Had I seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece in 2007 then my end of year top ten list would have surely featured the film in the top spot, relegating Fincher’s near masterpiece ‘Zodiac’ to the second spot. ‘No Country for Old Men’ was another long list of American films released in 2007 that seemed to signal a departure from conventional, formulaic Hollywood cinema. Though ‘No Country for old Men’ cleaned up at the Oscars, it is Daniel Day Lewis’ performance as Plainview in ‘There Will Be Blood’ which will looked back at as the crowning achievement of 2007 Hollywood film making.
It is difficult to call a film a masterpiece, but to take a film like ‘Zodiac’ will perhaps throw some light on why it is so problematic to immediately call a film a masterpiece when considering how the term is thrown around by mainstream film magazines in an attempt to sustain the credibility of their awkwardly compromising style of film journalism. Having viewed ‘Zodiac’ several times, including once on the Blu ray format, it is easy to state quite categorically how it is by far Fincher’s greatest cinematic achievement. However, appreciation for the flawless visual style and nerdy attention to detail also seems to reveal a great annoyance about Jake Gyllenhall’s unconvincing performance as Graysmith.
The casting of Gyllenhall was dubious from the get go, and had many questioning Fincher’s need to appeal to the tastes of the mainstream and especially the youth audience when embarking on the production of a film that would require financing of a kind only brought by a major Hollywood film star. As the last third of the film rests largely on the independent investigations of Graysmith and his increasing obsession with the case, Gyllenhall’s youthful alienation gets in the way of the storytelling, exposing his inexperience as an actor who is not only out of his depth trying to play a role that would have been much better suited for a mature actor, but also underlining Fincher’s terrible compromise in terms of casting.
However, no such compromise exists in a film like ‘There Will Be Blood’, as its status as an instant masterpiece depends greatly on inspired casting decisions that benefits the final shape of the film enormously. I am of course referring to the magnificent performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Plainview, an apathetic and monstrous oil prospector who feels no remorse whatsoever about leaving a never ending trail of human destruction. ‘There Will Be Blood’ is a bold and frightening illustration of contemporary American cinema and authorial desires, invoking genres like the period western, but also managing to convey an ideologically relevant conflict between perhaps two of the most potent and dominant strands of western thought; capitalism and religion.
The first thing to say about this remarkable film is Hollywood’s increasing commitment to engaging with a different and distinctly art house kind of political cinema, the kind of films that John Sayles has been making for the last 20 years. Both ‘No Country for old Men’ and ‘There Will be Blood’ were distributed by Paramount Vantage, an independent production arm of Paramount Studios who formed the company in response to the recent commercial and critical success enjoyed by indie films like ‘Crash’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. However, such artistic commitment on part of reluctant studios was a short lived phenomenon as Paramount Vantage no longer exists, but for a moment, it seemed as though Hollywood had desires to resurrect the ghosts of the 70s new Hollywood authorial cinema in the shape of directors like Paul Thomas Anderson.
Ideologically, this is a film that bears little resemblance to much of Hollywood cinema of the past ten years, purely on the basis of its striking criticisms of a capitalist culture that most film makers are afraid to interrogate in fear of revealing an underlining vein of Marxism which has defined some of the most daring and controversial Hollywood films including Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Plainview is a summation of the anxieties of a particular ferocious breed of capitalism formed on the fundamentals of free enterprise, and his disregard for emotional attachments is shown in the narrative as an apathetic and corrupting feature of a deeply flawed personality incapable of expressing any kind of empathy with other people particularly those who are get too close to him.
Many have described the film as a western but very few critics have actually categorised the film as a western, which perhaps indicates the confusion over the film’s genre status. The clearest indicator of the film’s claim to being a western is most apparent through Anderson’s inadvertent allusions and parallels with Robert Altman’s 1970s revisionist western, ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’, another film that traces the journey of a capitalist who is unable to overcome the hegemonic forces of collective corporate power. Anderson even chooses to shoot the film as though we were back at the turn of the century, opting for a grainy, unfiltered look that emphasises natural lighting and a nostalgic yearning for period detailing that is both obsessively recreated and gloriously represented on screen.
Another aspect the film shares with the Altman School of cinema is the intense concentration on character, and though this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it is perhaps more of a film about the celebration of performance and Daniel Day Lewis’ effortless character study of the greedy, ugly Plainview is one of his most visceral, squalid and contradictory cinematic manifestations. It is also one of the most compelling monsters you are ever likely to come across in a horror film. Unfolding episodically, Plainview’s journey from poverty row oil prospector to shrewd businessman and his final hideous transformation into the staunchly apathetic capitalist is shaped to a large extent by the fundamentalist figure of a religious preacher and ‘false prophet’ who takes the name of Eli Sunday and is played brilliantly by an emerging Hollywood talent; Paul Dano.
Plainview’s promise of a new church for Eli in exchange for the wholesale purchase of his father’s land so that he can produce oil is a narrative thread that forms a fascinating aspect of the film, provoking the idea that both Eli and Plainview are related by an unknowing degree of falsehood. Both are charlatans and false prophets who are prepared to go to any lengths in order to propagate and defend their ideological beliefs, and it is such fanaticism that bides the two together as though were in fact distant blood brothers as suggested in the final few moments in which the triumph of capitalism is both deemed a hollow and unsatisfying one because it seeks no compromise, only assimilation or destruction.
Plainview’s deep mistrust of those around him gradually evolves into a form of loneliness that is pathologically violent especially in the sequence in which he kills the impostor claiming to be his step brother. This moment of melodramatic morality has its repercussions on Plainview who has desires to build a pipe line from his expanding oil fields to the coast through land owned by an indigenous, orthodox farmer, but the price that Plainview must pay so that he can pursue his capitalist ambitions is to seek redemption at the church of Eli Sunday by repenting for his sins in the most humiliating of ways.
The raw, emotional power of the sequence between Eli and Plainview in the church comes purely from the performances of Dano and Day Lewis who in the presence of a scrutinising audience, subdue and control their outright contempt for one another by immersing themselves in a spectacle of false ideologies. Yet Plainview’s coerced cry for help in the form of ‘I have abandoned my son, my child’ smacks of an undeniable honesty that he would prefer remain repressed and forgotten in fear of forging some kind of emotional connection to a world that he intensely dislikes.
The final act of the film takes place in 1927 and the narrative jumps quite unexpectedly to an urban setting, moving into the climactic confrontation between Plainview and Eli in the setting of a shiny new Bowling Alley. Much has been written about the film’s final moments and Plainview’s uncompromising character metamorphoses into an ideological statement; for capitalism to breathe, expand and excel, then all other ideological forces that may bring doubt in the form of emotional sentimentalism or concern for humanism into the foreground must be extinguished, expunged and destroyed without inkling of remorse or guilt.
Such a brutally truthful ideological act is taken to its natural fruition by Plainview and for this reason alone, ‘There Will Be Blood’ can be deemed an American masterpiece that is uncompromising in terms of film making and ideologically resonant in light of today’s continuing worship of capitalism as the meta narrative that forms the basis of all religions, whether they be theological, economic or political.