There Will Be Oscars, There Will Be Westerns
Although many have pointed to 2007 as the best year for films in quite some time, few have paid attention to what themes, if any, unite this year’s films. And as far as an overarching theme goes, you could do a lot worse than to point to the Western. In addition to the four or five critically acclaimed films that directly evoke the genre’s major characteristics, there are a handful of films like Into the Wild and Rescue Dawn that embody much of what we love about the cowboy philosophy. Not to mention the slew of crime films the year produced, whose anti-heroes embody the same sort of violent mysticism as the dust caked protagonists of westerns. Enough so, at any rate, to keep the two genres relatively close in my mind. So why the resurgence of the cowboy, be he a half-crazed Vietnam POW, a sad and wizened Texas lawman, or otherwise? Many may point to the relative success of 2005’s Brokeback Mountain—an undeniably sad and beautiful film because it so admirably showed the deep humanity of any number of denim-clad, dry-faced old men who (those of us from the West and Midwest are well aware) people the backgrounds of our lives and often go unconsidered. But although that film was set in the West and had some light to shine on the stoic cowboy as an American figure, it did not consider many of the things that make up 2007’s pearls in the genre.
These themes, which include violence, the order that sets in during a period of uncivilized lawlessness, the transition from one frontier to another, the formation of modern America, honor among sinners, and the creation and destruction of mythical figures, owe their most recent and best incarnation to the brilliant HBO series Deadwood. A series whose creator David Milch has been thoroughly obsessed with these issues, attacking them from several directions, and bringing them to the forefront as strong artistic fodder; a trend many have picked up on. And of the many who released strong, thoughtful films that seriously engaged the western tradition while transforming it into something new, I found There Will Be Blood to be the film that follows closest in Deadwood’s hallowed footsteps.
Part of the similarity undeniably lies in Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, which will almost undoubtedly earn him an Oscar . After seeing Gangs of New York I have frequently asked anyone who would listen “How good would Deadwood be if Daniel Day-Lewis played Swearengen (Deadwood’s pragmatic and ruthless crime boss)?” There is an undeniable similarity between Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis’s character in Blood, and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, both in how the characters are conceived and how the actors portray them. Both men speak within a brilliant homespun oratorical style that hints at the violence just barely beneath the surface. Both men are smarter than those that surround them and know how to manipulate them to get what they want (although, like the former trait, Swearengen excels more at this with a god-like omnipotence). Both men are, at root, self-made businessmen that oversee their empires with do-it-yourself attitudes (Swearengen by slitting throats, and Plainview by bribing and threatening officials). And both actors make very similar choices in portraying their respective characters, expertly bringing out nervous laughter in the audience and making them squirm in their seats (sometimes in the same moment). After all, both men grew and trained in the London stage scene at roughly the same time. But while Swearengen is probably a better conceived and written character, Plainview is more of a joy to watch. And the difference comes almost exclusively from Day-Lewis’s performance.
Daniel Plainview is from the start a captivating and fearful mercenary who inspires the same mixture of nervousness and excitement as a three-shot espresso. He begins the film as a young entrepreneur who buys up small properties in the hopes of mining them for gold and silver. One day he slips while climbing down one of his mine/wells and breaks his leg. He crawls his way back up the ladder, and drags himself across the desert and into town by his hands. He has with him some rocks to be assayed and there is nothing yet to tell us who this man is, but already the grim deterministic look on Day-Lewis’s face sets the audience a-twittering in giddy fear. After a successful diagnosis—indeed, he has found gold and silver fever—he returns with some men to mine it. They get more than they bargained for when they hit upon an oil spring.
From these unlikely beginnings Plainview is launched into the burgeoning world of oil barons. He discovers a town rich in oil, has several run-ins with the local preacher that end (for both men at varying points) in unsettling comic humiliation, tries to raise a son to follow in his footsteps, and shows us the fierce “competition” that plagues his soul. Day-Lewis shines brilliantly (and further establishes himself as one of today’s cinema’s greatest actors) because of his level of commitment. He is willing to push his character’s anger so far, let his contempt and greed breathe so openly, squeeze every scene for oil-black comedy, and war so heavily against himself (his major fight is between his deep need for family and his mistrust and dislike of anyone but himself) that the character pushes past cartoonish exaggeration and begins to feel like the basis on which the stereotype was formed.
Since the story unfolds in the early days of the twentieth century neither of the film's leads—Day-Lewis as Plainview and Paul Dano as the deliciously treacherous evangelical preacher—have an idea of the respective caricatures their stations in life later become: the greed driven baron or the corrupt preacher. In this lack of knowledge comes a sense of freedom: since they are creating the stereotypes they are not beholden to anyone. They can act or not act as they damn well see fit. This is a move of pure genius on the part of the film’s creator, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. By granting his characters this sort of existential freedom from subtlety, Anderson can focus on how these stereotypes were created and how they helped transform the old west into the American landscape of today.
Besides engaging in themes and larger-than-life men that will no doubt inspire comparisons to Citizen Kane and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre , Anderson delivers some really great dialogue and beautifully shot scenes. My favorite speeches are the two that introduce the film’s two main characters: Plainview trying to sell some farm-folk on selling him their land, and Dano’s Eli Sunday curing a woman’s arthritic fingers of Satan. My favorite shots are those that involve oil, both as a primordial, filthy muck that men wade in, and as a beautiful fountain that shoots out of the ground with anger, lights aflame, and burns all night.
Many have praised this movie for its major themes and its poetry (whichever Oscar the Coens don’t get, writing or directing, Anderson will probably snag—my bet is on directing) while criticizing its end as a mistake. As too dramatic or absurd even for a film this like a comic book history of the United States. In my estimation these critics have misunderstood this film and its maker, who steers away from ambiguity and towards big climactic endings whenever he can (remember Walberg’s speech to his reflection at the end of Boogey Nights or how effectively the frogs in Magnolia caused every character’s story to resolve just how you were rooting for it to resolve?) Besides this criticism of the last scene seems to ignore the final line, which is delivered with such aplomb by Day-Lewis as to qualify as one of the most fitting punch-lines I’ve ever heard. This line, besides making me laugh well into the credits, also serves as one of those rare moments in film in which a movie’s coda causes you to re-examine its whole structure. In this case we are given new insight into Plainview’s ascent to the top, which– as Day-Lewis’s reading of the final line suggests—may have been more of an attempt at destroying himself than at becoming a success. There Will Be Blood is a truly great film, its acting is top notch, its themes universal and large ones, its writer-director a true talent finally blossoming to his fullest potential, its scenery sparse yet poetic, its score (a foolish snub by the academy of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood) great, and its every fiber neo-western. We can almost be guaranteed, as Awards season approaches, that in 2008 and 2009 there will be even more westerns.