[Note: A thousand apologies for the long delay (it's been a busy month, to say the least), and thank you to all those who wrote me. Here's to another year of movies, and movie writing.]
The thrill of Paul Thomas Anderson's more recent pictures lies in watching him rediscover the calm of Hard Eight, his exceptional 1996 debut. His follow-ups, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, gave him millions of fanboys, but their high-decibel virtuosity coarsened rather than refined the director's voice -- the filmic braggadocio, studded with ostentatious magpie shout-outs, clashed with a basically gentle concern for characters and the actors playing them. Punch-Drunk Love used the unsettled comic persona of Adam Sandler to show, poetically and disturbingly, the loneliness at the heart of his oeuvre, a reminder that the young upstart was a singular artist and not just the fruit of a forbidden affair between Altman and Scorsese. Now, There Will Be Blood cements his standing at the top of his generation's filmmakers. It is vivid, grave, galvanic, deeply flawed but rarely less than startling, a raging creature to be wrestled with rather than gazed at sanctimoniously. It has been linked to No Country for Old Men, with both works viewed as the darkest jewels in the treasure chest that was 2007. While the Coen Brothers' much-admired and much-analyzed opus has a hermetic, dispassionate perfection that ultimately leaves me on the outside of it with nothing more than glacial admiration, however, Anderson's more uneven film, while being every bit as uncompromisingly severe, has passages of mystery that invite me into its cruel visions.
The basis is Upton Sinclair's Oil!, or, rather, characters and themes drawn from the great 1927 novel and let loose on a spacious arena that, identified at the beginning as turn-of-the-century America, becomes progressively otherworldly. Jonny Greenwood's piercing, dissonant score introduces Hell, sun-cracked California in 1898; Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a prospector, is in the depths, at first mining for minerals but changing his trade once the earth gets stabbed and bleeds oil. Plainview is a ruthless visionary and opportunist, he strolls into a budding town and offers "the bond of family," even though his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) has been inherited from one of the workers who died while toiling in primeval muck. The community grows around the protagonist's oil pump, which midway through ejaculates spectacularly before bursting into flame; H.W. is blown deaf by the eruption and sent away, Plainview meets a conman posing as his brother (Kevin J. O'Connor) and articulates his worldview: "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking." Throughout, Anderson's filmmaking coolly roars. Thankfully gone is the hopped-up zoom-track of his more antsy days, the camera here knows when to glide and when to slow down to take in an arresting widescreen image -- landscapes divided between rocky ground, blasting sun and dark fluids, Jack Fisk's designs of a society in its barest bones, and, above all, Day-Lewis's face as he essays a monster alive with greed and alone with misanthropy.
There Will Be Blood certainly overreaches, yet Anderson has the talent to back up epic ambition. The elements here mercilessly dissected -- family, business, religion -- are quintessentially American, but also timeless and, in the auteuristic sense, profoundly dear to the filmmaker. Family, especially fathers and sons, continues to fascinate Anderson, while business and religion provide a ferocious clash. Plainview's war is with the world around him, though his main nemesis is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, beatific, squeaky, and creepy), the faith healer who founds the "Church of the Third Revelation" and proves to be a rock in Plainview's shoe in a series of viperous confrontations. Sunday whips his congregation into a frenzy ("one goddamn hell of a show") and relishes the chance to slap the oilman during a reluctant baptism, Plainview retorts by turning his purification into rousing mockery. If their battle is never balanced, it isn't so much because Dano can't keep up with Day-Lewis but because Sunday's faith in divine kingdoms can't measure up to Plainview's faith in avarice and materialistic control. Anderson's feeling for the bizarre (Sunday caked with dried mud at the dinner table, Plainview's fumbling tap-dance when roused from slumber) informs the wackiness of the film's astonishing concluding movement, a gust of macabre opera that, balanced between tragedy and screwball farce, has popped up more than once in my nightmares. All the energies that have been withheld and deformed throughout the picture are horrifyingly released, and Anderson once more goes Biblical: "I drink your milkshake!" comes to evoke Old Testament fury as much as "Bastard in a basket!," the Pharaoh is finally sealed in his pyramid to the accompaniment of Brahms. There will be blood, indeed.
While Anderson's film is, as Glenn Kenny has perceptively noted, an absurdist horror film, Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage is just an absurd horror film. It deals, as so many creepy tales from Henry James to The Grudge, with children, starting with a young tot (Roger Príncep) playing with imaginary friends in his new home, a dilapidated building that was once the orphanage where his mother (Belén Rueda) lived. The past creeps in, in the form of an old woman with Coke bottle glasses and the obligatory kid with burlap-bag mask and scarecrow makeup; Príncep vanishes, Rueda endures haunted-house clichés in her search, Geraldine Chaplin drops by as a psychic and raises her bony finger to announce, "We are not alone." Spanish horror films have a rich, still underappreciated tradition (The House That Screamed, The Blood-Splattered Bride, The Devil's Backbone), but The Orphanage could have been made by any anonymous Hollywood hack (in fact, only subtitles separate it from the recent, abysmal One Missed Call remake). Bayona is a resourceful but soulless manipulator, bogging down intriguing themes of supernatural dread and spiritual redemption in motherhood with torpid, recycled tropes (many lifted from Guillermo Del Toro, who "presents" the film) and a group of spectral children that aims for Peter Pan and The Turn of the Screw but instead ends up far closer to The Goonies. "The living co-exist with the dead," one character remarks, quoting Jung, or perhaps M. Night Shyamalan. Yeah, yeah, just gimme Lucio Fulci.
Cloverfield has a nifty joke -- how often I've hoped for a reptilian colossus to interrupt a party's tedium -- but the joke's actually on the audience, who's stuck for the rest of the running time with the same bunch of clods, captured in Blair Witch-o-Vision. The disaster-film as extended POV, with bland yuppies scrambling to make it across a ravaged New York City as some quasi-Godzilla stomps and smashes to its heart's content: A TV-shallow concept, and damned if the folks behind it (producer J.J. Abrams, director Matt Reeves) aren't network people, continuing their mission to debase cinema. The big guy could be a generation's monstrous self-obsession emerging satirically from their own depths (the severed head of the Statue of Liberty lands on the street, people lift their cell phones to photograph it), but Cloverfield prefers grabby 9/11 imagery, facile jolts, and smeared textures. Then again, the real monster here may be the cunning marketing campaign that sprung this headache to the top of the box-office -- the creature's romping pales next to the depredations of the hype machine.
Reviewed January 31, 2008.