If there are any Oscar voters who loved "No Country for Old Men" but have their doubts about honoring a film that strays from the usual Best Picture template, never fear. All they have to do is check out "There Will Be Blood" (which is likely the last of the five BP nominees many of them will see) and they'll come running straight into the four comforting arms of the Coen Brothers. This ain't Citizen Kane, as TWBB's partisans claimed way back when. It's Stanley Kubrick... and we know how AMPAS felt about Kubrick. It's all shot in natural lighting, like "Barry Lyndon". As Daniel Day-Lewis's Plainview loses his mental stability, he degenerates into an aggressive, unrepentant primal being, down to his caveman essence... just like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining". And the final, ultra-violent freak-out is primo "Clockwork Orange", complete with terse closing line punctuating all that came before, and with Brahms Violin Concerto standing in for Ludwig Van. P.T. Anderson has one big plus over Kubrick, though. He's no misogynist. Or if he is, he at least knows how to counter it. Daniel Plainview is a selfish, opportunistic S.O.B (as is his counterpart, Eli the preacher). But Anderson allows the peripheral characters to register as more than mere figurines Plainview toys with. The consequences of Plainview's actions are real consequences, affecting real people. Anderson communicates his own judgement of Plainview's destructiveness through the other's expressions of disapproval, disgust and sometimes terror, none more pointedly than Plainview's grown son who opts for stability over success-at-all-costs. And as apalling as Plainview treated his son, Anderson shows Plainview had affectionate feelings for him. Perhaps poorly developed, certainly in great conflict with his ruthlessly practical nature, but there all the same.
Thematically, it's also Kubrickian, because "There Will Be Blood" is a tale of self-imposed isolation, where people are impediments to your goal. They're of the same value as the oil or dirt beneath your feet; either they have a use for you, or they don't. It's beyond selfish; it's all about living in your own bubble. Plainview is so cut off from anyone who is not himself, the concept of family (another theme) eludes him. Indeed, family is a concept to be viewed with great suspicion. Hints are dropped here and there about his childhood, and clearly he was never raised in a stable home. The nature of his relationship with his son is one of convenience. A suddenly appearing brother-in-law (Kevin J. O'Connor, beautifully sympathetic and aloof) betrays his trust. Twin brothers work against each other in order to use Plainview for their own purposes (and more on THAT later). And when a family member is finally happily married, Plainview dismisses him and cuts off all contact, for marriage is the final step towards independence, and independence begets competition. And why not? The ends justify the means, in Plainview's world. At the movie's conclusion, Plainview is the winner, having successfully fought off all adversity to reach his goal. And now look at him.
Day-Lewis gives the same sort of broad, unnatural, over-emphatic performance he gave in "Gangs of New York." In that film, the approach sunk him. Here, it's absolutely appropriate. Plainview is an animal, but not a social one. He has no natural sense of formal grace or courtesy. He's observant, he knows the right things to say in the appropriate situations. But it never emerges organically from within him. In essence, Daniel Plainview is a salesman - nothing but pretence - and he lives his life selling himself. He finds his counterpart in Paul Dano's Eli Sunday, who throws himself (Sunday, that is) into the role of devout preacher with such outlandish intensity, the congregation is too frightened to conclude he isn't sincere. Dano's effete manner and Gene Wilder voice could have been a campy disaster. And maybe it is. But I'm too overawed by how much Dano allows himself to be made ridiculous that I'm almost forced to concede that it's a brilliant, brave performance. Perhaps I was frightened into making this conclusion as well.
All this might suggest that I loved this movie. Wellll.... I loved quite a bit of it. I loved the control Anderson has over the entire project, as the visual style gradually morphs from the refinement of 19th century landscape depiction to 20th century art at its most depraved. His use of the dimensions only widescreen can provide is phenomenal; this cries out to be seen on the big screen. Check out the introduction of the half-brother, and how Anderson frames him and plainview on either side of the screen as they cautiously, suspiciously regard each other. Or when Plainview shoves Eli into a oil puddle and beats him, while other men discreetly stand in the background, watching without daring to move, their images cropped from the waist up. Or derricks and smokestacks photographed as background images, but slowly growing into the sky as a measure of the passage of time (redolent of Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons"). And yet, this isn't something I'll scream "masterpiece!" over. It was all a bit too much. Anderson's use of themes and symbolism tends to be overwrought, just a bit. The music of Greenwood and depressive Baltic mystic Arvo Part gilded the lily, a tad. And for all the humanity Anderson shows of Plainview's "victims", he doesn't give much time for the laborers who struggled with Plainview's massive projects, although that could be explained, if not justified, by the distance Plainview imposes upon himself from most people.
And then there's my major complaint, and this is where the major SPOILER comes in. You were warned...
The use of twin brothers in the film left me utterly confused. The suggestion is that Dano plays twin brothers, but maybe they're one person. If the intention was to leave the audience without much clarity on the matter, then it was a contrivance I resented. The rest of the film was very straigtforward. Maybe Anderson had his reasons for playing a trick on us, maybe it suits the theme of family and ruthlessness towards humanity. Maybe I'd get it were I to sit for a spell and analyze it. But as it plays, it felt like something done on a whim, and it was VERY distracting.
As for which film would I vote for for Best Picture? Well, that's tough. I really couldn't say. I'd have to see both of them again, in succession. But I'm pretty confident that I know which one the Academy is going to vote for: "No Country for Old Men."
P.S. I'm not exactly the most well-versed in American literature. But am I the only one who didn't know Upton Sinclair wrote a novel called Oil?
Edited By Sonic Youth on 1202759319
"What the hell?"