Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I drink your milkshake!


There is a defining moment in almost every film where you "get" the movie, and completely understand what it has to offer you as a viewer. Call it a small, cinematic epiphany. There were several mini-epiphanies in this year's films. In Ratatouille, it was the much-lauded sequence during which Anton Ego sits takes his first bite of the titular dish. In Hot Fuzz, it was Simon Pegg's bike-ride to work on his first day on the job, set to the Kinks "We Are The Village Green Preservation Society." In There Will Be Blood, the epiphany came at the very end, at the deliverance of the last line of the film, whereupon it cut to the white-on-black closing credits. It was then that it hit me, pardon the cliche, like a ton of bricks. "Holy shit..... it's a Stanley Kubrick movie!"

Of course, you can superficially compare any movie to any other movie, and since Paul Thomas Anderson has thus far elected to try different styles of filmmaking, rather than sticking to a consistent aesthetic like many of his contemporaries, each of his films is more often held up against movies directed by other people than movies directed by the man himself. Boogie Nights' constantly moving camera and wall-to-wall period-specific soundtrack echoed Martin Scorsese, and the mosaic-like plot structure of Magnolia seemed a direct nod to Robert Altman. There Will Be Blood is quite a great deal more subtle in the ways it echoes the great Kubrick's output, but it does indeed feel like a movie that he himself might have directed had he lived this long.... or at least would have greatly enjoyed if he had seen it.

The opening of the picture, with its weird, atonal score soundtrack, is incredibly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey's "Dawn of Man" sequence. We see Daniel Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview in a silver mine shaft, hulked and neanderthal-like, relentlessly digging away at the rocks. He then inserts a stick of dynamite into the rocks, climbs out, but being unable to pull his toolkit up on his pulley rope, is almost blown to pieces. Returning back into the hole, he slips and falls painfully on his back, breaking his leg. He's in serious agony, but he has found gold. He later returns to the spot with a team of men, continuing to mine for gold, but finding instead something much more valuable - oil. When one of his crew is crushed to death in an accident, Plainview elects to raise the man's son as his own. This whole sequence is entirely free of dialogue.

Like A Clockwork Orange, this film seems to have been tailor-made for its lead actor, and watching it, one can imagine nobody else in the role. And like Alex, Daniel Plainview is utterly detestable in any "normal" sense - he is obsessed with success, yet the film is not judgmental or damning, but instead regards him with a genuine curiosity. This man is a Capitalist (capital C) in the very worst way (or best, depending on your point of view), but rather than preaching and punishing, we are drawn in, wanting more than anything to know what makes him tick. His desire for success is driven less by a lust for money than it is by pure competitiveness - Plainview wants nothing other than to be the best oilman in the business, even if it entails the death of the occasional worker, the rape of a landscape and a community, and the alienation of his young son. Even so, he his hardly the one-dimensional supervillain who profits from the sweat of others. Unwilling to ask any of his workers do do something he wouldn't do himself, he's a nuanced flesh-and-blood individual, equal shares scumbag and champion ideal of the American self-made entrepreneur.

Anderson also seems to have adopted Kubrick's patented distain for organized religion, and its influence on western society's perceived notions of morality, in the way he presents Paul Dano's budding minister, Eli Sunday. At first, he seems like a righteous chap, even someone to root for as a possible adversary for Plainview, but gradually, all the pretense is stripped away and he is slowly revealed to be every bit, if not more of a scumbag than Plainview himself. If Plainview is a snarling wolf, who sometimes dons a sheep's clothing to fool the rest of the flock, then Eli is a crafty fox, appealing to the townsfolk's fear of eternal damnation to further his own devices. Both men have black hearts, but only Plainview has the iron set of balls to give himself the upper hand.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, There Will Be Blood could have been a simple, instantly dated soapbox allegory about ruthless entrepreneurs and corrupt religious extremists, complete with a whole lot of "history repeats itself" allusions to the Iraq war. Anderson is interested in none of this, but instead with the nuances of character study and with the greater question of human nature. It's an unquestioningly bleak portrait of human nature, as many of Kubrick's films are. Now, I had roommate once who criticized Kubrick relentlessly because he felt he was a nihilist. I disagree. I've never found Kubrick's worldview to be nihilistic, but rather humanistic - it's just that he shows the human heart is capable of going to some very dark places. Sometimes his characters make it out of the dark to the light at the end of the tunnel (think of Frank in 2001 or Dr. Harford in Eyes Wide Shut) and sometimes they don't (like Jack Torrence in The Shining), but that's not nihilism, just simple truth.

Similarly, There Will Be Blood is tinged with black-heartedness, but Anderson shares Kubrick's gifts to evoke empathy in the absence of sympathy. Emotional disconnect between the characters, and a lack of way for the audience to "relate" to them (whatever the fuck that means), is used as a strength rather than a weakness. The scenes between Daniel and his adopted son, H.W., are utterly heartbreaking. He adopts the boy merely because he finds that in business dealings people find it easier to trust a family man. In my opinion, he does indeed love his child, he just has no idea how to express it, because love for him is something you do on the weekends and in your free time, when you aren't ruthlessly manipulating people for profit. He constantly hugs him and pats him on the head, and teaches him the finer points of swindling gullible saps, but there's no emotional connection. When H.W. is left deaf after being injured in an oil rig explosion, the already-wafer-thin parental ties are completely shattered.

It would be criminal to reveal the ending of the film, even though it is probably the most Kubrickian scene in the whole picture, especially the delivery of the last line. It isn't a nihilistic film, because nihilism suggests hopelessness, and that anyone with a shred of optimism in them is a complete fool. This isn't that kind of film. This is a film that allows us to see the blackness of men's hearts, maybe even the blackness of our own - and to come out of the experience a little better for it.


Anonymous Jenny said...

I sort of want to see this movie now: I really enjoyed boogie nights and like a few Kubrick films. Here's another take on it if you're interested:

the review seems to have the opposite view that the film didn't have enough strong characterization to make the oilman seem totally evil, but you make a good ppint in that it's more about subtlety of character than moralizing

8:05 PM  
Blogger Dr. Criddle said...

Well, Ruthless Reviews is run by a bunch of bitter, hateful misanthropes, so it makes sense that they wouldn't think Daniel Plainview is that bad of a guy. Me, I thought he was nasty enough.

7:29 AM  
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