It’s a Gusher!

Illustration by GluekitPhoto: Francois Duhamel/Courtesy of Universal Pictures [Charlie Wilson’s War stills]; Peter Mountain/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures [Sweeney Todd stills]; Francois Duhamel/Courtesy of Paramount Vantage [There Will be Blood still]; Illustrations from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

As Daniel Plainview, the monomaniacal oilman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis wears a thick, curly mustache, and his face is freakishly long and straight, like a Balinese mask. His eyes are slits; they sparkle only when he trains them on his principal antagonist, a self-styled young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Plainview can’t believe this loon, who ostentatiously renounces worldly goods and whose voice rises to a girlish falsetto as he throws himself into exorcising the demons from his congregants. He also can’t believe he had to bargain hard with the boy-preacher to buy the Sunday family’s remote central California farm, under which there’s “an ocean of oil.” Plainview is a man of the earth, not the spirit—his gaze points down, not up. When he and the ninnyish Eli occupy the same space, you can almost smell the sulfur coming from his nostrils. He wants to beat the kid into the ground.

There Will Be Blood is a chamber drama on the scale of an Old Testament allegory, an epic Western, a parable of rapacious capitalism. It’s sublime—beautiful and ghastly at once. It wouldn’t work without an actor the size of Day-Lewis, who looms as large as the oil derricks that dominate the unruly landscape; he fills the screen and then some. He has preternatural stature from the start, in 1898—a bravura, virtually wordless opening in which he labors alone on his gold mine. At night, he chews his food by his campfire in a crouch, like a simian caveman out of 2001. When he drills his first successful oil well, he loses one of his workers to a plummeting shaft. The man leaves an infant behind (the mother appears to have died in childbirth—this is a movie about fathers, not mothers), and Plainview moistens the squalling baby’s bottle with whiskey. What would he do with a baby? We find out in the next sequence, a leap of years, when the small boy, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), serves as a prop in what Plainview now sells as a family business. The kid listens to his dad address the townspeople whose land he wants to lease with an enigmatic smile, drinking in the spiel, and that voice of Plainview’s is something to hear: cadenced, deep-toned, a plangent rasp. Day-Lewis sounds like John Huston, and his Plainview could be the up-and-coming Noah Cross from Chinatown. Except Plainview sublimates his dark sexual impulses. He sinks his drill into the virginal land.

Anderson was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! but quickly veers off in a personal direction. His Boogie Nights and Magnolia are delirious ensemble psychodramas that circle around the fraught relationships of fathers and children, of families real and surrogate, dysfunctional and semi-functional. There Will Be Blood is a family drama, too, except stark and cruel, with Plainview’s drive corroding every tie. Fathers do unfatherly things. Brothers aren’t brotherly. Every business triumph has a tragic personal corollary. Plainview isn’t inhuman. He’s devoted, in his way, to his son, and he begins to open up when Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), his “brother from another mother,” appears on his doorstep. But he’s a solitary, suspicious man whose success breeds even more paranoia, in the venerable tradition of American tycoons like Charles Foster Kane and even Michael Corleone. There is blood, and when it comes it’s shocking and absurd—more grotesque than the end of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, in which the corrupted businessman ends up squashed in the back of a garbage truck. It’s Punch-and-Judy time in a private bowling alley, an ignominious finish to an age-old struggle.

Reportedly, some preview audiences laughed derisively at the ending. I was agog. The movie doesn’t need a somber finale—it needs something go-for-broke batshit crazy as a counterpoint to the early, mythic images of tall, gushing wells. The astounding classical score, by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, is redolent of bad karma—ominous low strings, discordant buzzing like locusts from outer space. Maybe the gifted Paul Dano goes a little over the top at the end, but he’s opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, for crying out loud, and it’s no time to play it safe. Anderson’s fearless, bighearted filmmaking is an antidote to the toxic cloud of Manifest Destiny. He has made a mad American classic.

