Bubblin’ crude

Pub date January 2, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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The Kodak Theatre is no country for old women — or for young women, based on the most archetypal American movies of this awards season. A few months after a Coen brothers’ bro-down brought the silencer heard ’round the world and the bowl cut seen ’round the world, Paul Thomas Anderson returns with There Will Be Blood, an even more male-dominated, United States–is–his story. False prophets and fatal oil profits entwine with murderous intent in Anderson’s latest act of three-act bravado: oligarch Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) engage in territorial pissings that span decades, while women are scarcely seen and heard from even less. In fact, No Country for Old Men almost qualifies as Douglas Sirk–ian melodrama next to Anderson’s maverick revision of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!

My, what a big movie Anderson has made. There will be no doubt among viewers that this 158-minute epic has Orson Welles–ian aspirations, from its Citizen Kane–like dedication to the rise and fall of a megalomaniac to its less-focused portrait of a not-so-magnificent or Ambersonian family line. These are the post–Robert Altman years of Anderson’s relatively fledgling career, in strictly literal terms. Now that Altman is dead, Anderson no longer treats him as a prime well of auteur inspiration, instead favoring the sprawling likes of Welles, Elia Kazan, Terrence Malick, and Stanley Kubrick. He presides over some bizarre marriage of Welles’s and Kubrick’s spirits in There Will Be Blood‘s worst moment — a finale that searches for a version of Rosebud in a mansion that resembles the Overlook Hotel, only to find plentiful redrum in a bowling alley instead. Set between cowardly quotation marks, this garbled conclusion seems to prove a colleague’s remark that Anderson doesn’t trust his instincts as a filmmaker.

Yet Anderson taps into an instinctive talent in many, if far from all, of the mute passages and dialogue duels that precede that coda. He’s aided by the sick pull of Jonny Greenwood’s vanguard score and gonzo performances from both of his lead actors. While Day-Lewis is more consistently successful, it’s Dano who stokes the film’s intrigue, through subtle smiles during their characters’ early jousts, a brief spell of deflated defeat when he’s betrayed, and a hilarious (if only temporary) victory in his home court of the pulpit. When There Will Be Blood is a marriage or battle between Day-Lewis’s performance and Anderson’s imagery, it’s even better. The potent isolation and claustrophobia of the film’s first half hour are outdone by a tour de force sequence in which oil and its elemental force paint the future black.

There Will Be Blood is sneaking into theaters in a manner consistent with that of recent butt-numbing epics, such as Malick’s 2005 The New World, which appear more concerned about their potential place in film history than with what statuettes they might pick up in the spring. This outlook isn’t necessarily a virtue, nor does it automatically result in better cinema, as Malick’s goofy yet haunting recent effort proved. Anderson has made another great leap forward, or at least away from, the putrid stench of 1999’s god-awful Magnolia, but only those with a penchant for fanboy prose are claiming he’s used oil to paint an instant masterpiece. Amid the empty promises of Todd Haynes and others, it’s easy to see why they’re raving, though. Anderson’s audacity here is worth puzzling over — and probably praising more — in times to come. *


Opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters