No Blood for Oil. In the recent history of American warfare, these words have been the rallying cry of the anti-war movement. Both blood and oil are thicker than water in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which perhaps not coincidentally transposes the title of its source: Upton Sinclair's sprawling novel Oil!.
In his most mature and ambitious film yet, the writer-director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia adapts roughly the first 150 pages of Oil!. Sinclair's book would make a fascinating film, one with unavoidable political resonance for the current moment. Instead, using Sinclair as inspiration, Anderson demotes the book's leading character and blows up the character of self-made oil baron J. Arnold Ross, renamed Daniel Plainview for star Daniel Day-Lewis. Rather than shaping a conventional modern epic, Anderson takes a meditative tack overtly reminiscent of another American auteur, Terrence Malick.
The results are mixed, but often breathtaking. Visual poetry abounds, eventually clashing with the film's growing narrative demands. The latter mostly involve the conflict between ravenously capitalist oil-man Plainview and smug teen evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The approach will guarantee Oscar nods across the technical categories and for Johnny Greenwood's nerve-jangling ambient score (a good compliment to the film's dark themes). So too will Day-Lewis be honored, for another fiercely intense theatrical performance that, this time, channels John Huston's gruff eloquence. Against this force of nature—and in an unfortunately underwritten role—Dano holds his own.
Anderson has hastened to mention in every interview that he approached There Will Be Blood "as a horror film and a boxing match first." These reductions, if somewhat tongue in cheek, demonstrate that Anderson's growth as a filmmaker remains hindered by an obsession with effect and a disinterest in depth. But perhaps that's too hasty, given the filmmaker's literal interest in depth. The film begins with the origin of its self-made man, whose lonesome turn-of-the-century descents into deep gold mines accidentally unearth oil and incipient entrepreneurship.
These early, near-wordless sequences are the film's most expressive, as Anderson suggests that Plainview derives psychosexual pleasure from raping the earth. An oil-slick dildo rises from its hole; a baby cries. It is this baby that Plainview will sexlessly adopt as his own. Indeed, he has no time for romance, and his constant insistence on family values rings hollow. "I believe in plain speaking," he says (why, it's right there in your name!), but his mixed message is alternately "I'm an oil man" and "I'm a family man."
The latter is the lie he half-wishes to be true and the half-truth he promotes as a marketing tool. In one of his secular sermons to communities who need assuaging at the sight of a Plainview oil field in their midst, Plainview politicly boasts, "We offer you the bond of family that few other men can understand...These children are the future" But family (blood) always comes in second place to the family business (oil). Though in an early scene blood and oil and "the blood of the lamb" become one as Plainview anoints his adoptive son with a smudge of oil dabbed on the child's forehead, the later appearance of a man claiming to be Daniel's "brother, from another mother" only sends Daniel on a detour to hell.
The boxing match between Plainview and Sunday begins when Sunday's brother from the same mother Paul (also Dano) sells out his family by selling the oil man a lead. Hence, Daniel is led to the Sunday ranch, Plainview's adoptive son H.W. (a worryingly quiet Dillon Freasier) in tow in part as heir-apparent apprentice, in part as a "family man" prop. Sinclair's novel is a quietly horrifying tale of this "new money" boy, who gets everything on a silver platter and, in the process, allows his naive idealism to corrode, corrupt and compromise. Anderson's screenplay taps this vein of the novel with two brief but key scenes: one in which H.W. concerns himself with young Mary Sunday being beaten by her father (Mary, too, will be used by Daniel as a prop), and another in which the boy asks his father if the Sundays will get a square deal.
They don't, a never-healing sore spot to the combative Eli. As Daniel's foil, Eli delivers his own self-serving sermons, of the holy-rolling variety. Eli, too, is a social climber, and his wailing invocations of God's healing power get under Plainview's skin. Plainview calls Eli's supposed healing "quite a goddamn show" (indeed, we watch the young preacher practicing a sermon, down to the "spontaneous" laugh); the older man puts his disdain into action, blindsiding Eli by hording an opportunity to curry public favor. Their cold war heats up when Plainview, suddenly in need of physical healing, rails against the false idolatry of Sunday's Church of the Third Revelation.
