Paramount // 2007 // 150 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 8th, 2008
There Will Be Greed. There Will Be Vengeance.
They say that oil and water don't mix. They also argue that blood is thicker than that other clear life-giving liquid. Specious logic would then dictate that petrol and the fluid that pumps through our veins would be the most caustic combination since good and evil, or perhaps fire and brimstone. It's the speculation over both that has driven much of the American experience. There is something epic about the first industrial age tycoons, the men who manipulated a naïve nation into awarding them the rights to resources, transportation, and the manufacturing and maintenance of both. Yet nothing is as romantically rugged as the search for fossil fuel. From natural gas to its black gold familiar, the men who literally jeopardized their lives to drain the Earth of its precious assets were both heroic and merciless. They risked all, and then demanded to reap every last reward. Such a seemingly invincible villain is Daniel Plainview, star or Paul Thomas Anderson's immaculate There Will Be Blood. He is every bit the scourge of a scorched country. He's also, sadly, the very reason it exists...and prospers.
When we first meet the ambitious prospector, Daniel Plainview is trading silver for surveys and supplies. His ultimate goal is oil, and he soon strikes it rich. Hoping to interest the big companies in his land-based pipeline ideal, Plainview targets a small town. Thanks to a tip from a disgruntled member of the destitute Sunday family, the mogul gets what he wants. But it comes with a price that he may not be willing to pay. Local preacher Eli, brother of the betrayer, wants Plainview to support his fledgling church. With lip service and lies, the two come to a cautious accord. But as money begins to blur the ethics of all involved, both sides start to suffer. Plainview's young son is injured in an accident, and Sunday uses the issue to blackmail the man. Even worse, an important piece of land stands between the tycoon and his ambitious dream. As usual, Eli holds all the cards -- or at least, that's what Plainview lets him think.
Paul Thomas Anderson has been teasing us film fans for over a decade now. He's the king of the almost-classic, the movie that hovers around masterwork territory without ever staying long enough to seal the cinematic deal. His Boogie Nights is ballsy and brilliant, an homage to his aesthetic mentor Robert Altman without the indulgences that sank his otherwise excellent Magnolia. Sydney, later known as Hard Eight, was another '70s character study channeled through a pallid, post-grunge dynamic, while Punch-Drunk Love's whimsy undercut its attempts at romantic dramedy. But with the amazing, electrifying There Will Be Blood, Anderson has finally delivered. He's merged his influences and his personal vision into one of the most volatile, memorable, and mind-boggling cinematic experiences of 2007. He also turned a potentially problematic period piece about a cutthroat wildcatter and his capitalistic urges into the ultimate battle between good and evil and the resulting stains on the human soul.
In fact, a clearer definition would be that There Will Be Blood is a reactionary range war between several of the seven deadly sins, with virtue and honor nowhere to be found. Anderson, loosely adapting Upton Sinclair's turgid novel Oil!, believes in the viability of the amiable antihero, that we will see his cold and calculating Daniel Plainview as the spirit of America captured in the most shrewd and amoral of terms. Never one to overplay his hand, this self-made megalomaniac lives by his own code of conduct, and isn't afraid to modify the rules once in a while to accent his continued prosperity. Anderson hired English eccentric Daniel Day-Lewis to play the part, and his Method-ology is startling to behold. Plainview comes across as part prophet, part pariah, desperate to con the rubes while remaining one step ahead of (or in some cases, behind) the corporate barons holding all the connecting cards. It's amazing to watch the character's transformation from lone miner to heartless entrepreneur. It's like witnessing the birth of Greed itself, tinged with a twist of John Huston chutzpah.
