Friday, April 18, 2008

MOVIES- There Will Be Blood

In the third of our Oscar Best Picture roundup we look at THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Unlike Atonement, this is truly worthy of Oscar contention. But like NO COUNTY FOR OLD MEN it is for reasons that defy conventional wisdom and the usual that Hollywood has to offer. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a pure character study. As much as the winner, NO COUNTRY, was driven by plot and image, this movie is just as unique because it is driven by character and character alone. In fact, there are none of the usual movie making conventions. No adversary rears their head to thwart the hero in finding their path to a goal. There is no hero, only a group of individuals vying for their own for their own interests. There is no plot or dramatic structure, only events that happen to each of these monuments to single minded self interest. There is no denouement, only a point at which the movie ends.

The lead characters are the epitome of different kinds of pure horrific cynicism. Daniel Day Lewis gives an unflinching portrayal of the avarice and loathing for humanity that so many businessmen possess in the role of the ironically named Daniel Plainview. Paul Dano plays the charlatan preacher named Eli Sunday, who is interested only in self-aggrandizement and has no faith in anything except the belief that people are fools. The names almost put too tidy a point on the idea that these people are characatures rather than characters. The only person that can be called sympathetic in the whole movie is the son of Plainview, who we see grow from infant to man and thus encompasses the work of four different actors. This too is rather metaphorical I think. While the evil leads are clearly drawn by individual actors, the only role that can be said to represent good is rather nebulous and winds up being a pawn, a cardboard cutout, a set piece for the more interesting main actors. And like all the other names in the movie, his name is also a metaphor in that he doesn’t even have a name. Only initials tacked in front of the ironic Plainview surname. The movie never lets up in beating you over the head with it’s lack of interest in anything but basest of human motivations.

One hint to anyone who views the IMDB.COM page for the movie is the cast list. There are more roles in his movie for people without names than there are with names. Most are MINEWORKER #4, and ELI FOLLOWER #3. And the ones who do have names are literally named for their character traits. Nobody bothered to even pick up a phonebook and find names for the roles. Instead Plainview has only superficial vision, Eli (no doubt short for Elijah the prophet) Sunday is the preacher. We have an Ailman, a Rose, a Bankside, a Hunter, a Blaize, and a Blaut. The supporting cast are inconsequential. So much so that I, who is usually a nut for picking out character actors in brief supporting roles (I picked out John Larroquette under all that Kingon shit on his face in Star Trek III) didn’t even notice Paul F. Tompkins in a rather prominent role (so prominent that he actually got a name- Prescott).

LONG ASIDE AND INEVETABLE DIGRESSION WARNING: (I’ve been looking to see where Tompkins would land since he bombed so impressively and so dependably every week on the first season of Bill Maher’s HBO show. Rarely has a comedian done such good material only to be met with the sound of crickets chirping out in the audience. It’s a shame HBO won’t ever air those shows again, not even as podcasts. It was worth tuning in just to see the look on his face every time he launched into a routine just to have the mikes in the studio pick up the sound of the audience whispering to each other “who is this douchbag?” He wasn’t unfunny, but nothing he did could measure up to his complete and dismal failure with the live audience every week. That was pure hilarity. So I been keeping an eye on his career whenever it crosses my cultural radar. So far it’s been MTV’s shitfest Best Week Ever, where the object is, as far as I can tell, to lower the number of people on the LA unemployment roles since the idea of the show is that people who have no reason to give their opinions do exactly that every week. He also pops up on Keith Olberman’s show- where the primary criteria to be a revolving guest is to make sure you are never (a) taller, (b) prettier, (c) wittier, or (d) more of an egomaniac than the host. I love Keith and never miss his program but I suspect that someday his ego will grow so large that it will collapse in on itself and create a black hole in the solar system that will swallow everything else. One word from a devoted viewer Keith, O’Reilly may be a moron but at least he has somebody new on the show from time to time. I know how many eyebrow hairs Richard Wollffe has at this point. And his gay, pseudo-British pronunciation isn’t helping you in middle America.)

We see the supporting cast the same way Daniel Plainview sees them. Or doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. They don’t matter. He doesn’t see them and neither do we.

By now you may think that I didn’t like the movie. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a masterfully directed, interesting piece of film. But (to use a phrase I’ve come to hate in other contexts) it is what it is. Supposedly based on Upton Sinclair’s OIL you could just as well make a movie based on Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE by shooting two hours of the fictional biography of a meat packing manager who gleefully orders his workers to sweep the floor of rat feces and dump the refuse into the sausage hopper, while stopping on his way home every night at the local butcher shop for his own dinner. But to do it in the way that THERE WILL BE BLOOD does it you would have to shoot one beautiful, painterly scene after another and do it with a directorial panache that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats to see what happens next.

The film lets the audience know what it’s in for in the first five minutes. The first scene in the movie happens without dialog. We see a silver miner, face always in shadow, making a find, having an accident, falling down into the mine shaft, painfully pulling himself back up while dragging his broken leg behind him, dragging himself along the ground after having extricated himself from the earth, and apparently dragging himself straight to the assay office to lie on the floor while his find is assessed. It’s gruesome and yet riveting, an appropriate introduction to a movie that is gruesome and riveting. It tells you everything you need to know about Daniel Plainview, but makes you want to see the next two hours because despite the fact you wouldn’t want to know him, you can’t help but want to get to know him.


salvage said...

I loved that movie completely and am deeply annoyed that a Blu-ray edition hasn't be released yet.

memphisto said...

The Blu-ray omission is a real shame, too. The DVD is good, but so much of the subtle coloration is gone and the dark scenes lack definition. I can only guess that a pristine print and 1080P transfer would unveil the movie is a completely different way.