There Will Be Blood, There May Be Disappointment

I finally saw Paul Thomas
Anderson’s There Will Be Blood last
week. I was impressed, but the twelve others in the audience didn’t seem to digest
it as well. Several left during the less exciting last hour of the film. Others
derisively asked "whose idea was it to see this movie?" as they were leaving.
It is a divisive movie to be sure, not unlike No
Country For Old Men
, but it is one with such a beautiful cinematic power
that I couldn’t help but think the others had sadly missed the point. Here are some notes on the "point" of the film, as I see it.

The film’s incredible opening
sequence simply and brilliantly sets up the long story to come, and it burns
with cinematic genius. The sense of danger in the oil wells is palpable and
overpowering. The still landscape shots are reminiscent of Antonioni, and like his environments they carry a menacing weight that reflects the characters that inhabit them. There are shocking scenes of violence (not superfluous or overly
grotesque), that set up the psychic landscape of the film — a place where the
worst can happen instantly and where men wait nervously for it to happen. The
stunning soundtrack swells with atonal screeches of orchestral strings and
textures. Imagine Penderecki’s "Threnody For The Victims Of
Hiroshima" played against the ominous presence of a Sergio Leone
desert. Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead’s guitarist) creates a sound world that embodies
and accentuates the dread and the sense of potential in what Willa Cather
called “the raw materials out of which a country is made.” PT Anderson’s visionary
and seemingly effortless direction is enough to carry the film alone, but he
also has an enthralling script and at least two magnificent performances to
work with.

At dualistic odds are self-made oil baron
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and a young preacher (Paul Dano). Each of
them is drunk with power and self-gratitude. Each of them worships his own self-destructive god. The towering presence of Plainview’s oil derricks even
mirror that of a crucifix, and they attain a sort of overbearing presence of
control as all life and activity centers around them. Part of this is thanks to the set
and costume designers who create an ascetic, yet richly evocative landscape.
One scene, in which an oil derrick explodes with both tragic and promising
consequences, is a marvel of cinematic design and direction. The camera moves
swiftly, in what feels like a single tracking shot but actually isn’t. It captures so many events, right before your eyes and with so many implications — both
physically and psychically transformative — that we are left breathless.

The film’s thematic scope is as narrow-mindedly focused as its main character (speaking almost exclusively to the nature of
power) and yet its breadth seems so epic that it exacts a mesmeric reverence
out of the land, the oil, the men, the business, and the pursuit of power.
Unfortunately, the idea that Anderson could have done something with a deeper political metaphor is present. But Blood is a film about a very specific
man with a single-minded and self-destructive desire for power, not the nature
of the oil business, capitalism, or even Christianity. The parallel between the two men and the two
power structures they represent is understated — which may be good, because any greater
social or political theme would have detracted from the incredibly magnetic
performances of Day-Lewis and Dano.

As the film ends, we see the
natural, logical conclusion that attends a psychopath like Plainview. He emerges out of his alcoholic
slumber for one last opportunity to one-up his rival, Sunday. Afterward, we are
left to imagine him crawling back into the alcoholic death that is his huge,
empty mansion. It’s hard for me to imagine viewers getting upset with
this ending, although there are sure to be many. It is a pitch-perfect
transformation of the film’s main subject into the cinematic embodiment of his
character. Cold, ruthless, abrupt and deceptive, Blood is a dogged parable that
achieves an awesome power. If the film isn’t perfect (which it isn’t), it
doesn’t matter because it is awe-inspiringly successful in its execution.