Once you get past the absence of the immortal “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (hard) and the fact that the leads, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, have little in the way of pipes (harder), Tim Burton’s film of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is spellbinding. Most directors open up Broadway musicals—adding meaningless busyness—to make them more “cinematic,” and they end up diluting them. Burton, bless him, constricts the space and concentrates the melodrama; he finds the perfect balance between the funereal and the ferocious. Above all, he treasures these ghouls: He digs both their bloodlust and their melancholy. You can imagine the moment he decided to make the movie: “Edward Scissorhands is out for revenge, with no time for topiary! He cuts hair and throats!”

When I say Depp has no pipes, I don’t mean his singing is terrible. He hits the notes. And the demon barber of Fleet Street doesn’t need a gorgeous voice—Michael Cerveris, as grand a Sweeney as ever swung a razor, sometimes bellowed. What the role does need is power. When Depp sings, “I will have vengeance,” there’s no air behind the words, and the few times he lets loose he replicates that awful quavery head-voice of Anthony Newley. But Burton has scaled Sweeney Todd to his favorite leading man. He shoots the actor in tender close-up, and Sweeney sings to himself, not the audience. Depp has the right morbidity, the right commitment (insofar as he seems, as an actor, both principled and certifiable). His eyes are dark hollows and his hair is swept back with a white stripe, like the bride of Frankenstein’s and Humphrey Bogart’s vampire’s in The Return of Dr. X—the stinker Bogie fans try to forget but Burton and Depp, I’m sure, remember with glee.

Burton took some heat over the casting of Bonham Carter, his girlfriend and the mother of his children, as Mrs. Lovett, the baker of the “worst pies in London” who has the bright, frugal idea of substituting Sweeney’s victims for the dead cats she normally uses. But Burton would have been insane to put someone with a big voice or theater chops (Meryl Streep, say) opposite Depp. Bonham Carter and Depp both have strangled little voices; they’re a match. And if Burton loves Johnny, he fetishizes Helena. Black-haired, white-skinned Vampira corpse brides with Day of the Dead eyes: If there were a Playghoul magazine, Burton would shoot the centerfolds. I thought it was a bad idea to make Mrs. Lovett—usually a crone—a plausible romantic partner for Sweeney, but Bonham Carter’s sarcophageal eroticism (that cleavage!) adds another layer. Mrs. Lovett is a sociopath but not delusional. The throwaway number “By the Sea,” in which Lovett fantasizes about her bucolic future with Sweeney, is now a hilarious highlight. Even in her pipe dreams, Sweeney stares out of dead eyes, dreaming of throats to be cut.

It should be said that Burton’s approach doesn’t just suit his stars; it suits the material. I hated Harold Prince’s original production. Sondheim is on the record as loathing Brecht, but Prince went for a Berliner Ensemble effect—too wide and unfocused a canvas. I didn’t fully appreciate Sweeney Todd until I saw the Circle in the Square revival with Bob Gunton—a penny dreadful with a score that exploded out of its Grand Guignol frame. John Doyle’s revelatory production with Cerveris and Patti LuPone proved that Sweeney Todd had enough blood in its veins to transcend even a chill, Marat/Sade-like stylization. Burton finds a middle ground between Doyle and the Grand Guignol. And oh, the blood. It geysers out, bright red, against the sooty, monochromatic sets. It’s South Park arterial spray—Burton’s way of cackling, “You’re a long way from the Met, folks!”

Alan Rickman as the foul voluptuary judge and Timothy Spall as an especially repulsive Beadle Bamford have no better voices than Depp or Bonham Carter, but it’s always nice to see them, and as the young lovers, Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener take up the vocal slack. The kid, Ed Sanders, splits the difference between Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger and has a sweet voice—maybe too sweet, since he blows Bonham Carter away in their duet. It’s a good thing Signor Adolfo Pirelli is a small part or the peerless Sacha Baron Cohen would have ruined the film: His flamboyance makes his co-stars look anemic. As for the loss of the ballad: The music is there (under the credits), but Burton deemed the number too self-consciously theatrical an opening. He might have been right, but he should have found a way to end with it, if only for the orchestral flourish that caps Sweeney Todd with a ghoulish exclamation point.

