An Oil Man
THERE WILL BE BLOOD is so overwhelming on a visceral level that it’s kind of hard to talk about. I will have to see it again.
The opening, wordless twenty minutes have rightly commanded attention. I loved how the first dynamite explosion BLASTS blue sky into the frame, in what feels like the first intense colour apart from blood-red of the single opening title.
If Anderson’s previous work has often danced close to the shadow of Robert Altman, in terms of locations, themes, structure and casting, this one feels more like his Terence Malick movie, with its natural light, landscape cinematography, and indirect approach to plot.
The images of the burning oil well actually seered into my retinas — I’m not being poetic, I literally had an afterimage stuck there, and when I blinked there was a tiny silhouette of Daniel Day-Lewis dancing about under my eyelids. Bastard.
I wonder if Day-Lewis’ performance is not only a John Huston imitation (and a damn good one, though Clint Eastwood got quite close in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART without doing very much) but a John Huston PORTRAIT. It’s not just the accent and voice, but the bandy gait, the cigar, the mannerisms, and the whole WAY of speaking. If the dialogue hasn’t been drawn straight from the Upton Sinclair book (and those in the know seem to agree that the novel is a fairly distant ancestor to the movie) then it’s firstly a very fine piece of consistent and engaging and unintrusive faux-period writing, and secondly a very good encapsulation of the way Huston speaks in interviews.
This might make sense of P.T.A.’s constant screening of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE during the shoot. Because I’m not convinced the two films have so much to do with each other, but I do think Daniel Plainview has a lot to do with John Huston.
(Refresh your memories of Huston’s delivery with the above.)
He lacks Huston’s twinkle, of course. But both men share a devilish charm, which is seen when Plainview speaks to crowds and seduces them with carefully chosen words and an air of supreme confidence and paternal concern. And Huston’s cruelty is pretty well documented. Asked why he would be particularly mean to anybody who appeared vulnerable or unstable, he would reply, “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block.” Which almost makes bullying (the most indefensible activity) seem sort of quirky and whimsical.
While Paul Dano also gives a stunning performance (he should have got an Oscar nomination for his WALK alone), his character doesn’t have quite the mystery of the Day-Lewis monster. He is revealed as a false prophet, and we discover that he himself knows it too. We also discover Plainview’s anti-religious side, without having it actually EXPLAINED to us. We can only guess at its causes, while reflecting that it’s another trait in common with Huston (WISE BLOOD is one of J.H.’s few really heartfelt films).
One thing that’s unusual about the P.T.A. film is the extent to which it forces you to really think about the Plainview character. He has an attempt at explaining himself to Kevin J. O’Connor’s character, but enough of his motivation is left in shadow to make him an urgent discussion point as you leave the cinema. All he can say is that he’s angry, and hates most of humanity, and he seems to regard this anger as an inborn trait he can do nothing about.
Was Huston angry? It’s a theory, at least. Much of Huston’s behaviour seems to have been in defiance of his poor health in childhood. Did the drive and determnation that forced him to repeatedly throw himself into a rapidly-flowing river as a boy, to prove his need to live, bring with it a rage against all weakness — a projection outwards of the vulnerability he wished to destroy in himself?
This psychiatric stuff isn’t really my natural element, but the film seems to force one to it, which is part of its peculiar strength. I’m reminded of André Hodeir’s fine piece on the Marx Brothers (recommended by David Ehrenstein here on the blog), where he comments in passing on the scene in DUCK SOUP where Groucho psychs himself into a state of outrage at the thought of something which hasn’t even happened (“I hold out my hand to him and that hyena refuses to accept it!”). Hodeir observes, “the psychological mechanism of anger is displayed here with great comic subtlety,” and I think the same might be said of Day-Lewis’ whole performance here. As in real life, anger leads to more anger. When Plainview starts to finally unleash it, it can’t be stemmed and even after he’s fully revenged himslef it continues to flood out, with horrible consequences.
Perhaps that’s why he’s so chipper in the last shot — has he finally been freed of a monster that was gnawing his insides?
You can see the Groucho version here:
The moment is 3 minutes 50 seconds in, but the rest is all good too — you can see Charles “Emperor Ming” Middleton reprise his role of prosecutor from Von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (a film which seems to have obsessed Groucho, judging by his further reference to it in HORSE FEATHERS).