Charles Foster Kane of CITIZEN KANE and John Plainview of THERE WILL BE BLOOD would not like one another, but they would understand one another, and find chilling resonance in their respective downward trajectories. They are both Americans, both rich men, both damned by an essential flaw of character that will ultimately leave them wandering alone in sprawling mansions.
Plainview's fortune is based on oil, which he's skilled at drilling from the Earth, but his greatest talent is public relations; he's very good at talking people into selling him their land for a fraction of the money he will make from it, and the skill gives him pleasure, because as he eventually confesses, he looks at people and sees nothing he likes. He is not incapable of love; he seems to have a genuine affection for the young boy he has adopted -- left him when a fellow driller dies in an accident -- and who he has cast as the angelic son who stands beside him in silence while he delivers his sales spiel. But his driving force is wealth, and his contempt for the human race eats at his sanity. He will gain everything but lose his soul. He may not have always been a monster, but that is sure as hell what he will become.
Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most exciting moviemakers working today, has made a handful of eccentric, sprawling films capable of frustrating moviegoers who demand traditional formulas and scenes that carefully explain what the stories they tell are supposed to be about. Pretty much everybody liked BOOGIE NIGHTS because of its humor and abundant energy, but a number were baffled by MAGNOLIA, a movie I'd defend as genius to my dying breath, that had career-height performances by at least a dozen major talents and a final twist that dropped jaws all over the country. With THERE WILL BE BLOOD he makes his first period film, and it is as gorgeous as any I've seen this year; much of it involves the mechanics of early twentieth-century oil drilling, and even as the dramatics take place around that activity it is riveting just to watch the gradual transformation of one bucolic hillside into an industrial complex spewing goo and black smoke. It's imaginatively-told, too; the first fifteen minutes or so are sans dialogue as Plainview, working alone, brings in his first well; the last fifteen minutes are all dialogue, and one of the most insane, hammering scenes you've seen in...well, forever. In between you have Plainview, making deals, betraying them, erupting into moments of frightening rage, and building the walls around himself that will someday be his prison.
The main conflict of the film is between Plainview and local preacher Eli(Paul Dano), whose family sells Plainview its ranch and who sees the well as the basis of an expanded, wealthier ministry. Eli demands the right to bless the well before digging starts, an act that is less about religious fervor than enhancing his control over the community. Plainview, who despises Eli at first sight, as he despises most people, agrees but betrays him, in a scene of stunningly casual cruelty. And the war is on. It is not a conflict over the soul of the community, but a conflict between egos, each man wanting to be the star on stage, each man recognizing that the other is a natural enemy. It gives nothing away to say that it escalates. It must. But it is just one thread in the movie's tapestry, and it all comes together in the most unexpected manner. It all comes down to who's the bigger monster.
As Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis channels John Huston: he's all rolling eloquence, with a hint of insanity, and the capacity for humanity drowning behind the inhumanity that rules him. It is one of the finest performances in a career that has been almost entirely composed of high points. And as for that comparison to Charles Foster Kane? It's not just that the characters would understand each other. It's that they're pitching in the same ballpark. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is not perfect, but it's one of 2007's few authentically great films, not just in the top ten but in the top two or three.
Adam-Troy says check it out.
Thursday Jan 24 2008
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