Magnificently Strange

twbb7.jpg Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling—yet austere—film SEEMS to be an epic masterpiece. But as the final credits rolled and I filed out of the theater, I was confused. Was it in fact a masterpiece? Or was I reacting to the incredible hype that preceded the film’s opening? Reflecting on it now, I realize it was both.

twbb4.jpgThe story goes that Anderson stumbled onto a copy of Sinclair Lewis” early 20th century novel “Oil!” in a dusty London bookshop, and immediately saw it as a film. That’s a lovely bit of lore, a poetic scrap of evidence of the way a book can seduce us with something as superficial as cover art and then draw us inside toward something deeper. Anderson — who adapted the story himself — may have loved “Oil!” but some say his love for the book doesn’t burn in the picture he’s made. “There Will Be Blood” is set in California in the same period as the book; its landscape suitably bleak to elicit a time and place foreign to most of us. (The Marfa, Texas area stands in for California in this case, ironically the same area where “Giant” and “No Country” was filmed.) Cinematographer Robert Elswit succeeds in turning this world of scrubby, modest bushes and rickety oil derricks into a visual tapestry that properly sets the scrappy mood of the film.

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The story — which pits a ruthless, supposedly complex oilman named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) against an equally megalomaniacal man of the cloth, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) — has the bare bones of a potentially compelling story about the nature of greed and of faith, or about how single-minded any man can be in the pursuit of his goals. As always, the power of even a great story depends on how you tell it.

Anderson channels Houston in the first third, Ford in the second and Welles in its conclusion. He truly manages to best Houston, matches Ford, but falls a little short of Welles genius. Having said that, give that man a cigar.

From the beginning, it’s Day-Lewis” movie. Kenneth Turan from the LA Times captures it best: “Day-Lewis works at such a high-wire level that many of the film’s supporting cast members simply fade away. Only the self-possessed newcomer Dillon Freasier as his young son H.W. and the gifted Paul Dano of Little Miss Sunshine as his nemesis have the ability to hold the screen against him.

At the beginning of the film, we meet Daniel Plainview working alone at the bottom of a mine shaft, grubbing for silver. In the first ten minutes or more of the film there is no dialog, only shadows and sweat; dust and sparks. This segment does more to introduce Plainview than 30 minutes of script. We feel we know him — or think we do — but find out later that we have misjudged him. As in real life, “perspective” comes from looking back, and is not in the moment. Daniel’s life moves forward, while our perspective of him constantly shifts and changes as the motivation behind his seemingly innocuous actions are revealed. Such is the subtle mastery of the lethal combination of Anderson and Day-Lewis. Overall, “There will be Blood” is a film worth experiencing. It will likely become a classic to be watched over and over again, like “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. It will hold up better on the long term than its award competitor “No Country for Old Men” simply due to its archetypal American theme of greed, unbridled ambition, and ultimate collapse.

A decade ago, a competition was held to write the shortest story. The graphic novelist Frank Miller was recognized for the following entry: “With bloody hands, I say good-bye.”. Perhaps it fits just as well here.

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