Are you an angry man? Are you envious? I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone. I can’t keep doing this on my own with these… people. – Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood.
Over the past weekend, I was fortunate enough to watch two films that gripped me equally. The first was “Bridge to Terabithia , an honest, heartbreaking coming-of-age fantasy drama that ranks among the best fantasy films I’ve seen in recent years.
The second couldn’t be more different. After months of anticipation, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar win for best actor pushed Egyptian distributors to release Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely hailed masterpiece “There Will Be Blood .
Much has been written about Anderson’s direction and Day-Lewis’ earth-shattering performance. Dark, brooding, pessimistic and intense, several critics called “There Will Be Blood a difficult watch. Ardent fans of the film often describe Daniel Plainview (played by Day-Lewis) as a cruel monster and a heartless maniac.
Many have also called the film disturbing. Anderson himself describes his latest creation as a horror movie, and indeed there is an abundance of chilling, sometimes macabre moments featured. Yet, perhaps the most distressing aspect of the film is the way audiences react to it: the truths it unleashes about human nature and the remorseful thrill you find in Anderson’s overriding darkness and vile.
Based on the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s little known novel “Oil , the film opens in 1898 as Plainview – a struggling silver miner – roams the California desert in search of silver nuggets and virtually anything he can lay his hands on.
The long, physically draining months leave him with an injured leg following a minor accident. He also adopts the orphaned baby of his deceased employees.
Plainview has a sole goal in life: to find oil and fend off any competition no matter what.
Soon, he strikes gold and refers to himself as an ‘oil man’ in a speech to a small town he will take over 13 years later.
The first 15 minutes of the film are almost dialogue-free. The silent, vast California landscapes are set against a blue sky to the sounds of Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s eerie score.
The scene is utterly Kubrickian, similar in context and design to the wordless opening sequence “Dawn of Man of “2001: A Space Odyssey . The Darwinian, bloody evolution of apes in Kubrick’s classic is no different from Plainview’s. Both are primitive, indomitable and inherently violent creatures whose transformation is natural, even inevitable.
Shortly after his takeover endeavor is sabotaged, a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano from “Little Miss Sunshine ) tips him off to a concealed large oil mine located under his family’s ranch in the impecunious small town of Little Boston, California.
Paul’s “prophecy turns out to be true and Plainview quickly acquires every acre of the land for a fraction of its actual worth. In the Sunday homestead, Plainview meets Eli, Paul’s twin (also played by Dano). Eli is the charismatic pastor and founder of a new Evangelical church called The Third Revelation. He resists Plainview’s offer at first, realizing that he’s clearly duping them, but eventually succumbs to the will of his irrational father.
Plainview’s confrontation with Eli spurs a long, callous conflict that – as the title of the film ominously implies – has bloody consequence as Plainview’s greed drives him to madness.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole “Blood under a particular genre. It’s a Biblical story with an epic scope as well as a minimalist, austere art house piece. It is also a cautionary tale of greed and excess as well as an abstract character study with little back-story. Finally, it is a sharp critique of capitalism and organized, fundamental religion reluctant to offer easy answers or preach morality.
The one indisputable certainty of “Blood is its unassuming, uncompromising and bleak world view. Anderson plunges his viewers deep into a dark, endless abyss until a shocking sense of pleasure is induced.
The unadulterated gluttony coupled with Plainview’s unapologetic greed and misanthropy is – as appalling as this may sound – contagious and fascinating. As legendary filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni once said, “The only thing certain [in life] is the existence of a secret violence that makes everything uncertain.
“Blood strikes this chord repeatedly until it resonates loudly in the most cheerful, optimistic of minds. In retrospect, Anderson’s reluctance to provide a psychological justification for Plainview’s actions is a smart, daring strategy many critics could not accept.
Plainview’s greed and Eli’s obsession with power are the foundations upon which America was built. Plainview’s contempt for Eli does not stem from a disdain of the religion of the charlatan who – in one of the many memorable scenes of the film – pretends to exorcize a disease from an elderly woman. Plainview’s hunger for money and authority is too grave to share with anyone, especially with a young man who is a threat to his stature.
Unlike what many critics have declared, “Blood is not a radical departure for Anderson as much as it is a refinement of his craft. The menacing, desolating tones of “Boogie Nights, “Magnolia and even “Punch-Drunk Love are upped to the maximum with “Blood . His flashy, dynamic camera shots are used sparsely but sharply. Moreover, the father-son relationship of his earlier films is central, albeit veiled.
This is the first time Anderson has worked with material that is not his own, a fact that has turned out to be an advantage, with the thematically cohesive story transcending its original source.
Production designer Jack Fisk (“The Thin Red Line, “The New World ) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (“Magnolia, “Syriana ) can be accredited with the stunning vistas and imagery that populate the film – at least when Anderson is not ogling at Day-Lewis’ face. The oil mills, cranes and impoverished lands are witnesses to a dream gone wrong.
Above all, “Blood lies on the strapping shoulders of Day-Lewis. Adopting late American director John Huston’s poise and reassuring voice in “Chinatown, Plainview is no mere rehash of a great performance. Day-Lewis immerses himself and the audience in the world of his enigmatic character using Huston’s mannerism and drawling intonations.
Every sentence, gaze, gesture and passing moment of silent rage represents an astonishing piece of acting. Without giving anything away, observe Plainview’s baptism scene. In a couple of minutes, Day-Lewis channels raw hatred, regret, wrath and shame in a few stunning facial expressions. Plainview is Day-Lewis’ third role in eight years and, by far, this is the performance of the century.
When asked by the AV Club if he shared Plainview’s pessimism, competition or odium, Anderson confirmed that he does, to some extent. “We all do, don’t we?
The fascination with Plainview and Anderson’s bleak vision of America taps into a dark side of humans that we have been socialized into masking.
Plainview is unsympathetic. Few would like his company and his greed ultimately drives him into the same solitary self-imposed exile of Charles Kane. Yet, despite the numerous crimes he commits before reaching his grand, hollow mansion, Plainview’s intentions are clear and frank, unlike Eli who hides the same kind of unabashed thirst under the guise of religion.
Most critics and audiences have complained about the notorious ending in which Day-Lewis delivers the infamous “I drink your milkshake speech.
Don’t believe the hype – a film so strange, stark and unconventional couldn’t have a different, grand or tidy finale.
I’m not going to reveal what the speech connotes; but take my word, by the end of the film, you’ll be joining the rest of the global moviegoers in reciting the speech while attempting to shake off memories of Anderson’s magnificent night
mare. On a different note, I have to mention that “There Will Be Blood is only playing at CityStar’s VIP Cinema, which costs LE 75 per ticket. “Blood is the first film to be screened exclusively in the new theater, a decision that might render future, serious films available to a small group of people.
Cinema has never been an elitist medium and the last thing this country needs is the transformation of cinema into an exclusive club.