16 February 2008

Oil Is Thicker Than Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson (whose film Punch-Drunk Love I was criticising only a couple of days ago) might well have named his latest film There Will Be Mud instead of the actual title given the abundance of mud in the film. Oil is a dirty business, you see, literally as well as figuratively and our protagonist (antagonist, really), Daniel Plainview, played superbly by Daniel Day-Lewis, proves early on in the almost-three-hour movie that he isn't afraid to get his hands - or any other part of his body - dirty in his attempts to become a successful oil man. When he first finds oil, he christens his son, HW, by daubing his forehead with oil; the baby doesn't look too impressed (even after his careless father has spiked his milk with whisky) but seven years later, he becomes his father's "business partner" anyway.

Oil is also a noisy business. The film is punctuated with explosions, thuds and gunshots but it is really Jonny Greenwood's fractious and intense score that takes centre-stage and keeps you on edge throughout the film and prevents it from dragging in the more action-free scenes. The deep whine of the cello (?) wails like an air-raid siren every time something bad is about to happen and the more staccato pieces build up tension out of nothing.

The first twenty minutes or so of There Will Be Blood are dialogue-free as we see Daniel down in an underground shaft striking silver and then, several years later, oil. Ordinarily, the lack of dialogue would have irritated or bored me - I am, after all, a linguist and I love to learn about people through their language. You have to work harder when the characters don't speak but the direction and Day-Lewis's acting here was good enough to indicate that Daniel isn't a terribly nice man. He is massively greedy, narrow-minded and ambitious to the point of callousness. A worker dies in the shaft? Well, that's a shame but at least we've got the oil now.

No, Daniel is not a nice man at all, but in the first part of the film, at least, it seems that greed and selfishness are his worst crimes. He loves his son - sure, a part of that is that he likes having a cute young face along with him when he is pitching with small-town folk to lease their land on which he hopes to dig for oil - and seems to have been traumatised by the death of HW's mother in childbirth. He comes off as a workaholic who throws himself into his oil wells because he can't bear to think about the past. He is a horrible bully but maybe there is some explanation for this in his past.

One day, Daniel is approached by Paul Sunday, a strange, zealous young man, who sells Daniel information - namely, the address of his family's farm where he guarantees that there is oil available. Daniel is distrustful but reluctantly pays off Paul and heads up to the Sunday ranch with HW under the guise of a quail-shooting trip. The Sundays allow Daniel and HW to camp on the land and even cook them meals; HW becomes friends with the younger Sunday daughter, Mary. Before long, Daniel makes an offer Abel - the gentle, simple patriarch - he can't refuse: he'll buy the land for $3000. Abel's other son, Paul's twin Eli, however, isn't so sure about this. He understands the true value of the land and although his father does agree to sell, Eli soon becomes Daniel's biggest opponent, when it comes to winning over the hearts and minds of the residents of the small California town of Old Boston.

Part of the problem with Daniel is that although he isn't a terribly sympathetic person, the plot isn't as simple as to pit the big, evil, money-grabbing businessman against the sweet, good, small town folk and indeed, the only characters that really inspire much sympathy are HW and Mary (whose supposedly gentle father Abel apparently beats her when she doesn't pray - something that enrages Daniel, so much so that he attempts to make it up to her by buying her new dresses and showering her with attention). Eli certainly isn't very likeable. He certainly isn't the naive, small town man who will easily be taken advantage of and it is immediately obvious that he has his own agenda: promoting his church, the Church of the Third Revelation, which comes off as something of a cult with Eli's massively OTT exorcisms and determination to suck people in to his church against their will.

Somewhere along the way, both Daniel and Eli seem to morph into exaggerated versions of themselves (or, at least, their true personalities become clearer) as their opposing motivations become more and more important to each of them. Daniel, it emerges, is not such a good, loving father after all and nor is Eli such a good, loving son and both HW and Abel are left as pawns in this battle of wills.

Still, Eli is, ultimately, just a subplot of a film about the extents to which one man will go to satisfy his own greed and competitive nature; in his own words, "I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people" - if that doesn't shout out sociopath, I don't know what does. Even when Daniel is at his least likeable, you can't quite bring yourself to hate him, partly because he is actually quite funny and partly because he is a great character, even if he isn't a nice character, and this, again, is a testament to Day-Lewis's acting. "I don't like to explain myself," he explains, as though this explains everything. He certainly has a hard time justifying his actions to himself; indeed, he turns down a deal for $1 million because he thinks his would-be partners have accused him of being a bad father (which would probably be true in the circumstances, except the partners hadn't done so). Ultimately, his own success and ambition are enough justification for him to quiet his conscience.

There are many other elements to this complex and troubling film that I haven't really touched on; it certainly wasn't the cheeriest ways to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon but it was a good story and the score itself made good listening, although not exactly the kind of thing to relax to in the bath with a glass of Merlot...

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