Saturday, January 12, 2008

Oil For Blood

Following a fairly lengthy layoff, Paul Thomas Anderson returns with "There Will Be Blood," a film that deftly combines elements of Anderson's prior work with a galvanizing emotional violence driven by a palpatatingly methodical pace.

Much like his contemporary directing brethren of Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, and the much maligned M. Night Shyamalan, Anderson has established a specific tone and style within his work: large character actor driven ensembles, contemporary plotlines intertwined to neatly wrap up for a payoff, and a quirky, pop heavy Jon Brion soundtrack serving as the rhythm for the narrative bass line.

For Anderson fans, it's his departure from the aforementioned that seemed the most jarring. Looking at the trailer, "Blood" appeared to be a stereotypically hyperbolic foray into period pieces that have doomed many a director. And for indie film fans accustomed to an Anderson catering to their Brion/Hoffman/pop culture referencing needs, "Blood" looked like a misstep of the grandest level.

Boy, were skeptics fucking wrong.

In taking arguably the biggest risks in his relatively young career, Anderson has crafted the most evocative and damning portrait of hubris, social alienation, and ambition to have ever graced the screen in generations. Taking his safe conventions and chucking them to the wind, Anderson has made the most fully realized film of his life.

Grandeur is the name of Anderson's new game, and he perfectly plays his pieces with the right amount of empathy, humor, and violence that is at times terrifying but always entralling. For a nearly three hour period film to not feel epic is a testament to Anderson's pacing, as it is the wonderful assortment of chess pieces at his disposal.

Daniel Day-Lewis does more than his usual best embodying the soul of Daniel Plainview, a villainous oil man who transcends mere caricature, but reaches down into the depths of the hallmarks of the idealized 20th Century American male: ambition, strength, violence, and emotional detachment. Day-Lewis' Plainview is a gripping presence that makes you incapable of averting your eyes; he's scary and sexy all at once.

Playing Day-Lewis' foil is Paul Dano (of "Little Miss Sunshine" fame) whose turn as brothers Eli/Paul Sunday is a perfect counterpoint to Plainview. As the suspiciously ambitious preacher Eli, Dano holds his own against Day-Lewis, creating a preacher of frighteningly deviant devotion. Although physically outmatched in size and wealth, Dano's Sunday ignites a fiery storm of religiosity that is in its own right visually horrifying.

Rounding out the rest of the cast is a strong set of character actors, most especially Dillon Freasier as H.W., Plainview's son who serves as both Plainview's empathetic symbol and amplifier of his blood lust. Freasier is as strong as a young actor gets, and his subtle body language fits nicely within a film defined by deft touches and overt flourishes.

Visually, "Blood" is nearly flawless. Anderson captures the expanse of the Western landscape without numbing the audience with grandiose landscape porn. The use of long shots and long takes grab you by the collar and force you to look harder. Just as the universally celebrated opening scene has been critically applauded for its powerful silence, Plainview's reunion with his son towards the middle of the film captures the power of the long shot and long take. Any novice would be tempted to reach in and close up on Plainview and his son, but Anderson pulls back and makes us voyeurs, cultivating a tone and sense of intrusion, even in the heart of a land of isolation.

It moments like these, coupled along with Jonny Greenwood's haunting score that make "There Will Be Blood" that most terrifying, gripping, and thought provoking film of the awards season.

No matter how much society changes, the falliability of human nature remains a constant. The days of great historical epics isn't dead; it just took a contemporary storyteller to show us how to be old once again.

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