Magazine article The New Yorker

HARD LIFE; the Current Cinema

Magazine article The New Yorker

HARD LIFE; the Current Cinema

Article excerpt

Early in "There Will Be Blood," an enthralling and powerfully eccentric American epic (opening on December 26th), Daniel Plainview climbs down a ladder at his small silver mine. A rung breaks, and Daniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) falls to the base of the shaft and smashes his leg. He's filthy, miserable, gasping for breath and life. The year is 1898. Two and a half hours later (and more than thirty years later in the time span of the film), he's on the floor again, this time sitting on a polished bowling lane in the basement of an enormous mansion that he has built on the Pacific Coast. Having abandoned silver mining for oil, Daniel has become one of the wealthiest tycoons in Southern California. Yet he's still filthy, with dirty hands and a face that glistens from too much oil raining down on him--it looks as if oil were seeping from his pores. The experience chronicled between these two moments is as astounding in its emotional force and as haunting and mysterious as anything seen in American movies in recent years. I'm not quite sure how it happened, but after making "Magnolia" (1999) and "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002)--skillful but whimsical movies, with many whims that went nowhere--the young writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has now done work that bears comparison to the greatest achievements of Griffith and Ford. The movie is a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!," but Anderson has taken Sinclair's bluff, genial oilman and turned him into a demonic character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Melville's Ahab. Stumping around on that bad leg, which was never properly set, Daniel Plainview--obsessed, brilliant, both warm-hearted and vicious--has Ahab's egotism and command. As for Daniel Day-Lewis, his performance makes one think of Laurence Olivier at his most physically and spiritually audacious.

At the start, Daniel and a small group of workers, wildcatting for oil, give themselves entirely to their perilous labor. There isn't a word of dialogue. Again and again, Anderson creates raptly muscular passages--men lifting, hauling, pounding, dragging, working silently in the muck and viscous slime. Yet this film is hardly the kind of glory-of-industry documentary that bored us in school. "There Will Be Blood" is about the driving force of capitalism as it both creates and destroys the future, and the film's tone is at once elated and sickened. A dissonant, ominous electronic wail, written by the Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood, warns us of trouble ahead. Once the derricks are up, Greenwood imitates the rhythmic thud of the drill bits and pumps with bustling passages of plucked strings and pounding sticks. "Blood" has the pulse of the future in its rhythms. Like the most elegiac Western, this movie is about the vanishing American frontier. The thrown-together buildings look scraggly and unkempt, the homesteaders are modest, stubborn, and reticent, but, in their undreamed-of future, Wal-Mart is on the way. Anderson, working with the cinematographer Robert Elswit, has become a master of the long tracking shot across still, empty landscapes. The movie, which cost a relatively cheap twenty-five million dollars to make, has gravity and weight without pomp; it's austerely magnificent, and, when violence comes--an exploding oil well, a fight--it's staged cleanly, in open space, and not as a tumult of digital effects or a tempest in an editing room.

One of the workers holds and kisses a baby, then dies in an accident, and Daniel raises the child, whom he calls H.W. (Dillon Freasier), as his son and partner. The movie skips to 1911, when Daniel and H.W. are travelling around California in a tin lizzie, buying up land leases, at bargain rates, from ranchers and farmers who are sitting on underground oceans of gold. Daniel takes advantage of their ignorance to pay them less than they deserve, and, as he addresses a group of them, Day-Lewis's performance comes into focus. He lowers his chin slightly, and his dark eyes dance with merriment as he speaks in coarse yet rounded tones, the syllables precisely articulated but with a lengthening of the vowels and final consonants that gives the talk a singing, almost caressing quality. …

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