Friday, 22 February 2008

there will be blood (d. paul thomas anderson)

In the opening, hypnotic, dialogue-free minutes I was reminded of Cerro Rico, the Potosi mine, where people still work like that today, chewing coca to keep themselves awake. It seemed unlikely that anyone still mines with a pick and a shovel in the US. The restraint of this opening section, capturing the hardship of the solitary miner's life, was so simply done it was reminiscent of the silent movies (emerging somewhere across them there hills). A tale told through edits and action. Where were the promised thespian pyrotechnics?

The script is adapted from a book by a writer steeped in social realism. Back in the York days with the sinking lake, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was on the syllabus. Through Sinclair's eyes it was possible to discern the lost history of the United States. Real class struggle. A society that might have taken a different turn, if the capitalist instinct hadn't been so avaricious, so insatiable. Sinclair's sinuous take on the american struggle is the kind of voice that's been drowned out by the maudling sages of malcontented capitalism. The Updikes and the Roths, even the Bellows.

Which is part of the reason Anderson's decision to make a film of his novel seems so unlikely, and so exciting. Anderson the kittenish genius, the spinner of Carverian tales. Perhaps the greatest storyteller in contemporary US cinema. Choosing to go right back and explore some kind of root - the very soil itself. The scene where Plainview catches his first glimpse of the Pacific comes from that most potent of 19th century US tropes - its westernisation, its inevitable consumption of itself, but also its journey of discovery and self revelation.

On the beach, Plainview learns about his fallibility, something he's succeeded in avoiding ever since he fell down a mineshaft. One would imagine that the discovery of his supposed brother's treachery would be the cue for his fall from grace, love of family becoming his Achilles heel. When he's woken by the wily homesteader who's aware of his crime, it seems he's about to receive his come-uppance. But There Will Be Blood doesn't operate like that. The narrative arc never quite kicks in. Plainview just keeps on going, laughing off every enemy and obstacle he faces. Like capitalism, perhaps.

Day-Lewis' leonine performance as the craggy misanthrope is remarkable. Towards the end he draws comparison with Welles as Kane. Whether this is to the benefit of Anderson's film or not is debatable. Day-Lewis' turn is immensely enjoyable (when he praises Paul Dano's rather less convincing performance as a possessed preacher with the line 'great show' one can't help thinking that it takes a virtuoso ham to recognise another), but there is little danger to his demeanour. For all his ability to slap a kid around, he remains a somewhat cuddly, avuncular figure, like some renegade uncle in an Irish boozer. The greed and avariciousness are always overpowered by Day-Lewis' hard-working charm. When he finally wipes out his nemesis with a ten pin bowling skittle, it feels neither psychotic nor disturbing. Perhaps this is Anderson's (or Sinclair's) point - the violence within the man has reached such a point of saturation that killing in cold blood is no more serious than killing in theory - but one wonders how much more powerful the film might have been with a more restrained performance from its protagonist.

Nevertheless, Plainview's ambiguities keep us hooked. As ever, the scale of Anderson's ambition possesses an americanity that almost beseeches admiration. Plainview is a retrospective forefather to other robber-barons of US cinematic folklore. Corleone, Kane, Kurtz. It is more than likely that Anderson's oilman will find himself striding in their company. Thinking big worked for all of them, in artistic terms at least. PT Anderson's film celebrates that most american of qualities: size. Day-Lewis' performance is entirely in keeping with this, for better or for worse.

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