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Well, folks, I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I think it’s time to switch it up a little bit here at moviegasm. Maybe it’s just the doldrums from the increasingly dull period between the holiday awards contenders and the big summer pictures, or the focus on quality during Oscar season, but after a year and a half, I just think it’s time to do something different.
So, starting this week, I’ll be doing a movie review on Monday or Tuesday instead of the usual box office column. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to it once summer roles around and the numbers get more interesting, maybe not. For now, though, I’ll try to find something worth checking out, sometimes something old (I’ve been on a Val Lewton kick ever since catching a bit of a Martin Scorcese produced doc on TCM), other times something from what’s out in theatres. I’ll try to pick something that everybody hasn’t already seen, but the bottom line is, I think it’s time to focus on quality more than popularity for a while.
And what better way to start this new trend than by going through the Best Picture nominees. Today we’ll start with Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful There Will Be Blood. Much has been written about the film already, and Daniel Day Lewis in particular, and just about every word of it is true. In case you don’t already know, Blood is the story of Daniel Plainview, a greedy, selfish oil man who is also smart enough to conceal his true nature from almost everyone throughout the film. Paul Thomas Anderson’s script, very loosely based on an Upton Sinclair novel called Oil!, follows Plainview from the first gold nugget he unearths to his rise as an oil baron competing with an evangelical preacher, Eli Sunday (played by a frightening Paul Dano), to his and Eli’s eventual downfall. Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant in the role, charismatic and textured, completely disappearing inside a voice and physicality that makes this, in my humble opinion, his best performance and one of the best I’ve ever seen. But what makes him all the more astonishing is that he has to be that good, or the movie would fail completely. Plainview is, at his core, such an awful person that if he weren’t so compelling, we would have no way into the film.
Many have pointed out the similarities between Blood and No Country for Old Men, another Best Picture nominee that is also a dark tale set in the American southwest revolving around the lure of money (and we’ll talk more about No Country next week), But the biggest difference to me is that the Coens’ give us Tommy Lee Jones’s aging sheriff as a decent man who bears witnesses to the atrocities committed by Javier Bardem’s hitman, Anton Chigurh. While the film is far more violent than Blood, it has an obvious conscience that makes it more accessible and safer. Anderson takes a much larger artistic risk in There Will Be Blood, trusting that Plainview is a compelling enough character that we won’t be completely put off by him, and it pays off because Daniel Day Lewis is there to catch us.
Of course, he is assisted along the way by two exceptional supporting performances. The first is by Dano, who received a lot of attention for his moody and mostly mute performance in Little Miss Sunshine. I was not so impressed with him there, but in Blood, his Eli is a more than capable foil for Plainview and his equal in greed, selfishness, and his ability to hide those qualities behind a more palatable face. Watching these two spar behind such pleasant smiles, I thought of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean in the Ocean’s 11 movies and Redford and Newman in The Sting, and how they would have been eaten alive by Eli and Plainview in a confidence scam.
The other notable performance comes from the far more unlikely Kevin J. O’Connor, as a man who shows up once Plainview gets rich and claims to be his long lost brother. O’Connor has been a favorite of Stephen Sommers, of all people, going all the way back to the low budget Deep Rising, and in none of his performances did I see the skill he brings to the table here. That squeaky, high-pitched voice is used not for comic effect, as Sommers frequently used it, but to suggest a vulnerability that we actually fear for in the presence of the monsterous Plainview. Besides Plainview’s adopted son, H.W., O’Connor’s Henry is the closest we get to putting a recognizably human face on Plainview.
But none of these shadings would be possible without Paul Thomas Anderson at the helm. Anderson is a filmmaker I’ve been wary of (Magnolia, is, to me, his best film, and as much flack as I’ll take for saying this, I remain unimpressed by Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love), but I had no idea he was capable of this kind of complexity and subtlety. I can’t stress enough what a bold move it is to hang the film on Plainview’s seductiveness, and to tell his story in such stark, visual terms. The image of an oil-drenched Plainview sitting in front an oil well spewing fire says as much about the character as any line of dialogue, and is just one example of a hundred elegantly composed and thematically resonant images in the film. I can’t help but wonder what influence Anderson’s work with Robert Altman on A Prairie Home Companion had on this startling leap forward for him artistically. Which is not to suggest that Blood bears any resemblance to an Altman film. Rather, I would say that Anderson demonstrates a confidence with the material and with his instincts that may well be counted as another thread of Altman’s impressive legacy.
The final question, though, is will There Will Be Blood win Best Picture? As startling and original as the film is, I don’t think so. As real and relevant and resonant as Plainview’s barely-concealed malevolence is, the notoriously stuffy Academy members will almost certainly be put off by it on some level. And then there is the question of the final scene. I won’t go into specifics, but my initial reaction was that it was a brilliant scene that belonged to a different film. The more I think back on it, though, the more I feel like it works, and as I contemplate seeing the film again tonight, I find myself excited to see how it plays a second time.
Just one last note. When watching the film, pay special attention to the incredible and unusual score provided, most surprisingly, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It was, for some reason, ruled ineligible for Oscar consideration, but… wow.