I fear tackling a review of There Will Be Blood. It’s every bit a function of my own literary limitations, my shortage of vocabulary, and my suspicion that, when presented with an absolute marvel in one medium, encapsulating it in another is near futile. Imagine a film adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; no acting chops or trickery of light and sound can approximate Joyce’s sumptuous, visually suggestive orchestration of written words. So I am tempted to just declare Paul Thomas Anderson a master of cinema. I am tempted to call his film a virtual catalogue of flawless writing and direction, his craft the steak to his performers’ potatoes. I’m tempted to call Daniel Day-Lewis not only the subtlest, fullest actor in cinema history, but also the consummate collaborator, as there’s no mistaking this as anything but an Anderson film. I am tempted to simply demand that all people see There Will Be Blood and experience my wonder first-hand.
And this would, of course, be fruitless and silly. Blood is a film, no more or less, two hours and forty minutes of flickering celluloid with no more real power to chop down mountains than the feelings of sheer elation that compel me to write. Yet I remember the feeling of seeing it for the first time, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 2008: the unalloyed joy of a film wholly executed. Not scrapped together from spare parts, or joined at the seams with putty for the sake of a bigger picture that, seen from afar, looks pretty good. There is something spit-and-polished about the thing from a distance, appearing lumpy and askew, dangerously hewn to a performance above clarity or depth. But Blood holds up best under acute scrutiny, in the same manner as a Joyce novel: utterly crafted with the singular tools of its author, with a purpose and focus that reveals itself fully only at length.
It’s impossible to say whether Anderson considers craft or narrative more crucial to his filmmaking at this point. I venture to argue that with most filmmakers, it’s going to be one or the other. There’s a Spielberg on the one hand, who’s honed his own eccentric style ad absurdum. No story ever takes as much formal precedence, or sways Spielberg far from his dazzling kineticism (Schindler’s List (1993) alone stands up for debate, but opens other questions of craft versus manipulation). There are the untold numbers of styleless hacks who’ve forgotten the term motion picture. And then there are the few in between, but among contemporary American filmmakers I can think of a small number – Scorsese and Coppola in their respective primes, Altman as his finest – for whom there is no discernible distinction between form and meaning, and Anderson, years ago with Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), joined their ranks. Those films saw projected light for what it can be: a palette for sketching, vibrantly, a few of the countless mysteries of being alive.
There Will Be Blood is the most fully realized film of his career. It is a film about fathers and sons, and greed. It is about inflammatory bile that has festered below the surface, waiting to explode. It’s about the ugly commingling of the hypocrisies of blood-oil and religion that might be used to define American culture even today. Anderson’s Daniel Plainview (the name is so obviously descriptive as to be beyond symbolism; Plainview might have named himself) is substantially more than hell-bent on plundering. He’s out to succeed above everyone around him, if at all possible at the cost of their faith – in him, or, more accurately, in his total, annihilating success. Plainview is a demon, sick of the stink of human failure but determined to mire himself in it if that will keep his head above its putrid inconsequence. “I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little.”
He adopts the orphan son of a worker killed in a well shaft, for reasons that Anderson suggests very quickly in a long take that pushes in on the two of them during Plainview’s first speech to a crowd of townspeople who’ve just discovered a vein of oil. Plainview puts on one goddamn hell of a well-greased show (and can appreciate those of his competitors), explaining in his oddly syrupy, dust-choked voice why he’s the only oilman for the job. But he’s quick to abandon a squabbling crowd – and their oil as well – preferring to cajole man-to-man, or whenever appropriate, family-to-family. He is a salesman, with unconditional love only for his product. Until the last third of the film, though, Plainview shows hints of the last strains of human warmth left in him, toward two children and a man who appears one day on his doorstep; a baptism scene, appeasingly undertaken for the purpose of completing his pipeline to the Pacific, reveals the stunning depth of Plainview’s self-hatred: the Godfatherish purgatory for conflating family and business. And there is a final-act flashback of heartbreaking unselfconsciousness, where for the briefest of moments Plainview was capable of real affection toward his ‘son’ before, likely embarrassed, he drifts off again toward his isolated derrick on the scrubby plain.
There’s a catalyst for his disintegration: the son of a local farmer, and the apparent twin brother of the young man, Paul, who led him to the town of Little Boston. Eli Sunday is a preacher of fire-and-brimstone damnation who entirely undermines Plainview’s shifty negotiations for buying the Sunday ranch. Is Eli really Paul, screwing with Plainview to cash in his family’s property to build his church (or is he just Eli doing it)? As the well goes into the ground and begins to produce oil, the two men vie for the faith, trust, and capital of Little Boston, and for the entrapment and destruction of each other’s souls: Plainview with his wells, “blowing gold all over the place”, and Eli with his church (Eli: “You will never be saved if you…” Congregation: “Reject the blood!”). Eli and Plainview’s evershifting power struggle takes on a subtle, complex momentum, propelling the film toward a beautifully surreal ending, both men reduced to their moldy basest in a bowling alley. Not from lack of habit does Anderson allow a carnival atmosphere to creep, shrieking with delight, over his final sequence, a lunatic creature ecstatic at its inevitable release. It is a magnificent thing to anticipate on a second viewing.
