With wunderkind writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson at the helm of a movie there are certain levels of expectation to be met. With one of our finest method actors Daniel Day-Lewis in the same movie the expectations are that much higher. Even without those two elements with a title like There Will Be Blood expectations are already set high. There has to be blood spilled. Now with the existing creative team the expectation is that when that blood is spilled it should mean something, or have some level of effect on us. An impact, be it anti-climactic or Rober DeNiro with his head hanging out a car screaming bloody murder climactic (I think Robin Williams said that in his stand up — I just quoted Robin WIlliams.) When I left the theatre this evening, I felt slightly short changed on both accounts.
The first thing I have to speak about, because it sets the tone for all things to come in Blood, is the music by composer Jonny Greenwood who composed that lush score for Children of Me. (This is incorrect and has been amended in the comment section below.) In Men there’s a moment when the characters are heading through the prison camp to get to the boat that will get them to their final destination, but first there’s an empty shot of a tunnel. Just as that image comes up, before the characters enter frame, we’re met with a collision of stringed instruments that tell you things aren’t going to go as planned. The very first shot of Blood has that same beautiful car wreck of unnerving symphonic wonderment. It gives everything in its path an unhinged and terrifying soul. We don’t trust the landscape we see. We get a strange feeling about Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), even though he says nothing. The music creates a hypnotic spell as Plainview digs towards the heart of the earth looking for silver, almost as if he were digging towards hell. But when he hits instead oil, it pools like black blood on the surface of that dead landscape. And he’s a wealthy man. Already our expectations have been met, blood has been spilled. But the music itself also builds an expectation, that things no matter how well they go will always carry with them for Plainview (an ironic name if I’ve ever heard one) a misery that will send him spiraling into the worst kind of apathy, digging his way closer to hell. And all this is apparent from that first chord struck. It reminded me in many ways of the use of music in Kubrick’s The Shining.
In fact many things about There Will Be Blood reminded me of the spirit and tone of Kubrick’s masterpiece, I may come back to this idea, I may just let it sit, because it’s a bold statement. And fitting because they are similarly very bold movies. PT directs with stunning visual imagery, he also uses the power of sound to tell his story just as effectively as with his camera. It makes for an all encompassing journey into the center of one man’s soul.
That soul is brought to life and death by Daniel Day-Lewis who gives one of the boldest performances of the year. He speaks concisely and intelligently, he doesn’t have time to mess around with people who don’t know what they want, his smile curls back in an engaging way below a puffy mustache, his voice is hypnotically calm, never faltering or wavering. Sometimes that smile is welcoming, most of the time false, and other times possessed by malice towards everything around him. And Lewis is so convincing it’s difficult for me to remember another performance this year that I liked.
His oilman is one of the few that hits it big. As from what I’ve read many in the early days of the US who went oil hunting came back empty handed. It’s important to say that in one way or another he ends up with a son, H.W. Plainview. It’s important because this is the only relationship that unknowingly keeps him grounded in some level of empathy towards his fellow man.
One evening he’s approached by one of these fellow young men Paul Sunday about a place where oil lives on the earth. Plainview pays a price for the information and heads off to California to take a look at Sunday’s family’s ranch. Here he meets the family which includes Paul’s younger brother, Eli Sunday. Both Paul and Eli are played effectively by Paul Dano, don’t let this confuse you. It turns out that Paul was right. And Plainview starts to lease out the land from everyone in the surrounding area, promising roads and education to the people of the dying town nearby. There’s only one problem, and that’s with Eli. You see Eli is a pastor of sorts, a faith healer to be more accurate. He has a small church, one that could sorely use an upgrade, and he gets Plainview to agree to give $5000.00 to the church as a donation for leasing the land. PT has a lot to say about religion in this film, he understands its power to heal, but also understands that that power to heal can be temporary. Plainview isn’t as forgiving when he realizes this.
