Directed by:Paul Thomas Anderson
It doesn’t pay to probe too deeply beneath the surface of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, a blistering, 2 ½-hour interpretation of “Oil”, the 80 year-old Upton Sinclair novel. Like rich crude lying just below the parched surface of rural Southern California in the early years of the 20th century, Anderson’s screenplay presents a principal character with such a brittle, thin crust that even the slightest provocation causes him to erupt with the same force as the pent-up fuel he sucks from the barren, rocky foothills just east of the Pacific Ocean. Blood is a work of consummate skill, brilliant in many ways and certainly containing the single best performance of the year in Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Daniel Plainview, the atavistic wildcatter whose rapacious drive forms the core of the movie. In Plainview, Lewis and his writer/director have created a genuine force of nature; whether or not you find meeting him an enjoyable or instructive experience remains open to debate.
Most Americans think of Texas when oil in American is discussed, but this country’s biggest supplier of petroleum in the first two decades of the 20th century was California, where shallow deposits of crude could be obtained by using the unsophisticated extraction technologies then available. Success depended on finding likely sites, negotiating drilling leases on favorable terms and having access to the men and materials required to quickly go into production. Charlatans, opportunists and outright swindlers abounded; beating them at their own game required quick-wits, intense drive and a willingness to take both financial and physical risks. Blood traces the creation and early rise of this industry by examining the (fictionalized) story of Daniel Plainview, first seen deep in a hand-fashioned well, scooping up oozing, viscous muck by the bucketful and bringing it to the surface. Striding with a limp caused by a worksite accident, Plainview has as his only steady companion a young son known only be his initials…H.W.
As the years pass, Plainview’s hard-won prospecting and manipulative negotiating talents provide him the opportunity to employ a small staff and enjoy a decent income. But as his skills grow, so does his insatiable appetite for more and his near maniacal persistence finally presents an enormous opportunity; a young man calling himself Paul Sunday drifts into Plainview’s camp and offers to sell the oilman information on a sizeable oil deposit located on a remote farm owned by Paul’s father. A deal is struck, with promises of great wealth if the boy’s claims prove to be accurate.
Plainview and H.W. arrive at the Sunday farm posing as quail hunters. After being welcomed by Paul’s father and told they can camp nearby, they explore the farm and meet Eli Sunday, pastor of the local fundamentalist church and a dead ringer for Paul. Excited by the land’s potential, Plainview negotiates a lease with Eli and/or Paul’s father without mentioning Paul’s involvement, then sets about acquiring land adjacent to the Sunday property. Equipment and workmen are brought in and drilling commences, but Eli hovers at the perimeter this bustling activity, obsequiously begging money with which to expand his church and demanding Plainview’s public acceptance of Eli’s religious authority in the now rapidly expanding community rising up near the oilfield blossoming on the Sunday farm.
H.W’s. rendered deaf in a mining accident and sent off to a boarding school in San Francisco; a long-lost half-brother appears to take H.W.’s place at his father’s side and the need to gain access to a crucial piece of property for a pipeline causes Plainview to submit to a conversion ceremony at Eli’s burgeoning church. But as the years pass and these events unfold, Plainview’s capacity for the soulless manipulation and outright destruction of others becomes increasingly apparent. He hates those who oppose him with equal venom, despises those whom he manipulates and in a chilling confrontation with H.W., now grown into potentially competitive adult-hood, Plainview denies his paternity in a confrontation of appalling verbal intensity. Small wonder that a final meeting with the now compliant Eli provides the movie’s devastating climax and the meaning of the film’s title.
Anderson’s resume is as distinguished as it is eclectic; first a neat, hard-edged thriller entitled Hard Eight, (which he wrote and directed at the tender age of 26) quickly followed by a trio of films that engendered enormous critical interest and erratic box-office; a devastating look at Southern California’s porn industry, (Boogie Nights) then the quirky, inter-locking stories of Magnolia and one of the screen’s most improbable romances, Punch Drunk Love. In each of these, Anderson explored the human capacity for rage, experienced as an isolated response to varied circumstances. Here he devotes an entire movie to the subject and in Daniel Day Lewis, he’s found the perfect instrument for his study. Lewis, whose career includes roles as an adult paralytic (My Left Foot) and the romantic Indian fighter Hawkeye, (The Last of the Mohicans) displayed a capacity for barbaric depravity as Bill “The Butcher” in much over-praised Gangs of New York, but under the surprisingly misplaced direction of Martin Scorsese, Lewis’ violent excesses in that film came off as unintentionally comic rather than frightening. In Blood, Lewis delivers a portrait of compelling intensity; his Plainview, steeped in avarice, paranoia and self-loathing pursues his obsession with frightening clarity; he’s never at a loss in understanding his own motivations and believes this knowledge absolves him of any responsibility for their destruction of those with whom he comes in contact. Yet this very self-absorption is the handmaid of the jobs and prosperity that follow in his wake; as he never fails to remind those who fall into his orbit, schools will be built, educations earned, communities form and those hoping for a better life will have the opportunity to enjoy it as a result of his tireless pursuit of his obsession. Lewis conveys the frightening appeal of his gospel with a near hypnotic vocal cadence, pinched expression and a goring look in his eyes which suggests that domination is literally the only thing that interests him. It’s a compelling performance which permeates Blood’s entire running time and will surely stand as one of the memorable screen performances of the decade.
Cinematographer Robert Elswit, working with Anderson for the 5th time, provides images as mesmerizing and barren as Plainview’s personality; the world Elswit provides is uniformly brown and lifeless, as though anything green and full of promise has already been compacted into the ugly, deep brown sludge Plainview pumps from his pits sunk into desiccated earth. The film’s interior shots contain richly lit detail enveloped in menacing shadow; if Anderson wanted to convey the notion that Plainview, like Satan, might best be described as “The Prince of Darkness”, Elswit has delivered precisely that visual impression. His camera glides over sets and costumes providing minute attention to period detail; all this is augmented by a soundtrack composed by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood which manages to blur the line between musical notes and mechanical sounds with eerie fluidity, only to interpose Brahms as the celebratory companion to bringing in the first big Plainview gusher. I can’t remember a movie in which every single detail contributed so perfectly to the creation of time and place as this one.
With Lewis’ towering performance and the stunning background against which it’s played, the film’s remaining characters pale into insignificance; Dillion Freasier does a fine job as the mute H.W., but Paul Dano, as brothers Paul and Eli, contributes little beyond an often annoying inscrutability while the fine Irish actor Ciaran Hinds does little beyond providing a vocal prop as Plainview’s trusted assistant. Perhaps that was Anderson’s intent; to deliver to audiences the world not as it was, but as Plainview experienced it; revolving totally around him. G.K.Chesterton once famously said, “Imagine how much larger the world would be if your self could be smaller in it”; in Blood, Anderson and his gifted collaborators provide a gigantic panorama compressed into the obsessions of one man, alone in his barren mansion uttering, with obviously intentional irony, the film’s last line: “I’m finished”.
The verdict? A masterpiece, but a disturbingly off-putting one; the critics may sing their praises, but I predict that, like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, many a year will pass before audiences share that opinion with equal enthusiasm.
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