Persepolis is an exhilarating reminder of what animation can do that other media can’t. Not the computer-generated, multidimensional animation that now dominates Hollywood: With zillion-dollar budgets and batteries of gag writers and armies of artists and programmers, even wonderful CGI movies—say, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille—lack the personal touch. Persepolis, from the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi, feels as if it had jumped right from the page to the screen. And since the novels feel as if they had jumped right from Satrapi’s head to the page, the immediacy is startling. If only The Kite Runner could have been freed from its clunky realism!

Satrapi’s protagonist is herself, a middle-class Iranian girl who comes of age during the Shah’s final, tumultuous years, when she watches her Communist relatives hauled off by the secret police. She takes to the streets to protest, breathlessly; she’s overjoyed when the despot goes down. Then comes the dawning horror as the fundamentalists take power. The black veils go on. The music stops. The secularists throw parties and dance and drink (homemade booze), only indoors with the shades drawn, with the ever-present threat of goons bursting in. More and more people die, and not just Communists. The adolescent Satrapi is arrested between two worlds—making her the perfect forlorn, acid narrator for a story about a country at war with itself.

The drawings are largely black and white, like comic strips, with enough detail to capture the characters’ emotions but not enough to jar you when they leap into expressionism—the flutter of flowers from Satrapi’s grandmother’s bosom, the silhouettes of mobs, the spirits of the tortured dead, the carnage of the war with Iraq. Persepolis is all of a piece. In between events, Satrapi segues into a history of her country, the rise of the Shah thanks to Westerners with eyes on the oil wells, the coming of his coarser, more stupid son. Satrapi’s parents ship her off to a French school in Vienna, but she’s rudderless, ungrounded. She’s drawn back to a devastated Tehran, where she can’t design a life, either. This great film, by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, is that life, designed. It freed her mind; it frees ours.

Charlie Wilson’s War tells a momentous story—a story every American should know—in a boisterous, lickety-split style that makes the history lesson go down easily. It’s about the congressman who, in the eighties, helped the Afghans (the mujaheddin) devastate the Soviet occupiers, which helped precipitate the fall of the Soviet empire, which—and this is the subtext, the sick joke at the heart of the book, by the late CBS correspondent George Crile—gave the future Taliban leaders and their Al Qaeda cohorts weapons, CIA training, and an exaggerated sense of their potency versus the last remaining superpower. It was one of our country’s greatest covert military triumphs, but, in the words of the man who spearheaded it, “we fucked up the endgame.” God, our leaders can be clueless.

Mike Nichols directed the movie from a script by Aaron Sorkin. It has hustle and colorful talk and snappy acting and peek-a-boo insights into How Things Work in the free-for-all corridors of power. There’s no time to worry about all the storytelling shortcuts. (The movie clocks in at an hour and a half.) The scenes of Afghans blowing Soviet helicopters out of the sky feel cheap, cartoony, but they have an afterbite. After you’ve finished cheering, you remember the same fearless holy warriors are shooting at our guys now.

As the boozy, girl-crazy, charismatic Wilson, Tom Hanks lacks the big, booming presence of a certain breed of southern politician, but he’s still a charismatic star with jazzy timing. Julia Roberts isn’t as much fun as she should be as the rich Texas Republican who converts Wilson to the anti-Communist cause (and beds him along the way); she’s tight, a little rusty. Philip Seymour Hoffman carries the movie. As the CIA operative who hates Communists and his myopic superiors in equal measure, he has a wily, don’t-give-a-shit drive that makes you wish he’d been in Baghdad in 2003.

Ever seen Marlon Brando slide nonchalantly into song in the 1955 version of Guys and Dolls? It was this and not, say, Dreamgirls that Tim Burton drew inspiration from in making Sweeney Todd. “On the one hand we’re trying not to be too Broadwayish, but on the other hand it’s old-fashioned melodrama,” he says. “We’re always trying to make it not go too far. The only musical we talked about was Guys and Dolls, where the dialogue flowed into the music, instead of that classic talk, talk, talk, and then break into music.”

There Will Be Blood
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Paramount. R.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by Tim Burton. Dreamworks. R.

Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. 2.4.7. Films. PG-13.

Charlie Wilson’s War
Directed by Mike Nichols. Universal. R.


It’s a Gusher!