There Will Be Blood

| January 20, 2008

Seeping out of the ground like some primordial ooze, dark and thick and fluid, a priceless poison. It’s pure crude oil, and what Daniel Plainview sees in it is nothing less than the future–his and a whole nation’s, reflected in the shiny slick that spews from the dirt and coats his hands. The year is 1898, and Plainview’s in a hole, chipping away at rock and earth, searching for gold in the hills of California. What he eventually finds down there in the darkness is better still: black gold, the flowing lifeblood of a booming new industry. Staring into the bubbling abyss, Plainview’s eyes go ablaze with hunger, and when he raises his grimy hand to the sky, it’s not in reverence to any God, but to the filthy fortune of the soil. Nothing–not broken bones, nor fallen comrades–is going to stand between him and success. Nothing.
Twenty minutes in, and we know all that we really need to know about Daniel Plainview, the man he is and the monster he’ll become. He hasn’t spoken a word yet, but we’ve seen him alone in his pit, chopping away like a soul possessed, and we’ve seen him drag himself across the desert on a shattered limb. He’s relentlessly determined, this one, but there’s something else behind those eyes. It’s a glimmer of madness, a deep and irrational loathing, and it’s there in the title, too. There Will Be Blood–a promise of violence, yes, but also a fitting evocation of the creeping-dread nightmare to come. A horror movie of cold, relentless, distinctly American ambition, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest and greatest effort is built around a plethora of seeming contradictions. It’s a period piece with a jagged, modern soul, a historical drama with only a tangential interest in history, and a character study that maddeningly, persistently resists dissecting its main character. It’s a film of deathly quiet ebbs and shrieking, hysterical flows, a jarring mixture of patient mood setting and sudden, explosive insanity. At a hefty two hours and forty minutes, it takes its sweet time and moves like a bullet. This extraordinary achievement is the new anti-redemption fable. How fitting, then, that it begins in the wet, murky bowels of the earth.
Treacherous hills and bone-dry valleys–this is the American West as a barren dead zone. For Daniel Day-Lewis, the leading man of this turn-of-the-century yarn, it’s all just scenery to chew. Really, though, who else but our premiere method madman to tackle a villain this ruthless, a tyrant this outsized in his avarice and contempt? A decade after climbing out of his hole, Plainview’s a self-proclaimed “Oilman,” roaming from town to town, swindling goggle-eyed locals out of their properties and sucking up the priceless fuel beneath their feet. Like a shrewder, quieter cousin of Bill the Butcher, this intrepid businessman surveys the world through squinted-eyes and clenched teeth, and when he finally does speak, it’s in a vaguely implacable drawl, each syllable enunciated with condescending precision. He’s one of cinema’s great misanthropes–as angry as Travis Bickle, as bitter as Nick Nolte in Affliction–yet Day-Lewis, in the most thrilling performance of his career, affords this scoundrel a pretense of politeness. Plainview hides his hatred behind a thin veil of niceties, and it’s both hilarious and scary to watch him tremble his way through a conversation, always one breath away from an outburst. If there’s any love in this bastard’s blackened heart, he saves it all for H.W. (Dillon Freasier), his “business partner” and adopted son, the orphaned child of a long-dead associate. There’s a genuine bond between the man and the boy, but even that can be corrupted by the folly of obsession.
California is Plainview’s kingdom. Has it ever looked this bleak or lifeless, this utterly foreign? Through the lens of Robert Elswit’s gliding, darting, all-seeing camera, the Golden State is a vast, alien world. For Paul Thomas Anderson, a hotshot survivor of the 90s indie wave, it’s uncharted territory. Far from the urban tangle of his native Los Angeles and into a muckraker’s neck of The Jungle–P.T.’s fifth feature is his first adaptation, a very loose take on Upton Sinclair’s polemical Oil! Ironic, then, that it also feels like the writer-director’s purest vision to date, more “his” than anything he’s done before. Something of a fanboy auteur, Anderson’s never been particularly shy about quoting, referencing, or downright lifting from his canonized forbearers. If Boogie Nights was his electrifying riff on Scorsese, and Magnolia evoked the loose, ensemble spirit of Altman, then it’s equally clear what lionized legend of cinema looms largest over There Will Be Blood. From the first discordant notes of the film’s score–a brilliant, dissonant mess of staccato strings and primal drums courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood–the shadow of the late and great Stanley Kubrick creeps menacingly into frame. Blood appropriates the ice-cold, reptile intensity of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, but if Kubrick is the best point of reference here, than one might more accurately call this Anderson’s Space Odyssey: a bold, uncompromised leap into the great unknown, and a jaw-dropping showcase for his maturing instincts as both storyteller and aesthetic visionary.
