Oil Milkshakes

There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis’s latest Oscar-ticket item came to our local Laemmle this week.

If you’re not a Paul Anderson fan (Boogie Nights, Magnolia–not Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil), this movie probably isn’t going to be the one that wins you over. A lot of people (notably Kevin Smith) razz Anderson for his long films, but I personally wouldn’t categorize them as vanity pictures. Though epic in length, his two San Fernando Valley-based movies paid off by building to satisfying dramatic conclusions.

This movie lacks the drive of those films. It’s basically Daniel Plainview’s life at four different periods in time. His character goes slowly mad (and murderous) over that time period but there’s no coalescing of dramatic point in the end (say as compared to Magnolia’s lyrical embrace of coincidence or Boogie Night’s plucky Dirk Diggler’s optimistic return to porn stardom).

And, of course, since it’s Mr. Anderson, when a guy walks from point A to point B, you’re gonna see him walk from point A to point B, no matter how long it takes. Long, languorous tracking shots somewhat reminiscent of Kubrick are a mainstay, and it’s actually pretty refreshing compared to the constant jump-cutting that infests a lot of modern film. An interesting thing about this approach is that Anderson films characters approaching or going away from things–often the most challenging part of any encounter–where other directors just cut directly to people talking, then cut away when it’s over. It’s rather effective–but it’s obviously not for the impatient, and there’s a lot of it here.

Anderson doesn’t fill up his film with chatter, either. At times, the film was evocative of a silent movie, a sense that was underscored when one of the characters goes deaf. (The music played into this as well, but more on that in a moment.) Of course, Anderson picked good actors, and he gets great performances from everyone (like Kevin O’ Connor as Plainview’s brother and Dillon Freasier as Plainview’s son), but this is mostly The Daniel Day-Lewis Show.

And Day-Lewis delivers, as usual, and he’s probably more effective than your average superstar, as he doesn’t suffer from the sort of over-exposure most other successful film actors do. I saw Daniel Plainview, not Daniel Day-Lewis. And a lot of things that might’ve been hack–for instance, a leg injury in the first scene causes Plainview to limp through the rest of the movie–struck me as brilliant in Day-Lewis’ hands. Instead of dragging his foot or turning it out lamely, Lewis walks with a sort of limp that suggests his hips and back are almost fused. It becomes part of his character, like the deformities of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

No, one of the reasons Anderson could afford those long tracking shots of people walking is that Day-Lewis can walk and act at the same time. And probably chew gum. He certainly kicks ass. And spawned an internet meme: “I Drink Your Milkshake!”

Now, about the music. The music was very dissonant, very-silent-era-nobody’s-talking-so-we’ll-use-music-to-set-the-tone. I found it…overblown. In truth, the movie is about tough people, but the industry they’re engaged in is not particularly sinister. (Nor, despite the title, does the movie have anything in particular to do with Upton Sinclair’s Oil! or his socialist tendencies. Thank God.) But the very act of the initial digging is accompanied by music that might’ve fit in the opening to The Exorcist.

There’s a certain irony in that we actually get little insight into Plainview’s character. The music tells us something bad is going on, or lurking under the surface–something really, really bad–but Plainview actually seems to undergo a slow corrupting transformation, far subtler than the music. Then, curiously, in the final act, the music just plain stops.

Thing is, I thought about the music a lot, and that’s usually not a good sign. Incidental music’s effect is supposed to be more subliminal. At the same time, I’d be hard pressed to say I didn’t like the music, and even with my composer’s ears on, I’m not sure how I would’ve done it differently. But I think it might’ve been more effective to start with something sedate but traditionally harmonic and then build to the whole hell-bound thing.

At a whopping 2:38 running length, I was surprised that the boy liked it as well as he did, though the whole oil drilling stuff was quite interesting and–as mentioned–Day-Lewis can act. But then I’m probably more surprised that this film is sitting at #16 on the IMDB all-time list.

So, maybe I’m wrong: Maybe this is the Paul Thomas Anderson movie you’re going to like. (It is just one story instead of many inter-connecting stories, but did people really have trouble following Boogie Nights?) But I’d be surprised.

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