Sunday, February 24, 2008

What I've Seen: There Will Be Blood

Despite the title, blood is not the liquid that looms largest over P.T. Anderson's latest film. The first half is dominated by oil; prospectors wade through it, faces are covered with it, and at one point it rains from the sky. The latter portion of the film belongs to water, as characters swim in it and are baptized in it. Other beverages play a supporting role, with goat's milk and whiskey making recurring appearances. And then there are those milkshakes...

A few months ago, I was hyperbolic in my praise for Children of Men, admiring the way every element of its production came together to create an utterly convincing world. There Will Be Blood may be last year's equivalent of that film. The art direction and costume design make its dusty settings feel real and lived-in, and Robert Elswit's cinematography is gorgeous; his use of dimly lit interior shots and golden, magic-hour outdoor shots are reminiscent of Gordon Willis's work on the Godfather trilogy. And Johnny Greenwood's much-heralded score, while occasionally distracting, is overall quite effective in its driving percussion and eerie strings.

Anderson's direction abandons the elaborate tracking shots which were used in Boogie Nights and Magnolia; that sort of flashiness wouldn't fit in this kind of film, anyway. Instead, he uses long shots that frequently place the oil baron Daniel Plainview on one side of the frame, opposite another actor; he is a man in near-perpetual confrontation. In fact, the only character who spends a large amount of time by Plainview's side in the frame is his adopted son H.W., at least until a major event changes their relationship and Plainview begins to unravel.

Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of Plainview is the most discussed aspect of the film, and rightly so. The accent he adopts for the role has been compared to John Huston in Chinatown, but I'm not sure that's quite the right comparison. Huston spoke with a folksy voice in that film, playing a man who could bid you good morning and threaten to kill you without changing his tone. Plainview's voice is much deeper and darker, like a barely-concealed growl lurks behind each word. Add to that the fact the Day-Lewis is frequently shown sleeping on the ground, and the overall effect is an animal who has learned to imperfectly imitate the humans surrounding him.

The final scene of the movie threatens to take on a life of its own. I won't give anything away, but I did find that, while watching it, my jaw was involuntarily threatening to drop.

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