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Film review: There Will be Blood

by Archives January 22, 2008

Let’s face it. American cinema over the past eight or nine years has fallen off… hard. The true gems are few and far in between and the rest of the while, we’re treated to either flat-out trash (In the Name of the King anyone? How about Blades of Glory?) or feel-good pap disguised as great filmmaking (Crash). It’s enough to make a movie-lover lose hope.
Then again, we come across years like 2007. While the barrage of instant classics last year wasn’t as relentless as say, 1999, the quality of the seldom few classics released was enough to forever implant fond memories for 2007 in me. Chief amongst these films, which include must-sees like Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, Lake of Fire, Hot Fuzz, Michael Clayton and Sicko, will undoubtedly stand There Will Be Blood.
In that lovely year of 1999, Paul Thomas Anderson delivered Magnolia, a messy, rambling indie art saga that, while certainly worth a watch, was too weighed down by self-conscious stylishness and heavy sentimentality. There Will Be Blood has none of that film’s flaws. In fact, it doesn’t even have very many of Magnolia’s strengths. The two films seem as if they’ve been made by completely different people. One might ask oneself after witnessing the awesome spectacle that is this movie: “When he wrote this, what was he thinking?”
On the surface, Blood tells the story of vicious, sociopathic oilman Daniel Plainview who strives to find his fortune amongst the desolate wastelands of turn-of-the-century California. Plainview is a bitter, tightly-wound man who keeps to himself until he absolutely requires the services of someone else. He then discards the person as soon as their usefulness diminishes, as if disposing of an old Kleenex. He is more isolated and alone than Tom Hanks on a desert island. As Plainview reveals during one chilling scene: “I hate most people…there are times when I look at people and see nothing worth liking.”
Clearly Plainview carries personal demons. But here is the first sign that Blood is not your average Hollywood biopic. Nearly every film of this style tries to explain or excuse the flaws of its main character. It’s usually a bad childhood’s fault or political ideology or some other ill-minded motive. Either way, the point is to explain how the villain became the way he is and why he makes the choices that he does. This film doesn’t. It shows, but it doesn’t tell. And the fact that there is no clear reason offered, aside from perhaps “greed,” it opens the door in our minds to wonder why evil men act the way they do.
Day-Lewis gives one of the most indelible, unshakable and unsettling performances I’ve ever seen. He is in virtually every scene, oftentimes shot in close-up or forced to act totally on his own. Sometimes he speaks in whispers, other times he roars and chews up the scenery like Scarface-era Al Pacino, yet always remaining singularly in character. It’s a transformative role, and afterwards one can scarcely imagine meeting in person Day-Lewis the actor rather than Plainview the oilman.
Paul Dano as Christian preacher Eli Sunday, the flipside of Plainview’s capitalist, holds his own against Day-Lewis. Dano is given some of the more difficult scenes, some of which would collapse into outright farce if they had been performed by a lesser actor. His innocent, doe-eyed face evolves into frothing, apocalyptic prophet mode so easily during one scene early on that we as the audience can barely look at the character, nor any ranting man-of-God for that matter, the same way again.
Which leads us to the themes and ideas that Anderson brings up during the film. Unfettered capitalism, modern religion, the American dream, ties of kinship, family and blood, fatherhood, physical disability, misanthropy, nihilism, the mythology of the Old West, the quaintness of rural living and the environmental impact of humans are all addressed throughout the course of Blood’s two and a half hours.
Did I mention oil? No? Well that’s okay. Oil is the McGuffin here, the slick black lubricant flowing through the crevices of Anderson’s film and the brains of his characters. Dreams of oil wealth fuel most of the men in the story like the old carrot-on-a-stick analogy. Can something as primordial as oil, or say, in the case of the Coen’s No Country for Old Men, money, really cause otherwise decent men to turn evil
The answer Anderson gives is assuredly yes. We humans are, sadly enough, crude creatures driven by the pursuit of worldly, materialistic things. The question of whether or not we would slit our fellow human’s throats over a chunk of shiny rock or, in worse-off times, a scrap of bread, we don’t really want to have to answer.
The story that There Will Be Blood tells is what happens to a selfish man when he encounters the thirst of oil, the sin of greed and the promise of absolute power. What it asks of us the audience though is what separates us from him. And there is no easy answer for that.

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