A Blazing Baroque

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There Will Be Blood directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, and out now, is a great piece of baroque cinema. Sharing more than a passing semblance with Erich von Stroheim’s monumental Greed (1924), this is high Hollywood classicism brought through the wringer of idiosyncratic, but grand ambition. As Manohla Dargis points out in her somewhat hyperbolic but nevertheless excellent review, the filmmaker here finds what his earlier efforts have lacked, a great theme. The overwrought ostentatiousness of Boogie Nights (1997) or Magnolia (1999) is turned into an asset in this quintessentially American fable of soul-destroying enterprise, in that it consolidates the archetypical nature of the narrative.

For the same reason, the pairing of Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis is a happy one. What he did for the vastly inferior Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Anderson here does for Day-Lewis –- he plays to his obvious strengths and makes a virtue of his weaknesses. Never the most discrete of actors, Day-Lewis bombastic method acting is a perfect fit for Anderson’s ostentatious directorial approach. The final scene of the film is a delicious example of scenery-chewing, alternately hilarious and terrifying, and above all else unfolds with integrity. It goes spectacularly overboard with full confidence that it will float. A great tragic-comedic ending.

A great reason for the film’s success is the gradual unravelling of the nature of its protagonist, Daniel Plainview, played by Day-Lewis. While the ominous, dialogue-less opening sequence can be said to provide us with all we know, the feeling is that we know very little about this frighteningly vigorous figure. We are initially taken in by the man’s self-presentation –- “I would like to consider myself an oil man” –- which is one of shrewd integrity and broad-shouldered ambition. And while there is truth to this first impression -– the Plainview persona –- it is only as the layers are peeled back that we begin to understand what moves him. And by then the empathy is there.

The film is wilfully opaque. It leaves many important questions open, leaving it up to us to work out the answers. Important in this respect is how several important characters are given short shrift. The main example is Paul, the physically identical brother of

Daniel’s main antagonist –- and sometime ally -– the young firebrand Evangelical preacher Eli, played with verve by Paul Dano. Crucial to the story, we only see him once. The rest of the time he is seemingly off leading his own apparently successful life, away from the main action. Fallen twin or figment of a split imagination? This ambiguity is mirrored in the relationship between Daniel and the man who suddenly appears, claiming to be his long-lost brother. While information is here more generously provided, the final scene between the two of them seems to bury the truth.

This is characteristic for the film as a whole, down to minor plot points. It is unclear what happens, physically, in certain scenes. Key to the storytelling is the external viewpoint accorded to the observer. Never do we become privy to the inner workings of the characters. Their motivations are never explained, and at times even seem contradictory. Their explanations are obviously unreliable. Not necessarily false, but never the whole truth. Especially the relationship between Daniel and his son, or ‘son’, H. W. (Dillon Freasier), is evidently complex beyond the information we are given, and marked by the irrationality of emotional and familial bonds.

This is a film that trades in iconic imagery and unfolds like a fable, with all the truth and contradiction inherent to the form. With baroque power and circumstance.

There Will Be Blood (2007). Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Oh, BTW, the intense, utraditional score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, is amazing.

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