With his fourth film, Punch-Drunk Love, P.T. Anderson took a step back from the large ensemble casts, grand statements, and inflated running times of Magnolia and Boogie Nights — but that didn’t mean he was content to keep serving up 90-minute love stories, as he’d emphatically prove with his next outing, 2007’s There Will Be Blood.
Vast and dark, Blood begins in near-total silence — in fact, for the first 20 minutes, there isn’t any dialogue at all, just shots of an impressively hirsute prospector whacking away at a mountain in search of minerals.
That prospector, we soon learn, is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and he’s a bootstrapper’s dream — shrewd and driven, and as cunningly hostile to his fellow human beings as he is to the earth. In Magnolia, Anderson winked at Nietzsche’s “will to power” by having Tom Cruise’s character take the stage to the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”; here, he uses Plainview to pretty much embody the concept, using everything and everyone as a tool or an object of conquest. As he says at one point early in the film, “Can everything around here be got?”
Plainview eventually begins to accrue wealth as an oilman, and when one of his workers dies in an accident, he makes what seems at the time to be a humanizing gesture, adopting the fallen man’s infant son. Over time, he molds the boy, who he names H.W., into a miniature business partner who travels with him on land-purchasing expeditions — such as his fateful trip to the oil-rich homestead of an old farmer named Abel Sunday (David Willis).
Their acquisition of the Sunday farm (and basically all of the available land in the area) sets up the movie’s driving conflict — between the power-hungry Plainview and Sunday’s son Eli (Paul Dano), a pastor whose church becomes the cudgel in a long and nasty war.
Of course, Anderson being Anderson, the viewer can (and probably should) read more into all this than just a couple of bossy Old West frontiersmen who can’t get along. Viewed from another perspective, There Will Be Blood is really a sprawling depiction of a battle that’s preoccupied America for decades: Implacable faith versus unquenchable greed; the laying on of hands versus pie-in-the-sky promises of business “progress”; religious fervor versus cold commerce.
What’s sneaky about Anderson’s approach is that he forces you to take sides in a battle where there really isn’t any good guy. For a filmmaker who’s always treated his characters with warmth and affection, Blood is a shockingly cold appraisal of fatally flawed protagonists — you have Plainview the brutal, weaselly capitalist on one side, and Sunday the obnoxiously pious preacher on the other, both of them abusive and cruel in their own way.
The movie also finds Anderson’s preoccupation with daddy issues returning to the fore; There Will Be Blood could just as easily have been titled The Sins of the Father. It pits those who expect to exert their will upon the world against those who merely hope to survive, with the weak and the young damaged and crushed — sometimes quite literally — along the way.
It’s a ruthless view of the world, but one that Anderson still frames beautifully. While his camera is far less antsy here than it has been since Hard Eight, his restraint makes sense in the context of the sweeping mountain vistas where the movie largely takes place. And as always, his shots express a point of view. He’s still fond of shooting his characters from behind, so we see what they see — as in a pivotal sequence where Plainview commits a heart-wrenching act of betrayal, and the focus lingers on what he’s leaving behind.
He’s also always been adept at building an atmosphere of mounting dread and punctuating it with shocking bursts of violence — and that’s a pretty good nutshell description of this film, which forges a chain of humiliation and death into a final act that presents its putative hero as a reclusive, embittered madman, engorged on wealth but starved for love, and his nemesis as a craven fraud. The viewer gets a milkshake, an appalling act of violence, and then — as the movie’s last lines put it — “I’m finished.”
We all know what happened next: Critics fell all over themselves to praise There Will Be Blood, Oscars were won, and many end-of-year lists were topped. It’s easy to see why — this is a visually gorgeous film, acted with finely calibrated abandon by Day-Lewis and Dano, and it certainly lingers long after the final frame is unspooled. But it’s possible to appreciate the technical skill that’s been brought to bear on a work of art without actually embracing the work itself, and that’s the position I find myself in with Blood. It isn’t just that I find its point of view repugnant, it’s that I don’t think Anderson backs up his arguments about the human condition — or maybe, even more disconcertingly, he isn’t even trying to. At times, the movie feels like nothing more than an elaborately staged battle between a pair of unthinking creatures — like putting two betta fish in the same bowl, only with great cinematography and a lot of senseless collateral damage.
Am I thinking too much here? Is Anderson fatigue starting to set in? Or am I just not sophisticated enough to hang on for the ride with a director who’s clearly lost his taste for good old-fashioned catharsis in the final act? Something tells me The Master will answer at least some of those questions.
Monday: Hard Eight
Tuesday: Boogie Nights
Thursday: Punch-Drunk Love
Friday: There Will Be Blood
Saturday: The Master