Drama Reviews



There Will Be Blood , 2007. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Dillon Freasier.

Synopsis: In the early part of the twentieth century, prospector and oil wildcatter Daniel Plainview builds himself an empire by force of will. He's discovered a proverbial "ocean" of oil beneath a hardscrabble part of California, and he proceeds to buy up as much of the land as he can, on promises of prosperity. Opposing him is Eli Sunday, a revivalist preacher who competes with Plainview for the hearts and minds of his workers. Neither man much likes the other. For Plainview, building his empire free of the control of Standard Oil is his reason for being, but with success comes obstacles. One such is a man claiming to be his brother. Another is an accident that renders Plainview's son deaf. And at the end, there is his own hatred of humanity...

Oil and Water : I walked out of There Will Be Blood in a foul mood. My initial thought was: "What the hell was the point of THAT?" On a purely technical level, it's terrific. It's beautifully shot. It has an arresting score. Daniel Day-Lewis provides the kind of blustering performance that wins Oscars (but which completely subjugates his co-stars). Art, after all, doesn't have to be useful if it's well made. But watching it reminded me of the pod people from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, everything looks right, but there's a subtle shift in the air, in the cant of their heads, in the glimmer of their eyes that indicates that there is no soul. On the drive home, I was still puzzling over what the hell the movie was about. I didn't like most of the answers I was coming up with, because they all turned into a sucking void in the end. Surely it's not so simplistic as it seems: "Robber baron capitalism is ruthless to the point of evil. Fundamentalist Christianity is a fraud. They are locked in battle." But the alternative is to treat it as a character study of the kind of men who created this dichotomy. And herein lies a danger, because Plainview is a cipher. That's no small trick in a film where he's the object of the camera's unceasing gaze. Sure, we are shown that he's a black pit of misanthropy; when he says, "There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone," it's laid bare for the audience in the most blunt terms imaginable. But that misanthropy is inscrutable. By the end of the film, we know as much about what inhabits Plainview as we do looking at him sitting in the wilderness in the film's largely silent opening movement. The movie does not even try to comprehend him, though, in retrospect, that may be for the best: otherwise, the movie would be unendurable.

If anything, the last ten minutes of There Will Be Blood puts the finger on why I've disliked Anderson's other movies and why I dislike this one: Anderson's most powerful emotional scenes, embedded in otherwise chilly films, are all predicated on humiliation for their effects. The living end of this is William H. Macy's character in Magnolia, but Anderson gives us several instances in this film, including an ending that transforms humiliation into a kind of sick farce. Certainly, this is the aim of the scenes showing the confilict between Plainview and Sunday, each escalating the humiliation of the other when the chance arrives, but it's not only these scenes. Plainview also humiliates Henry Brands, the man who shows up impersonating Plainview's brother, before killing him, and he humiliates his son at the end of the movie, he humiliates the Standard Oil man twice. Sunday, for his part, humilates his father for being stupid enough to give Plainview a fortune. There are no other emotions of note expressed in the movie. Now, I suppose there's an argument to be made that exploring the dynamics of humiliation--especially as it shapes the actions of larger than life characters--is a valid examination of the human condition, but you'll have to pardon me if I don't share an enthusiasm for this line of inquiry. I don't much care for practical jokes, either. Both instill in me a sense of shame while I'm watching, and while I go to see movies for a wide variety of emotional responses, shame isn't one I prefer to experience, at least, not as an object unto itself.

So, to repeat my intial question, what is this film about? What is the point? And here, I find myself without an answer. My suspicion is that it's a wallow in nihilism for its own sake. The movie suggests that we are standing knee-deep in a world of shit. In my experience, though, when you find yourself standing in shit, you don't jump up and down in it for two and a half hours. You just walk away.