**The Long Take is an ongoing series of posts focusing on scenes which make use of abnormally long uninterrupted takes.**
In lieu of the recent unveiling of a teaser for The Master, I wanted to focus on a pivotal scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood. This is a movie that left an enormous impact on me the first time I saw it in theater full of people. I found it so disturbing and puzzling that I wasn’t even sure that I liked it. Yet it is a great film and its power to leave the viewer dazed and confused is proof of its greatness (this effect is also somewhat of a PT Anderson trademark).
Upon a recent re-appraisal of this film (probably the fifth viewing) I noticed the scene in question. It takes place after Daniel has been notified of the late-night death of a worker. We see Daniel walking towards the church in the oppressively bright mid-afternoon sun. We follow behind Daniel into the church until he sits in the back pew. At this point the camera focuses on Eli as he is nearing the climax of his sermon. The camera stays glued to Eli as he uses his commanding presence to keep the congregation on the edge of their seat. He speaks in affected tones and rhythms giving the impression that he is a medium for his God to speak through. The congregation hangs on his every word. Mrs. Hunter has arthritis and Eli means to exorcise this demon. He begins with a whisper, as he claims his vision told him to, and then quickly escalates into a full-blown shit show. As Eli shouts about biting the ghost with his teeth and gumming the ghost with his gum’s, he walks towards us forcing us out of the church along with the demon. The take ends (after 2 minutes, 30 seconds) with Eli forcefully throwing the ghost out with his entire body and instantly proclaiming success to the congregation.
This scene is powerful for many reasons. The most obvious asset is the brilliantly obnoxious performance by Paul Dano. He is over-acting because the character of Eli is over-acting. Up to this point, Eli appears to be our main identifier and possibly our hero. He is gentle and kind and constantly being steamrolled by Daniel. Because this scene is in one take and we do not get frequent cut-backs to Daniel’s reaction, we are being asked to make up our own opinion of Eli’s performance. Is he full of shit? Is he a nut-job? Is he possessed? We can choose to laugh, be frightened, or moved by this scene. Here in lies the disturbing undercurrent of the entire film. There are a few ways Anderson could have made this scene, like many others in the film, a little easier on the audience. The aforementioned cut-backs is one example – if Anderson would have cut back to Daniel’s face throughout Eli’s speech, we would remember that we are seeing this through his perspective and we would identify with his position that this is bullshit. This scenario would have made it far too easy to laugh contemptuously at the scene and it would made a more overt point that Eli is silly.
Anderson does not make this film easy on the audience. Throughout the film there are moments, most notably the end, where we are not sure whether to laugh or recoil in fear. This was a bold and daring choice for Anderson and it resulted in one of the most daring and haunting film’s I’ve seen. The aforementioned scene serves as an effective ‘muddying the waters’ of our character loyalties with Anderson keeping his inclination’s subtle. It’s not until the very end of this scene do we get Daniel’s opinion in the form of a jab – “Well, it was one goddamn hell of a show.”