Thursday, September 28, 2017

After 10 Years, "There Will Be Blood" Continues to Inspire Hope for Cinematic Greatness

Scene from There Will Be Blood
It was a decade ago on September 27 that a revolution in cinema was born. With people lining up at Fantastic Fest to see the latest from director Paul Thomas Anderson, they had no idea that they were about to see a movie that would be to the decade what Citizen Kane was to the 1940's; The Godfather to the 1970's; or Pulp Fiction to the 1990's. There Will Be Blood was a neo-western about an oil tycoon named Daniel Plainview, played by the never better Daniel Day-Lewis. While it would be a few more months before its theatrical release and competition with fellow 2007 neo-western masterpiece No Country for Old Men for Oscar glory, it was the birth of a modern gem, and one that hasn't left the public conversation since. It would be a film that defined both Anderson and Lewis' careers to the point that their next collaboration Phantom Thread is one of this year's most anticipated movies. It's a rare gem that shows the potential for modern cinema, and few have come close to making anything as prescient since.

With his fifth film, Anderson transitioned into an auteur after dedicating his early work to ensemble epics like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, as well as the one movie Adam Sandler dissenters like in Punch Drunk Love. He was a man with plenty of hubris, and decided to make a movie based on Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" (or part of it, anyways) in which a man would experience the cross section of business, family, and religion in the early 20th century. Cast in the lead was none other than Lewis, who was already an acclaimed actor whose dedication to his roles were unprecedented. Without saying much, There Will Be Blood was already looking to be a behemoth of modern cinematic potential where a young upstart filmmaker worked with a seasoned vet on a story with grandiose themes.

Anyone who questions just how much Anderson wanted to test himself on the movie need not look further than the now famous opening sequence in which Plainview is "baptized" in oil in a dialogue-free sequence that visually conveys everything, including how much trust the audience will have to place in Anderson's hands. By the time that the movie gets to the second scene, including an introduction of "partner and son" H.W. (Dillon Freasier), there is a sense that this man is going to be one of the most compelling forces in cinema. He is a businessman first, but shills out his family with the belief that it will sell an image. He lies to a priest named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) simply to get land. 

To explain everything else would be too exhaustive for this retrospective, but is best summarized in the film's final scene in which Plainview almost comically provides exposition of stealing land in way best summarized as "I drink your milkshake." It's a moment that even the film's biggest detractors couldn't forget, if just because it was so striking. Lewis acting opposite Dano in a bowling alley produces one of the most iconic moments in a film packed with them. Whereas Plainview has spent the film largely reserved with intent on gaining profit, he ends the film a raving lunatic, admitting that "I'm finished" as the credits start rolling. There's a lot to unpack in those two words, and it's even harder when trying to come down from the rush that is Lewis' dynamic performance. He owns the screen and reinvents cinema in ways that Gangs of New York was only hinting at. Lewis was versatile, but it took until There Will Be Blood to fully understand what that meant.

But what made Lewis' role so much better than normal? He's surely played big roles before. There's no denying that there's something to his commitment that is downright charming, but a lot of it also comes from Anderson's full dedication to the film. As a director, he was allowed to create shots that were more intricate, making his long takes into chaotic scenes involving things ranging from oil well explosions to tragic encounters with family. In those moments, Lewis is allowed to provide subtle moments that show how Plainview's greed has destroyed his life, all in the pursuit of happiness. What was it all for? Unlike most filmmakers, Anderson's screenplay allows everything to be explored gradually and deviously without deliberately stating it. Each theme is allowed to mesh with one another until it becomes a disturbing blur not only of Anderson's hubris to make this the most important movie ever, but that of his characters who receive consequences but not always ones they accept. Anderson is an unapologetic filmmaker, choosing to let his antihero have a delusional ending worthy of his actions.

There's also the iconic score by first time collaborator Jonny Greenwood, who would go on to work with Anderson on three other films (The Master, Inherent Vice, and Junun). Here, he makes a score rich with classical strings clashing with insanity and aggression. It drives the film like an oil well, providing an interpretation of Plainview's mind. At the right moments, the direction, acting, and score coalesce in a manner that creates a profound moment. It's still a shame that The Oscars chose to disqualify Greenwood's most beloved score because it featured preexisting music (a fact that escapes more famous composers like John Williams and Thomas Newman). Still, it created an image of Southern California capitalism that was both unpleasant and fascinating, allowing the viewer to deal with one of cinema's most uncomfortable tycoons. How could you trust Daniel Plainview when he doesn't trust anyone? It's a warped dichotomy that has made the film endlessly fascinating to new audiences.

The film went on to be considered one of the best films of the decade. However, it was up at The Academy Awards the same year as No Country For Old Men: a film that ironically shared a lot of similarities down to similar shooting locations. However, There Will Be Blood was a loud and boisterous vehicle for Lewis whereas The Coen Brothers explored an ensemble cast with no more than diagetic sound to make things uncomfortable. It's hard to argue which really deserved to win, if just because it's one of the greatest double-headers in 21st century Best Picture races, both producing iconic villain performances (No Country would have Javier Bardem as the excellent Anton Chigurgh). Still, There Will Be Blood probably was too radical and odd upon its release to initially appeal to general audiences - thus explaining its possible loss. Still, it cemented Anderson as more than an ambitious filmmaker and turned him into one of the modern auteurs. Lewis would go on to win another Oscar for Lincoln after playing Daniel Plainview, but it wasn't the same.

The legacy can be summarized with such easy clarity. Almost every list compiled in the past 10 years regarding "Best 21st Century Movies" at least mention Anderson's masterpiece. The countless essays and video essays prove just how much depth worthy of film school this movie has. This is a film that explains why cinema is an important art form, and one worth studying. It joins a league higher than the average film considered to be great in any year. There may be tons of great movies, but there's none that inspired conversations quite like There Will Be Blood. Even if Anderson has continued to explore his technique in fascinating ways since, including in The Master, he will always be known as the man who made There Will Be Blood. It's not a terrible legacy to have and in fact gives him an edge over his contemporaries. It takes skill and luck to make a film that's talked about with such regard as There Will Be Blood. He just so happened to find a way to pull it off. 

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