If this much were all the film had to offer, a pleasurably intricate script played cleverly by gifted actors, there could be little chance of blowing the whole thing. But Anderson is also a consummate maker of cinema, as energetic as Tarantino but more patient; as articulate in his craft as latter-day Scorsese but with no softening urge to please. A landscape is not simply a vista for Anderson. It’s an expressive canvas, and he puts his camera immediately to work in the opening shot, framing three massive hills against a baking midday sky, followed by a younger Plainview biting with a pickaxe at the wall of a mineshaft. The first fifteen minutes of the film contain not a word of discernible dialogue, but by the end we’ve seen an entire backstory and have a firm sense of the way Plainview approaches the world (with an axe and alcohol, stubbornly). Later, whole scenes play out in wide shots on the plain, with characters roving in and out of view, forward and backward in space, critters with agendas toiling over an indifferent earth.
What Anderson does not try to do, graciously, is mimic or approximate Plainview’s psychology with his camera. For all the shots of the man on an empty landscape, I’d argue that to just call Plainview isolated would be to trivialize Day-Lewis’ complex performance. If Plainview is a lonely man, he’s lonely by choice and intent, and both actor and director are too intellectually active to summarize the character in cheap visual metaphors. We’re meant to understand Plainview as the master of his own destiny – inasmuch as any man can be – skulking across creation in his outsized hands and feet, a crab-monster with a dangerous capacity for burying other men facefirst in the mud. He’s also an observant man, who watches and plans his next move as an erupting oil well sets fire to a towering derrick (while the son lies badly wounded in the opposite direction). In the middle of this sequence, Anderson provides a startling shot: the burning pyre of a derrick, small in the middle of a vast black prairie, the dusky sunset on the horizon. It’s an island of human destruction-achievement, a tiny hole in the world torn open by measured greed. These moments hover over us from Anderson’s perch as the executor of his own peculiar universe, and I find it encouraging to see a filmmaker acknowledging his authority as a sculptor of sound and light, rejecting the idea that his invisibility somehow best articulates a story’s purpose. We might otherwise not have such ebullient, self-contained master classes like Last Tango in Paris (1972) or Raging Bull (1980) – or, for that matter, Citizen Kane (1941) or The General (1926).
Oh, yes. As with so many others, above that scene – competing with it for the bolder declaration of metastasizing chaos – is Jonny Greenwood’s thumping, roiling score. A post sound mixer friend of mine finds Greenwood’s music intrusive, mixed as it is very high in the soundtrack. It frequently overtakes the natural sound in a scene, sometimes even the dialogue, with its slippery, discordant strings or its aggressive percussion. Taken as a tool of the craft, I don’t see why Anderson can’t use it with pointed affect rather than as subliminal tone (it does both). It has a life of its lively own, as much a part of Blood‘s complexion as the people who occupy the film, or the pensive dance of light and motion that characterizes Robert Elswit’s camerawork. It’s got a tendony quality, like most scores, holding together and helping to flex the muscles of separate scenes, but I can only imagine the pure joy Anderson must have taken ladling it over his film, several years in the making, an au poivre over Day-Lewis’ medium-rare performance.
A measure of my ability to wrestle with art at all, it’s taken me the better part of two years to be able to articulate my understanding of this film. And coming to the end of a review so rambling and lopsided, I’m reminded of the many alarming times I’ve worried that There Will Be Blood might ultimately be a hollow, flamboyant exercise. It takes giant chances with its circuitous storytelling, risking coherence for consistency of tone and style. The story itself offers no redemption of any kind. It’s left many of my friends feeling drained and confused; a few have suggested that, without Day-Lewis’ hypnotizing presence, Blood would be boring. They may be right, but that’s like saying that without wings a plane may not fly. It also wouldn’t be a plane. More to the point, a work of art constantly risks subjective failure. Real communication through a medium as intuitive as film is profoundly personal, operating more on the rhythms between concrete action than on the mechanics of narration alone. To read a Joyce novel is surely to receive a story at one level, but the degree of a reader’s receptivity to literature as artful tides of suggestive language, ebbing and flowing with the command of the writer, determines the depth and quality of the reader’s experience. I say the same holds true of There Will Be Blood, with cinema in place of literature. I can’t prove it objectively, but I can try to relay the ways in which it’s arrested my intellect and engaged my emotional faculties, developed as they are from my own experiences. With a bit of cinema, and a bit of life.