And there was blood. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has, overnight, gone from a virtuoso filmmaker who inserts opaque metaphors such as frog rains and euphoniums into otherwise intelligible plots to accomplished Kubrickian subtlety. Maybe it was all that time he spent with Robert Altman (to whom the film is dedicated). There Will Be Blood is less out and out entertaining than previous films Magnolia or Punch Drunk Love, but altogether deeper and more culturally relevant.
Adapting an obscure Upton Sinclair novel Oil!: There Will Be Blood, PTA emphasizes the arc of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a self-described plain-talking oil man who buys up a small town in California in order to create an oil empire. His main opponent is a young revivalist preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who controls the local populace. Oil and religion: an explosive and timely mixture.
Plainview is a fascinating character. (But would you expect less with Day-Lewis?) In the wordless first act
Continue reading about There Will Be Blood (major spoilers)…, we see just how driven he is, and how dangerous the toil of early drilling was. He adopts a young boy whose father is killed in a mining accident — but why?
Clearly there is a modicum of paternal feeling in Plainview, though he is slowly revealed to be a psychopath. The first jump in time, to the meeting with the arguing family, glosses over H.W.’s upbringing. We understand that he is, in some sense, using H.W. as a cute face, but he is also including him in the business.
Plainview’s first care when Mary’s Well strikes oil is to save H.W. (D.P. Robert Elswit’s masterful long steadicam shot here, along with the one during Eli’s sermon are the highlights of the film.) There is also something real in his conversion where he declares that he has abandoned his son.
This conversion obviously didn’t take, although we never see it dissolve properly, since the movie’s second major time jump brings us to the final split between H.W. and Daniel. Daniel’s revelation to H.W. that he was an orphan could hardly be believed by H.W., said as it is in the heat of argument. So this scene feels rather unresolved. We, as the audience, are not invested in the adult H.W. the same way we were with the young H.W.
Another flaw, in my humble opinion, is how the revelation of Paul/Eli being twins is handled. It should’ve been done visually, instead of through dialogue. As it is, it has minimal dramatic force, especially next to the high drama of Daniel forcing Eli to declare he is a false prophet. After Daniel has essentially ‘won’ by forcing Eli to do this, killing him is entirely unnecessary. I suppose we can see it as the wretched excess of hate that is inside Daniel, or yet another fulfillment of the title’s prophecy, but it just doesn’t land like I’d want.
But let’s imagine, as many have, that the filmmakers were aiming to comment on contemporary news with a period picture. Who might the rapacious oil man stand for? Who might the religious hypocrite be? From Jerry Falwell to Ted Haggard, we’ve had no shortage of religious hypocrites. But finding an exact correlation to Daniel is more difficult. His ‘plain-speaking’ persona is reminiscent of George W. Bush, but the Bush clan (which includes an H.W. Bush) is far more insular and protective than the fratricidal Plainviews. Instead, I would suggest that he meant to recall the House of Saud, whose manipulation of and by religious extremists is the world’s recent focus. I don’t have the deep knowledge or inclination to further delineate parallels, so I’ll just let that suggestion marinate.
What is clear is that PT Anderson, long a fan of 1970’s-style maverick filmmaking, has made a film that draws on that tradition while remaining quite modern. This epic recalls not so much Giant or Citizen Kane as Bonnie & Clyde and Chinatown. It is a primal scream wearing a tuxedo. It pumps a lot of good drama out of a deep resource, and there is clearly more still in that ground. I look forward to PTA and other filmmakers continuing to drill.