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An American archetype: Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

A Dark Mirror

By Laura Leon

There Will Be Blood

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

I’ve been watching movies all my life. Almost as much as (and sometimes more than) any family member, they have been my abiding companion. I thought in terms of movies: The books I read ran through my mind as if in reels. And, yes, I think I expected my life to play out as one, preferably with a strong leading man and great lighting. Oh, and wardrobe by Adrian.

Even after years of reviewing, there is still a little girl in me who goes into the theater subconsciously expecting to admire and identify with the lead character. So it was with There Will Be Blood, in which Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a turn-of-the-20th-century oil man buoyed by an innate nose for petroleum and fired by an unyielding rage. We first see Plainview digging way beneath the earth, a solitary and backbreaking scene that immediately underscores his relentless pursuit of black gold.

In the elliptical scenes that follow, we see Plainview reach a level of success that allows him to go, hat in hand and son H.W. at his side, to parched desert communities across Southern California, vouchsafing his superior ability to find oil on their lands and to bring them some measure of profit and good times. His clipped intonation (many have remarked at its similarity to John Huston’s), his rigid visage and utter economy of motion relay confidence, and Anderson’s camera catches poor homesteaders at their most vulnerable and greedy as they scurry to catch the crumbs that might fall from the mighty man’s table.

Based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s Oil! but also owing strongly to Frank Norris’ McTeague and its own subsequent cinematic adaptation, Erich Von Stroheim’s classic Greed, There Will be Blood is an epic rendering of a crucial moment in our collective history when boom times seemed imminent, and we had to make momentous decisions about industry, church and family. Countless stories from the Old Testament come to mind, as Plainview’s greed and overarching ambition, and people’s willingness to jump on his train, lead to ruination.

Day-Lewis, as is his wont, completely inhabits the character of Daniel, and his work is stupendous. Just when you think he’s going to go overboard, turning Daniel into caricature, he withholds, and this push-pull dynamic mirrors what we, the audience, feel about Plainview. There are moments when one admires his ability to get things done and put simpering fools in their place, but then he does something appalling to revolt us and remind us of his true nature. Plainview’s character is one of the many great themes of this movie: At what point, if any, do brilliance and ability become acceptable replacements for decency and morality?

Plainview’s counterpart is the preacher Eli (Paul Dano), whose concern for the spiritual needs of his community barely conceals a zeal to partake in Plainview’s bounty. The movie’s sizzling finale, a showdown between the elderly Plainview and the mature Eli, lays bare any lingering fantasies we may have had that the latter is on the up and up, and provides Daniel with one last platform on which to preach his own gospel, that of sheer greed and opportunism.

Throughout There Will Be Blood, that little girl in me saw in to Daniel’s psyche, identifying with him, before, over and over again, being repulsed. The movie’s power to reveal at the same time as it astounds and disturbs, makes it one of the most palpable, resonating cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. From the word go, Anderson, aided immeasurably by a stunning, eerie score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, delivers a masterful achievement in moviemaking. He illuminates a crucial piece of the American psyche, making us stare in both wonder and horror at what we’ve become.

It’s Only a Movie

Cloverfield

Directed by Matt Reeves

When making a genre film, it’s great to have a fresh gimmick. Cloverfield, from producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves, has a doozy: A giant monster’s attack on New York City is told exclusively through the images captured by a home-video camera.

This ratchets up the suspense nicely, as the beast is revealed in impressively violent flashes. When the monster finally gets its close-up, it’s effective and satisfying.

The gimmick liberates the storytelling, too. Who is this creature? No idea. What does it want? Aside from its smashing skyscrapers and munching stray humans, we have no way of knowing. Where did it come from? That one’s easy. It came from the harbor, where it sank an oil tanker and—spectacularly—decapitated the Statue of Liberty. Everything we discover about the monster—and the military’s attempts to destroy it—we learn right alongside the main characters.

And therein lies the problem. After freeing themselves from many of the constraints of traditional monster movies, they fall into one of its traps by giving us main characters who are interchangeable, idiotic and annoying. Characters that we want the monster to kill, and, hopefully, in creatively gruesome ways.

It would be nice if the filmmakers shared this bloodlust, but, alas, Abrams and Reeves seem to care about these pretty nobodies. These include going-to-Japan guy (Michael Stahl-David), who is obsessed with saving steel-rod-through-shoulder girl (Odette Yustman). There is also dorky-guy-with-camera (T.J. Miller), who has a yen for bleeding-eyes- exploding-girl (Lizzy Caplan). And, finally, let’s not forget low-hanging-fruit guy (Mike Vogel), who earns this nickname by misjudging the wisdom of climbing above the rest of the crowd to point out the monster, or his girlfriend (Jessica Lucas), who climbs barefoot through wreckage with nary a scratch.

It’s not giving too much away to say that most of the characters this reviewer wanted dead ended up dead; the film begins with a title stating that the footage was retrieved from “what used to be Central Park.” That, and its brief running time, probably explain why Cloverfield is ultimately enjoyable. While it’s easy to be dismayed by the too-casual use of 9/11 imagery, at least Cloverfield is exactly what it claims to be: just a monster movie.

—Shawn Stone


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