On the opposite end of the specious spectrum is proposed preacher Eli Sunday. As a self-serving man of God, given over to delusions of his own sacred place on Earth, this youth in Babylon is supposed to represent Plainview's inner demons. As someone who has lied, manipulated, and stolen land from people in order to profit, the notion that our businessman is no better than a minister that sells salvation at a price isn't new. But Anderson takes There Will Be Blood in an unusual, almost competitive direction. He uses Sunday as a means of undermining Plainview's confidence, to shake him whenever complacency threatens to take over. Watching hubris battle itself becomes one of Blood's biggest pleasures. It also adds a level of necessary narrative suspense, since we wonder who will crack first all throughout the course of the film's rambling running time. The answer is as exceptional as it is expected.
There are dozens of ancillary threads here as well, making this movie more of a novel in cinematic form that a standard story of industriousness vs. the Good Book. Anderson asks us to understand Plainview, to dig into his mind and see how becoming a self-made man requires a tireless attention to -- and contravention of -- events and people around you. The film, which seems forged in chapters instead of specific acts, offers a sequence where a man claiming to be Plainview's brother suddenly ambles into town. While it may be a trick, it's also a tactic. We need to see how the past plays with our lead, how it subverts his belief system and stifles his drive. What happens to Harry Brands once the deception has been revealed is not an illustration of Plainview's darkness. Instead, it's like a clinic in carrying out the mandates of the almighty dollar. Money may indeed be the root of all evil in There Will Be Blood (it's what our lead loves and the Sundays secretly crave), but Anderson also argues that it's the foundation for all human facets -- both the finery and the foibles.
What we get then is a pure celluloid sugar rush, the kind of creative conspiracy that sends shockwaves through our mainstream-mired brain and blurs the reality between entertainment and existence. In Day Lewis, Anderson finds the perfect messenger, a man who gets so lost in a performance that we never know when the technique begins and the inspired insanity ends. There are times when this actor practically corrodes the compositions, demanding that nothing else in a frame matter but him. Yet There Will Be Blood is by no means a one-man show. It may focus almost exclusively on Plainview and his blunt capitalist evangelism, but the rest of the cast creates a kind of cushion, allowing the egotism to flow effortlessly. Special mention needs to go to Kevin O'Connor (as Brands), Ciaran Hinds, David Willis (as the elder Sunday), and little Dillon Freasier as Plainview's son, H.W. All stand in support of someone who should really be left alone to rot in his own self-deception and disease.
The same goes for Paul Dano as the equally malevolent Eli Sunday. A latecomer to the company (he replaced another actor hired to play the preacher), he brings an unexpected kind of slimy speciousness from the kid who essayed the silent brother in Little Miss Sunshine, or the angry adolescent of L.I.E. Yet at 24 years of age, he goes toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis's middle-aged monster, and more than holds his own. Dano will be the dividing line for many viewers. Some will see him as way out of his league, constantly floundering to find his footing. Others will stand mesmerized by his well-managed menace and gift for faith-based bullshit. In some ways, There Will Be Blood is like Freddy vs. Jason jerry-rigged to a turn of the century clime. It is indeed the ultimate square-off between two life-destroying demons. That one uses financial power while the other wields the flaming sword of Gabriel really doesn't matter.
Finally, no review can conclude without mentioning Anderson's exemplary direction. Films like There Will Be Blood shouldn't work. They act like indirect science fiction, forcing us to identify with a time and a place that we have no context for or perspective on. But thanks to the way this amazing filmmaker handles his material, the amount of detail and determination he places up on the screen, we instantly fall into this unusual and sparse Southwestern locale, and love every minute of our stay there. Anderson doesn't alter the language of film to find his comfort zone. The movie is made up of the kind of tracking shots, symmetrical framing, and carefully crafted compositions that remind us of John Ford and, later, Sergio Leone. Indeed, if one needs a frame of reference for this stellar motion picture, a comparison to Once Upon a Time in the West is easily accomplished. Both films offer the same sense of art, artificiality, and amorality, and both are bathed in buckets of the rancid red stuff.
