The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, January 19, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - There Will Be Blood

Full review behind the jump

There Will Be Blood

: Paul Thomas Anderson
: screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier

For a long time there’s no spoken words, we’re just watching this man – this determined, ingenious man – digging in the Earth. It’s rude and violent work, with pumps and picks and explosives, we see it cause him a broken leg and take the life of a colleague, while on the soundtrack discordant strings whine as if to give voice to the rape of nature. And yet there’s a thrill to watching Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) work, the pure and potent charge of seeing willpower transmute into raw power, wealth and influence.

When Plainview, the self-described “oil man”, finally speaks, it is with a voice coated in liquid confidence. He is not easily shaken, the man who has wrestled with the rocks. He pursues oil like a wolf tracking prey across miles of terrain, and the sureness with which he means to have it is seductive. As the central character of
There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose adaptation of one segment of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking early-20th century novel Oil!, Plainview is a mesmerizing figure, an animal of seemingly bottomless hunger who admits that it is not enough that he be sated, he must watch others starve.

Anderson’s film, far and away one of the best of the year, makes you feel like you’re strapped into the conditioning chair from
A Clockwork Orange, eyes helplessly pinned open as you watch the savage perversion of ambition into destruction. At first it all seems so exciting, the idea of progress and prosperity, using the bounty of oil to transform a dusty farming community into a bustling town. Peoples’ standards of living improve, most especially Plainview’s. But there’s a dark side to his work that festers and grows, and we watch, transfixed, as it spreads its corruption around him.

Plainview travels up and down California with his “boy” H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who is not actually his son but someone he has calculated his own reasons to raise. He finds struggling communities where the black gold is seeping out of the ground, charms them with a speech about his personal expertise, and the self-starting ethic of his little “family business”, promises them water wells and roads and schools, and soon he’s got his trucks pulling in with drilling equipment while the big oil companies are still buying train tickets to come investigate.

It is invigorating, American enterprise, and that could be good enough. But what we see that it is not enough for Plainview, never enough. Dominance is not a means to success for him, dominance is the end itself. We see it in the way he talks to a farmer’s daughter (Sydney McCallister) while the farmer (David Willis) sits nearby, mutely subdued in front of the man who now owns his land. We see it in the way he spites that farmer’s son, a local fire-and-brimstone preacher named Eli Sunday (Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano), who tries to assert his church’s role in the community by offering to bless the pump on its first day of operation. When Plainview watches Sunday’s sermons, full of shouting and quaking, it is not with reverence but grudging appreciation – a man with a great racket recognizing another.

That crackle that happens whenever the nakedly-mercenary Plainview and the opportunistically-pious Sunday share the scene is a testament to the young actor Dano and his ability to hold his ground with one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. There Will Be Blood is Daniel Day-Lewis’ show, one of his finest performances, and yet it would build no momentum to its shocking conclusion if Dano were not as good as he is, able to embody the ebb and flow of their unspoken war for influence.

It means that we get to see Plainview’s weaknesses come into focus. He does not know how to forgive, only to punish and punish forever. We can see that he will never, ever forget a man who humbles him in the eyes of others even for a second; watch how he scuppers a deal that would set him up in riches for the rest of his days, by threatening to slit the throat of the man on the other side of the table. Is he angry at what the man was implying, or more purely that the man had found anything at all that could make him look bad? Watch as he re-encounters this man later, how his obsessive cruelty makes him pathetic, a man too determined to pick at scabs to consider that it might be better if he let go.

And in spite of his misanthropy he still needs someone – a companion, a disciple, someone to be a permanent admirer rather than competition – and we watch him trade one for another with callous immediacy. I think it’s no coincidence that what makes one companion an improvement on another is the ability to hear that hypnotic, rationalizing voice of his. And watch that tragic moment on a beach at night where Day-Lewis doesn’t even speak, barely even moves his face, but we realize what he has just confirmed about his new companion, and what he intends to do. That we know this from his stillness means the movie has us surely under its spell, and we will believe the ending that has been promised to us.

There Will Be Blood is a rare movie these days in so many ways – for its wide period vistas, its dreadfully methodical pacing, the beautiful grime and fire it shows and the terrifying passions of its central character, who is neither hero nor villain but an amoral and irresistible force of consumption. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love), a mercurial filmmaker of nonetheless undisguised ambition, has made his best film here, a wild cinematic tone poem about a man who hollows his own soul with the same ravening speed that he does the Earth below him.


  • Nick, you were dead-on about Dano. On Jan. 16, I attended the NYC premiere of Jonny Greenwood's "Popcorn Superhet Receiver"(part of which were adapted for the "There Will Be Blood" score. Seated in the cavern that is St. Paul the Apostle, red and green lights snaking up the church walls, the piece, which featured the most muscular playing of string instruments I have ever seen, reached an almost unbearable climax(like the film) to the point where I had the urge to leap from my pew, and cry out the now-immortal words, "I drink your milkshake, I drink it up!" My God, Anderson, dauphin of Kubrick, has forged a glorious tale of a demented fuck. And that last scene with Henry was like something out of a Grimm fairy tale. Sorry for going on a bit, Nick, but, really, with "There Will Be Blood", one feels the need to represent, which is what your review did.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 11:03 PM  

  • Thanks, movies like this make me better when reviewing them, writing about them is a joy.

    By Blogger Nick, at 11:45 AM  

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