Things begin to fall apart for Plainview, in a brilliant moment when a blessing is not properly given on the new oil well. This oil well reaches towards heaven, its larger than life stature equaling the presence of Plainview within this community’s lives. And the conflict begins between the ambitions of Plainview and the faith of Eli. But this conflict for a long time merely parallels Plainview’s fall. It’s important that there are many times we see the good in Daniel Plainview, so we want him to be happy and prosper. He’s good to his son. He appears to be good to the people of the town. He’s good to his workers. As one event after the next occurs that goodness seems to slip away. That humanity in him turns into something as black as those pools of oil. Plainview blames the presence of God in the community for what’s happening, and Eli blames the botched blessing for what’s going wrong around the oil well. Its an involving process to watch, these personalities butt heads, largely because you believe everything out of Lewis’s mouth.
At the same time the movie missteps by allowing every action Plainview takes to have some logical reason. While his reactions are perhaps a bit extreme, you strangely never feel like his actions are unjustified. While we’re supposed to believe he’s becoming mad, we also see one foot firmly planted on the ground. Which leads me to believe that it’s never his madness that he’s losing, just his patience with the world around him. In a sense he’s almost the moral center of the film. Showing the liars and hypocrites for who they are, even when he’s one himself at times.
All this culminates in one of the best scenes I’ve witnessed in a movie this year. Plainview’s baptism. If the film were titled The Baptism of Daniel Plainview then we wouldn’t be let down. That’s all I’m going to say about this except that in a sense we’re witnessing the spilling of blood a second time, the “blood of the lamb”, as it were. It’s a moment in which we feel the release that we hope Plainview feels. It’s a spiritual moment at the theatre that gave me goosebumps. You laugh, shudder, feel manipulated, joy, release and even forgiveness at the predicament Plainview finds himself in, that’s because all of those emotions are playing across Lewis’s face. Awards will be given to this movie and this performance based on this scene alone. Will Plainview escape the holds of apathy or will he become a changed man?
Some minor SPOILERS AHEAD! In which I talk about the final few scenes of the film! Skip the next two paragraphs!
And then we come to the third act. Where Paul Thomas Anderson makes a decision that he doesn’t seem to know how to completely handle. He takes us, with a big leap, skip and jump into the future, where we see Plainview’s crumbling world mirrored in the crumbling, empty mansion around him. Which would be fine, except that the relationships haven’t followed their natural course from where we left them. And the last thing an audience wants to do is hold their disbelief with only a few scenes left. When last we saw Father and Son, they were not a loving family like Plainview yearned for them to be. And the final scene between the two of them has so many false notes and a few contrivances that it comes off heavy handed in showing Plainview’s final moments in becoming something sub-human.
Then there’s the final scene in which Eli visits Plainview. And we witness PT take a few steps in the right direction but then he goes and makes the obvious choices with the characters at hand. It’s obvious that Eli would be the whimpering false prophet that we guess him to be. Which makes it easier for the audience to accept the fates of these men. These final two scenes could be discussed and argued about and many good and bad things could be said about them and guessed as to their relevance and conclusiveness and blanks could be filled in. I won’t do it here.
The Minor Spoilers Are Done!
This is a movie I wish to see again and will, and perhaps the false notes that I felt and the easy conclusion I witnessed will play better when the expectations plateau a little. The problem is though in the end it turned out exactly as I expected, and that’s an expectation no audience member wants met. Certainly there’s perhaps no other path for Plainview, but can you blame me for wanting to be surprised. I want Plainview to make a decision I don’t see coming, or to make it in a way that catches me off guard. But PT by using the storytelling devise that he uses leaves behind all the inner conflict within Plainview. And that inner conflict is what makes the journey interesting, that’s what makes his actions powerful. This decision left me feeling almost nothing in the final moments of the film. An effect I would think any writer/director tries to avoid. Maybe there is a certain power in the quiet resolute way that he’s become who he is. That we see him an empty husk could be construed as sad. Just not very surprising.
I continue my analysis of There Will Be Blood at my blog: Jack Torrence is “Shining” Through.
Tags: Children of Men, Cinema, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Plainview, Eli Sunday, Film, Golden Globe, Jonny Greenwood, Movie Reviews, Movies, Oil, Oscar, P.T. Anderson, Paul Dano, SAG nomination, The Shining, There Will Be Blood, Upton Sinclair