There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood

Film review by: Witney Seibold

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            I hesitate to call Daniel Plainview corrupt. “Corrupt” implies that one started from scratch, and sauntered downward into iniquity. Daniel Plainview, as played by the fantastic Daniel Day-Lewis in P.T. Anderson’s new film “There Will Be Blood,” based loosely on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, is not turned evil by his greed or his hubris. From the outset, when we see him dragging himself across the desert in order to sell some silver he dug out of the ground himself, to the horrifying and poetically perfect ending, Plainview is already swimmingly gloriously in his own moral emptiness. Like Chichikov in Dead Souls, Plainview’s entire being is driven by making the perfect business deal, and damn the people who he meets along the way.

 

            Plainview is an oil man. He sweet talks his way into buying and raping land from small villages he knows to be lousy with oil, and then moves on. He uses his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) less as a family member, and more as a leverage tool to help in his sales. He has no wife or girlfriend to speak of. One evening he is approached by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who will tell him where there is a great amount of oil… for a price. Plainview pays him, finds the place, and begins to smooth-talk the entire Sunday family, led by the largely ignorant Abel (David Willis). Also a presence in the Sunday family is Eli (also Dano), a fledgling preacher determined to raise money to start his own church.

 

            Plainview finds the oil on the land, of course, and become instantly much wealthier. Eli Sunday, meanwhile, keeps asking for money, favors, and Plainview’s presence at church service. Plainview, clearly uncaring about all things to do with religion (or all things to do with other people for that matter), caustically brushes him off time and again.

             Eli Sunday is seen as fresh-faced, a bit naïve, not a small amount opportunistic, and not a small amount greedy. Although most of “There Will Be Blood” is devoted to the meticulous and hypnotic forward motion of Daniel Plainview’s business practices, it sets up Eli Sunday as the opposite moral compass for Plainview.

            H.W. is deafened in an oil explosion. A mysterious man (Kevin J. O’Connor) shows up at one point, claiming to be Plainview’s half-brother-that-he’s-never-met. This subplot is largely a distraction, merely giving Plainview, for a brief moment, someone else to talk to and confide in. His big revelation? He hates people. Well, duh.

 

            Why did Dano play two roles? Does Plainview love or hate his son? Is he really as morally empty as he seems? Why introduce the half-brother at all? “There Will Be Blood” is morally vexing at times, and seems to be spending too much time watching the proceedings, and not saying anything about them. In a film that always has morals right on the tip of its tongue, it spends way too much time distracted from them. It’s not until the very, very last scene, in which years have passed and Plainview is now living in alcoholic splendor in his enormous mansion (with a bowling alley!) that the film begin to finally indicate the moral destiny of the characters. And even then, it takes a while to decipher exactly why were led there.

 

            Anderson has made a series of very good films since his breakout in 1997 with “Boogie Nights,” and while I greatly admired all of them (“Magnolia” in particular), they all suffer from an overabundance of happenstance; Anderson needs to learn how to edit himself a little better. Had “There Will Be Blood” been trimmed down from its top-heavy 158 minutes down to a mere 130, it would have been tighter and much easier to understand.

 

            Despite its turgid length and moral runaround, “There Will Be Blood” is still utterly fascinating. The score by Johnny Greenwood (from the band Radiohead) is less an accentuation of emotion, and more a hypnotic pounding addition to a sense of unspoken dread. The photography Robert Elswit is first rate. And the dissection of the moral and emotional emptiness at the heart of successful American business and economics… well, some critics have gone so far as to compare it to “Citizen Kane.”

             “There Will Be Blood” is not as good as “Citizen Kane.” But it is a very impressive experience. It’s so close to being the masterpiece it wants to be, that I included it on my Best-of-2007 list at #13. 

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Published in: on January 30, 2008 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

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