The Altman torch passes, and P. T. Anderson uses it to set a fire all his own

There Will Be Blood

on December 21, 2007 by Ray Greene
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Paul Thomas Anderson is an acknowledged Robert Altman fan, and echoes of the late master often reverberate in the young master’s work. The evidence is both self-aware and incontrovertible: Anderson resuscitated Shelley Duvall’s rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “ He Needs Me ” from the 1980 Altman fiasco Popeye as theme song to 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. His sprawling magical-realist epic Magnolia (1999)—a layered fugue on parental neglect and child abuse as well as the bridge between Altman’s ensemble aesthetic and movies like Crash —bore structural similarities (if not many thematic ones) to Altman’s late masterpiece Short Cuts. One of the more remarkable acts of generosity ever performed by one major filmmaker toward another occurred in 2006, when Anderson took a position as “stand-by director” on A Prairie Home Companion so that an ailing Altman could get insurance to make a grace-note film that proved to be his last.

All this “influenced by” and “derived from” stuff is a little easy, though—the kind of thing film critics have a weakness for because it allows them to exhibit expertise and to recycle old responses in new contexts. Every film Anderson has ever made creates a fully realized and highly specific world with its own contours and concerns, and all revolve around issues of masculine identity Altman rarely took up, especially the uneasy relationships of fathers to sons. Altman’s contributions to modern filmmaking, especially of the American independent type, are so vast and so liberating that it would be almost as limiting for a serious young American director to try to avoid them as it would have been for a silent filmmaker to work without reference to D. W. Griffith or a studio director of the ’40s and ’50s to avoid referencing Citizen Kane. If Anderson owes Altman anything truly essential to his own work, it’s to the example of Altman’s adventurousness—his “what now?” belief in reinventing himself and the vast and cocksure independence of his humanist ambition for the cinematic arts.

So while it’s tempting to call Anderson’s new not-quite-Western There Will Be Blood his McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and there’s even something fruitful in the analogy, the limits this imposes on Anderson’s expansive, superb and troubling work are almost as profound as its advantages as critical shorthand. Like McCabe, There Will Be Blood is both an ironic character study and a revisionist look at the foundation myths of American capitalism—a Horatio Alger “success” story with murder, failure and spiritual tree rot in its core. There Will Be Blood is also both naturalistic and sumptuous; ethnographically, it's as stunning as its Altman precursor, which is one of the most real-looking historical fables ever committed to film. In an age in which production designers and costumers seem not to appreciate the distinction between a Spider-Man picture and a movie of subtler possibility, Anderson and his collaborators (including designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer Robert Elswit) have created an environmental reality simultaneously more truthful and more visibly artful than a hundred Sweeney Todd s.

There’s nothing in Magnolia or Boogie Nights or Punch-Drunk Love that really prepares the viewer for such a complete rewiring of the scope and tonality of Anderson’s work. Adapted (loosely) from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 anti-corporatist novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood chronicles the rise and psychological self-immolation of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a hardscrabble prospector in 1890s America who prospers when he shifts his attention from gold to oil. Along the way, Plainview picks up a foster son named H. W. (the expressive child actor Dillon Freasier) from a man killed digging a Plainview well. Whether the boy is a companion or a prop to help con the sentimental rubes and farmers out of their oil leases even Plainview doesn’t seem to know.

Though its depiction of life in the California oilfields is thick with muck and blood, There Will Be Blood abandons Sinclair’s socialist preoccupations pretty quickly in favor of something richer and more ambiguous, anchored by another broad, barnstorming and utterly convincing performance by its star. The intricacy of Day-Lewis’ showy embodiment of Plainview is in the way it manages to be simultaneously theatrical and mysterious. A highly motivated man with just the barest self-knowledge, Plainview is both the film’s labyrinth and the monster at its center, and the more time we spend with him, the more lost in his complications we become.

As There Will Be Blood shifts from a social tapestry to a psychological one, the existential predicament of Plainview as an entirely self-willed creation takes center stage, and his encroaching isolation takes deadly and even homicidal hues. A bootstrap exemplar of the American fetish for rugged individualism, Plainview comes to believe in himself so completely that he finds he cannot believe in anyone else. He is sexless, he is friendless, and everyone in his world is sized up warily, like numbers on a balance sheet. Complete self-reliance is a compulsion with him—a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the harshness of his formative experiences as a prospector. Anderson displays a fine eye for the telling detail: As Plainview’s wealth increases, and he moves from open dirt to small house to stately mansion, he still cooks and sleeps on the floor, like a forty-niner caught in the act of jumping a claim.

A subplot out of Elmer Gantry by way of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood pits Plainview’s godless Nietzschean corporatist against an evangelical zealot and confidence man named Eli Sunday (played with a superbly oleaginous buoyancy by Little Miss Sunshine ’s Paul Dano). There Will Be Blood ’s depiction of a small frontier town caught in the expanding grip of a dubious religious transformation is vivid and convincing, and Anderson’s ability to depict the clash between Plainview and Sunday both persuasively and without picking sides gives There Will Be Blood the flavor of an American creation myth, where twisted emblems of Church and State (or at least of that portion of State represented by its industrialists and robber barons) are captured in the act of becoming, as they contend over the future of an unfinished nation.

Anderson anchors this rich story to perhaps the most devastating realization yet of his preoccupation with the dark but unbreakable connections between parents and children. An entirely invented Cain-and-Abel subplot featuring Altman regular Kevin J. O’Connor as a long-lost Plainview half-brother allows some glimpse into Plainview’s own childhood and the role it played in withering his soul. Plainview’s inability to process his feelings for H. W.—complicated by the boy’s complete loss of his hearing during an industrial accident in the oilfields staged by Anderson with a harrowing biblical power—accumulates over time to obtain a tragic force.

In the film’s final moments, as sanity slips away from Plainview along with all the possibilities for companionship and love, Anderson flashes back to a moment around a campfire before the big oil strikes changed everything. In a heart-rending pantomime borrowed from Chaplin by way of Abraham and Isaac, Plainview simultaneously plays with and abuses H.W.—caressing him and shoving him around in equal measure. It’s the perfect encapsulation of a man who can’t reach out for someone without making a fist.

By depositing such a complex emotional drywell of a man in the absurd luxury of a manor house with its own bowling alley and then leaving him there to molder and unlatch, Anderson creates an indictment of the American success ethic so detailed and yet so centered on the personal and psychological that the nearest point of comparison is probably Citizen Kane or even Greed. With Altman gone, a certain kind of torch may indeed have passed here, but There Will Be Blood is so accomplished and so much its own film that it’s better to talk about the other illuminations that light Anderson’s way. When a director who is not yet 40 creates a masterful work that extends his own vocabulary while enlarging our appreciation of earlier masters, the time has come to start comparing that filmmaker primarily against himself.

Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O’Connor and Dillon Freasier
Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar and Daniel Lupi
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for some violence
Running time: 158 min.
Release date: December 26, 200

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