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Directors shoot down convention

Daring visions reverse genre expectations and rewrite the rules

In “There Will Be Blood,” helmer Paul Thomas Anderson drills into the mind of a 20th-century oilman with a near-wordless 15-minute opening sequence, building a mood of physical and psychological menace with little more than the sounds of groping, digging and scraping.

“Zodiac,” David Fincher’s sprawling, fact-based account of a serial-killer investigation, depicts only three of the actual murders — all within the first half-hour, with the gore kept to a minimum. (Call it “There Will Not Be Much Blood.”)

Less violent and action-driven than the season’s other Western, “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a mytho-poetic reverie whose leisurely pacing suggests the narrative equivalent of one of James’ fateful horseback rides, meandering ever so slowly toward tragedy.

Each of these films clocks in at more than 2½ hours; each one, in its own way, takes a journey into a distinctly male heart of darkness from which women are almost completely sidelined. More to the point, each film is the work of a director willing to forgo the usual satisfactions of dramatic storytelling — sympathetic characters, emotional arcs, brisk pacing and narrative momentum — in order to evoke moods, ideas and tensions that resist simple explanation or resolution.

“There’s this whole school of thought that movies are always so great when you’re 10 or 12 years old, and the reality of it is, when you’re 10 or 12 years old, you’ve only seen 100 stories. By the time you get to be 25, you’ve seen 3,000,” Fincher says. “You’ve seen every permutation of every dramatic arc. And when somebody takes that and stands it on its head, that can be exciting.”

To the list of high-profile pics toying with convention this season, one could conceivably add the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” a brutal suspense thriller that ends on an abrupt note of despair and ambiguity; Tim Burton’s blood-soaked adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd,” in which throats are opened, and not just for singing; and certainly “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ head-spinning meditation on the music and mystique of Bob Dylan, which, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott put it, “hurls a Molotov cocktail through the facade of the Hollywood biopic factory.”

Considering that factory has spawned such Academy-

embraced successes as “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” Haynes’ more idiosyncratic look at a pop legend looks like an even more significant deviation from the mainstream. Yet it’s no surprise coming from Haynes, a former semiotics major whose previous cinematic experiments — including “Far From Heaven” and the glamrock spectacle “Velvet Goldmine” — were similarly informed by a rich intellectualism and playful sense of cultural interrogation.

For “I’m Not There,” Haynes cast no fewer than six actors as various incarnations of his iconic subject as a way of capturing Dylan’s protean essence on film.

“It’s always been my ambition to really look at what different artists were doing stylistically, formally, aesthetically in their work, and try to find a narrative and visual parallel in the medium of film,” Haynes says. “I really tried to have a film that functioned with as much richness, complexity, but also pure fun and humor as Dylan’s music has over the years.”

Haynes concedes such a feat is “a tall order” — an apt description of many of this year’s similarly ambitious projects. It may be an even taller order to expect some of these films to click with general audiences (“Zodiac” and “Jesse James” were both box office disappointments, while “No Country for Old Men” and “I’m Not There” have performed robustly in specialized release).

“You can’t get everybody on the same page. Not every audiencegoer wants to be challenged. Some people just want to plop their 11 bucks down and feel good, and I get that,” says Fincher, though he hastens to add, “I do think there are other ways of engaging audiences (besides) just upping the explosionometer.”

In “Zodiac,” Fincher counts on audiences to be engaged less by the personalities onscreen than by the avalanche of data — facts, figures, theories, timetables, assorted bits of evidence — that so ensnared the media and law enforcement in their search for an elusive killer. It’s a strategy predicated not on identification so much as a shared obsession.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ cold-blooded misanthrope would positively sneer at the idea of eliciting a viewer’s empathy in “There Will Be Blood,” a drama with a clear sense of moral rot but also a darkly humorous contempt for religious institutions. To hear Anderson tell it, the character, if not the film’s dystopian sensibility, is as much informed by the Upton Sinclair novel on which the movie is based as it is John Huston’s classic of greed and perdition, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and its central character Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart).

No side dishes

“It was the economy with which that story is told,” Anderson tells Variety, “but at the same time it’s very meaty. They just give you the steak; there’s no sides, there’s no mashed potatoes, there’s no greens. … And that was it more than anything — that classic storytelling, which I’ve always tried to do but I’ve never felt like I’ve succeeded. Maybe my natural instincts don’t lead me there.”

With “Jesse James,” director Andrew Dominik meticulously orchestrates a brooding psychological battle between two archetypal figures — neither one particularly easy to warm to — as though observing them under glass.

“It just depends on what your criteria are for empathizing,” says Dominik, whose previous film, the 2001 Eric Bana starrer “Chopper,” was a study of a notorious Aussie criminal. “It’s not necessary for a character to be likable. Somebody’s bad behavior doesn’t turn me against them in a movie. It’s a movie, not real life. I’m not having him over for dinner.”

If mainstream reception is any indication, voting members of the Academy may prove more resistant to this season’s dark, challenging visions. But Fincher, like his fellow iconoclasts, isn’t losing much sleep over it.

“I don’t know anything about Academy consideration,” he says. “I don’t know what an awards movie is.”

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