Thursday, February 21, 2008

There Will Be Blood, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)

This is a movie which has garnered a lot of critical acclaim along with popular support, with nods towards the possibility of Oscars success. I see a long list of reviewers at Metacritic have given it 100 out of 100. I don't remember a longer list. But then there is the occasional voice in the wilderness: I find it quite funny that I came out of this movie with almost exactly the same response that I now see Stephanie Zacharek of Salon had: she called it an "austere folly". Numerous letter writers have panned her as someone who basically doesn't have a clue. To me, the film seemed like a grand failure, a flawed masterpiece - a movie which had the bones and intents to be a truly great one but which somehow miss-fired, along the lines of Heaven's Gate, although not quite so dramatically. The cinematography is brilliant, so too is most of the acting but, well, there's just something missing with the actual story.

To be fair, even its most ardent fans seem prepared to call it an eccentric epic. Its director, Anderson, has certainly taken some risks: the first fifteen minutes tell the story of 15 years in the lives of the central characters without a word being said. Blink and you'll miss the fact that H.W. (Dillon Freasier), claimed by Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) as his son is in fact an orphan created when his father dies in a mining accident. So, are we to believe Plainview later on when he claims that he only took H.W. around with him because it helped him raise money and get land for his oil drilling operations:
his targets seemed sympathetic to his "family values" claim and were quite chharmed that this solemn-faced boy of 9 or 10 was Plainview's "business partner".

It seemed to me that there were two main narratives at work here. The first was simple: the making of the oilman, Daniel Plainview. So we see him hard at work down a silver mine in 1898, then having modest success with an oilwell a few years later and much more success in 1911. Finally, someone is speaking: Plainview is making a sales pitch. He has several wells producing and is fully equipped to commence drilling on his own account just as soon as any landowner with prospects of oils lets him do so. Throughout the movie, we see him persuading others to give him what he wants; on the whole, what he says to get what he wants is false. I love the mention in the Age
of his "honeyed yet faintly off-key rhetoric".

His big break comes a while later, when a fellow with an oddly blank and pale face (Paul Dano) sells him information about a place so flooded with oil it is seeping to the surface. This land is about 100 miles from the Californian coast; oil can be extracted and, instead of being reliant upon the rapacious railwaymen to find a market, can be piped directly out to Californian refineries.

It is up here that the second narrative starts: Plainview comes into conflict with a very religious young man, Eli Sunday, also played by Paul Dano (I have no idea where is brother is supposed to have got to - apparently it was not the original plan that both brothers be played by the same actor, but the fellow had been signed up to play Eli found something else to do, and Dano had about a week to get up to speed). At first, Eli seems innocuous enough, but Plainview is immediately dead set against him. So there is this great scene, where it has been agreed that Eli will bless Plainview's new derrick, and Plainview will introduce Eli as a man of the soil. What does Plainview do? He introduces Eli's sister as a young woman of the soil and gives the blessing himself, with Eli looking on. Ultimately it is revealed that Eli is a preacher, with his own church, that "of the Third Revelation", and the capability for an extremely histrionic form of preaching.

But I think it would be too simplistic to describe this second narrative as a fight between good and evil; you have to put capitalism in the mix and, while capitalism is shown to be an evil force in Upton Sinclair's book Oil which inspired this movie, I don't think the movie makes that claim for capitalism. In fact, I think the movie might even be more generally concerned with zealotry of any stripe: we have a narrative focussed upon strife between two zealots, two men who really have nothing but the thing they have devoted themselves to. This explains something which has troubled many critics: there are no women in the movie, not until H.W. is an adult.

I'm not too sure there is any good in Daniel; yes, he seems to have genuine feeling for H.W. but maybe it is simply a means to an end. Daniel is ultimately awful to H.W, really awful. He also might have some sort of brotherly feeling for the fellow who turns up and claims to be his brother, but generally treats him as another worker, no closer than his second-in-command. Again, he is awful to this fellow as well. There is a certain inscrutability which masks everything he does, although it is clear he has no time at all for religion. This provides a context for two successive bargains between Daniel and Eli: Eli will help Daniel get the land he needs if Daniel will allow himself to be baptised. Later, a couple of decades later, when things have turned bad for Eli and his church, Daniel says he will buy some land Eli can procure if Eli will renounce his faith and declare it to be superstition.

The very end puzzles me, as it seems completely gratuitous in light of Daniel getting his own way in everything.


Blogger Chus said...

This is what I think: Paul Thomas Anderson

9:59 PM  

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