Indeed, there are no shortage of wonders in Anderson’s bag of tricks, but all of the visual wizardry he musters–the elegant tracking shots and remarkable montages–would mean next to nothing were they not married to a narrative of such strange, bewildering power. On a tip from a mysterious stranger, the two Plainviews set out for Little Boston, a dirt-poor hamlet in the heart of the desert. No grain will grow in the parched soil, but beneath it there courses a veritable “ocean of oil,” and Daniel wants it all to himself. He builds a towering, wooden derrick, and one thinks again of 2001, except that this Monolith sparks madness not enlightenment, animalistic regression not evolution. It also marks an ideological line in the sand. For it’s here in Little Boston that Daniel first spars with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young, fire-and-brimstone preacher who views the oilman’s arrival as both a problem and an opportunity. It’s the petty, funny, increasingly antagonistic interactions between them that underline the film’s allegorical intent. Liars and hypocrites the both of them, Daniel and Eli are also symbols of the twin, destructive forces of American culture: capitalism and evangelical Christianity. Anderson shrewdly conveys this by crosscutting between the construction of the derrick and the renovation of the church, and he gives both men sermons to deliver, with Daniel appealing to the community’s greed and Eli their fear. Alas, it’s a slight missed opportunity, for the film fails to illuminate the ways in which religion and capitalism increasingly feed off each other–these two rivals clash and bicker to the shocking, bloody end. Yet Anderson’s ability to cast their conflict as a metaphoric one without resorting to schematic characterizations is some kind of miracle. This is an epic at once personal, political, and, in its audacious formal glories, downright metaphysical.
There Will Be Blood‘s quiet dramatic centerpiece is a fireside chat between Daniel and a new partner. “I look at people, and I see nothing worth likely,” the oilman seethes, and it’s a chilling moment, not in the least because Day-Lewis plays it like an amused confession and a bid for a willing accomplice. Yet if the scene sheds a little light on the character’s nature, on his competitive drive and his searing misanthropy, it hardly demystifies him. Anderson offers no pat explanations, no hackneyed psychobabble, no clues to cracking the Plainview code. His “evil” is never explained away. It’s just there in the blood. And this proves to be a telling revelation, as it suggests the true conflict buried within the movie. In the greatest of many remarkable set-pieces, Plainview’s derrick hits a vein and erupts like a geyser. The young H.W. is caught in the explosion, deafened by a blow to the head, but after rescuing him from the wreckage, Daniel abandons him to gawk at the up-in-flames derrick, counting in his head all the money he’ll make. It’s a crucial turning point: the man chooses ambition over family, the boy never regains his hearing, and a permanent wedge is driven between them. His one tie to humanity severed–and the one person he cared about turned against him–Daniel slides into a downward spiral, succumbing to paranoia, violence, and insanity.
And then the baroque epilogue: Daniel as an old man, alone in a giant, empty mansion, Charles Foster Kane with a few more screws loose. Freed from the burden of restraint, Day-Lewis finally flies entirely over the top, and the film giddily follows his lead into the ether. It’s a jarring, nasty, bizarre, deliriously daffy scene to go out on, but it feels oddly right, too. Like 2001 in reverse, this is the final devolution, Daniel reverting to a barbaric, primitive state. “I’m finished,” he says, and it’s his ambition that does him in. Not the case with Anderson, a man no less hounded by his own obsession, whose artistic drive is mirrored in the naked desire on screen, the ferocity of purpose. But, like Daniel Plainview, Anderson can’t do it alone, and There Will Be Blood ultimately stands, boldly and confidently, as a triumph of collaboration. The fluid grace of Elswit’s camera, the volcanic fury of Day-Lewis’ oil baron, even the simpering hysterics of Paul Dano’s holy man–they’re all different notes, some struck in rhythm, others in striking contrast. The result, not unlike Greenwood’s haunting score, is a disharmonious symphony of chaos. And it’s Anderson composition–not always pretty, but completely unforgettable. Something tells me that film buffs will be humming its tune for years.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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