying power with each successive viewing. There Will Be Blood is without a doubt the new American classic, an epic on par with Casablanca and in league with the films that have defined the greatest aspects of cinema for the past 100 years. 

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