The people-hating Plainview descends into alcoholism and isolation; offered a millionaire-making buyout, he can only ask, "What else would I do with myself?" At a key point in the film, this point exhausted, Anderson thrusts the story forward sixteen years. The abrupt leap to a coda feels like a failure to bring the principal narrative to its own resolution; it's the film's most glaring misstep, if not in narrative, then in style. The coda caps, in succession, Daniel's relationships with H.W. (now played by Russell Harvard) and Eli. If Daniel had one foot in damnation till the bitter end (a bravura oil-fire sequence having already suggested hellfire), he takes the last step before the credits, with full self-knowledge the film's punchline.
For all of Anderson's head games, There Will Be Blood is more a triumph of style than substance. Yes, it is, in a sense, the story of America, a la Citizen Kane. Greatness in business and politics comes at a personal price to the alpha male and those around him, and hypocrisy is both the best offense and the best psychological defense mechanism. In There Will Be Blood, industry and religion are equally greedy enterprises, painted in broad strokes. But this facile social critique pales in comparison to Sinclair's fiendishly accurate incisions. Anderson does best by emulating Sinclair's eye for detail (thanks largely to Jack Fisk's monumental production design and Mark Bridges' costumes) and evoking the tones of Dorothea Lange, opera, and comic burlesque in tandem with a great DP (Robert Elswit) and an arrestingly turbulent movie star.
Paramount presents There Will Be Blood on both Blu-Ray and DVD in a special edition. Both transfers come from the same high-def master. Though the DVD has a handsome transfer, it's no surprise that the Blu-Ray version handily bests it with significantly better detail and a sharper overall impression. Low light continues to present a challenge to digital media, and certainly There Will Be Blood provides a challenge in this regard. More bothersome is a slight but perceptible horizontal jitter, though it's really only noticeable in the rare stationary shots. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track does justice to the ambient soundscape and dark-toned Jonny Greenwood score.
The extras from Disc Two of the DVD Collector's Edition all make a return appearance on DVD, and they're all presented in high-definition. Primary is a black-and-white silent-era short film called "The Story of Petroleum" (25:34), with a new score by Jonny Greenwood. The info. screen on the disc does a comprehensive job of explaining the film (circa 1923-7), which comes courtesy of the National Archives and "was created by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in collaboration with the Sinclair Oil Company as a promotional film to highlight the operations of the U.S. oil industry. The film shows the exploration, extraction, processing, and preparation of crude oil for its distribution throughout the United States." The source elements are good, given the period from whence the film comes, and the transfer is equally solid.
The suite of other extras (31:00 with a "Play All" feature) kicks off with "15 Minutes" (a.k.a. "There Will Be Blood: Pics, Research, Etc.") (15:37). As the title suggests, it's a montage, set to Greenwood's score of clips from Blood and "The Story of Petroleum" and imagery from the books director P.T. Anderson collected as research and for design reference. Next up is the "Teaser" (1:25) and "Trailer" (2:13), both cannily generating interest in an expensive art film. "Fishing" (6:15) is a deleted sequence inspired by an episode from Upton Sinclair's Oil!, with the oil workers going after machinery lost in the hole as Plainview waits in existential limbo for work to progress. "Haircut/Interrupted Hymn" (3:15) is a similar trim, with H.W. cutting his father's hair, and Plainview skulking around the job site; it's nice to get to see these sequences, presented in crisp anamorphic widescreen. Last but not least is "Dailies Gone Wild", a single take of Daniel Day Lewis "making a scene" in the restaurant.
The Blu-Ray gets a standard Blu-Ray case. On DVD, the cardboard packaging (while handily slim and good for the environment) has the detriment of being rough on the discs coming out of and into the tight sleeves. Here's your chance to collect another towering, Oscar-anointed Daniel Day Lewis performance, in a film that takes Anderson to a new career height.
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