Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Fantastic Fest: Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle nearly scared me from books for life. At the age of 16, my reading consisted solely of magazines and the occasional none-too-taxing book like Dracula. But when assigned the Sinclair novel in my junior year of high school, Joe Russo, my high school English teacher, asked me to “Just read the fucking thing” (yes, using those words) in order to keep up with the rest of the class, but also because I’m sure he’d thought I’d like it. It was an incredibly tough read for me, as I found the subject matter to be amazingly depressing (which says more about me than the book itself), but I finally slogged through it anyway and then stayed away from books for about another dozen years, after a friend convinced me how much I would dig James Ellroy’s American Tabloid (which I most certainly did). I don’t really read as often as I’d like (usually just on the train to work every morning), but I go through a couple of books a year and maybe one of these days I’ll get to The Jungle again. A long time has passed and perhaps I now possess the maturity to grapple such an overwhelming story, though I suppose it might help if I had Joe Russo riding my ass once again.

Sinclair was an incredibly prolific novelist but not much of his work has been adapted for the screen (although Disney later turned The Gnome Mobile into a musical!), so when Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD, based on Sinclair’s novel Oil!, was announced, I was interested to see what such a film would be like. I didn’t know Oil! from a hole in the ground, but Anderson has been (I think) one of the most challenging filmmakers of the last ten years and the material seemed like something that could take Anderson to a new level as a filmmaker. Hearing that Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who is slowly rising to the ranks of the all-time greats, was going to play the lead it seemed like THERE WILL BE BLOOD could be Anderson’s shot at greatness. So as I went in to Austin for Fantastic Fest, the rumors were rife with news that BLOOD would be one of the Ain’t It Cool News “Secret Screenings” to be peppered throughout the fest, which seemed to make sense to me, especially since I knew that Fantastic Fest founder Tim League just had Anderson as a guest for a Rolling Roadshow of BOOGIE NIGHTS back in July. And it was not long after I got off the plane when I learned that BLOOD would indeed be showing as the closing night film, so I knew it wouldn't be long before I got another sampling of Upton Sinclair in my life.

As it turns out, THERE WILL BE BLOOD only takes the first third of Sinclair's novel about the birth of the oil industry in America and then spins off into its own realm, but what's especially shocking is that the film is like nothing Anderson has done before. Much of the Anderson style is not in evidence, except for his excellent use of Panavision lenses and an offbeat (but entirely fitting) score from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, but it's also not like he's channeling Robert Altman (to whom the film is dedicated) or Stanley Kubrick again. Like with Romero and DIARY OF THE DEAD, this is a progression for Anderson and it's a pretty stunning one, too. I've liked all of Anderson's films thus far and I had high hopes for BLOOD, but what I got was something unexpected and a true knockout of a movie. The audience reaction at Fantastic Fest was raves all around and I never heard a single negative or even lackluster opinion. While there is already much talk about the film's status in the Oscar race (where I believe it will be at the forefront, for sure), more importantly, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a new classic, one that 50 years from now we'll all still be talking about and watching. It's terrific all-around, as satisfying as you want most any film to be.

The first thing you have to remark on when discussing the film is the incredible performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in the film's lead. There are very few moments in the film where he's not on screen, but when he's there he's mesmerising in every way. Like his work in GANGS OF NEW YORK, Lewis could have chewed the scenery like crazy, but he plays it smart every second of the film and gives us a multi-dimensional character who is kidding himself that he has a soul when he does not. He's a tragic character, but his downfall is also very much of his own making and watching him unravel is fascinating in the extreme. Lewis is nearly matched by the excellent Paul Dano (a dead ringer for the young Harry Nilsson) and the dynamic between the two of them is at the heart of the film, two characters who utterly despise one another and would have nothing to do with one other if it wasn't for the fact that they absolutely need each other. Their relationship comes to such a head that the film concludes in one of the most memorable closing scenes in most any film I can think of in the last few years (which I will not reveal here). Hell, the film even ends just right; that's how good this picture is.

While putting this piece together in my head I was stuck as to where I might find anything critical about the film and I searched and I searched but I honestly couldn't find anything negative to say about it. I'm not quite saying that THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a perfect film, but damned if I have anything bad to say about it. I loved the cinematography; I though Kevin Anderson (finally away from Stephen Sommers and able to appear in a real movie again) was also excellent, and on and on and on. As DIARY OF THE DEAD was a superb start to Fantastic Fest, THERE WILL BE BLOOD was a likewise superb ending, as well. Prepared to be incredibly impressed once it hits theaters December 26.

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