Indeed, There Will Be Blood is destined to go down in motion-picture history as one of the medium's greatest accomplishments -- a 2001 for its time, a Pulp Fiction forged out of classicism, not pop culture commerciality. It may not shake up the system the way those previously mentioned efforts did, but there is no denying that what Anderson puts up on the silver screen will resonate long after pale pretenders to the same cinematic throne have been laughed at and forgotten. This is a movie that feels timeless, that takes its story and its subject very seriously without reverting to anything arch or overconfident. It is both daring and derivative, as old school as it is new wave. Yet perhaps the most important element here is the continuing evolution of its director. Paul Thomas Anderson has been touted -- rightfully or wrongly -- as one of the medium's future stars, a brightly burning provocateur who never quite fulfills his promise -- that is, until now. There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece, and its maker has finally come into his own.
All of which makes the rather anticlimactic treatment of this fantastic film on DVD so demoralizing. Paramount packages the hell out of the two-disc version of the movie, turning the cardboard carrying case into a realistic looking replica of Plainview's ever-present pocket notebook. Inside, there is an excerpt from Oil! as part of a gatefold presentation. But once you get to the actual content, there's a growing sense of dissatisfaction. The film itself does not suffer. Not one bit. The first disc contains a near-pristine recreation of the theatrical experience, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image flawlessly evoking Anderson's outsized vision. There will be a few quibbles -- the nighttime scenes are not as jet black as they were originally -- but overall, the transfer is terrific. Don't worry, a Blu-ray version is on the way. From a sound perspective, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix does a good job of amplifying the atmosphere created, as well as accenting the sensational score by Radiohead's Jony Greenwood. There is not quite the immersion of the big-screen experience, but for those with a kicked-up home system, it will be pretty darn close.
Sadly, the added content here is the real letdown. All of it can be found on Disc 2 (Disc 1 offers the film only) and begins with "15 Minutes," a weird montage of movie scenes and their historic/archival inspiration. There are some intriguing elements here -- the actual designs of old-world technology mirrored in the oil rigs and machinery employed by the characters -- but some of the links are specious at best. Next, there is a pair of deleted scenes. They are minor at best, adding nothing of substance to the story. Finally, we are treated to something called "Dailies Gone Wild." It is apparently nothing more than a different take of Plainview's restaurant confrontation with some oil industry fat cats. Add the teaser and theatrical trailers, and this is the extent of the film-specific extras.
Luckily, we are treated to one last bonus. A silent industrial film from the '20s, The Story of Petroleum is an educational explanation about how crude is extracted from the ground and magically turned into other fuel-based products. Most of the footage here can be found in "15 Minutes," but the nostalgic look back at business before the Depression is informative to say the least. What's really missing here is any actual participation from Anderson or his crew. While the filmmaker has gone on record as taking a newly forged Spielbergian stance regarding commentaries, some form of personal insight would have helped. There Will Be Blood is a dense, sometimes contradictory entertainment. Anderson should stand up and explain himself -- even if the end product doesn't need a great deal of illustrative support.
Here's the funny thing about There Will Be Blood. It's a movie that has the kind of narrative resonance that drives a wedge into your subconscious. As you sit around, days...even months later, your mind wanders back to certain symbolic items and moments of iconic clarity: the burning oil rigs; Plainview passed out on the floor; H.W. setting fire to his uncle; Eli's ethereal services; the last line of dialogue -- "I'm finished." It all gels into the kind of monumental motion picture experience the art form has been missing for far too long. Craftsmanship can only count for part of this work's amazing accomplishments. There is an imagination at work here that's been dormant or untapped for far too long. Paul Thomas Anderson has finally arrived -- and his entry into the realm of royalty couldn't be more compelling. There Will Be Blood is brilliant.
As for the film -- not guilty -- it's a classic!
As for the DVD -- guilty -- a film this fine deserves more than an entire DVD of filler.
Review content copyright © 2008 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 150 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* 15 Minutes: Pics, Research, Etc. on the Making of There Will Be Blood
* Deleted Scenes
* "Dailies Gone Wild"
* "The Story of Petroleum (circa. 1923)" - a B/W Silent Film Chronicling the Oil Business in the 1920s
* Official Site