Thirteen years and 14½ minutes of silence open Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film, There Will Be Blood. It runs for just under 155 minutes. Thus the remaining 140 minutes of the film is where the film goes awry.
Ok, ok, that was a little bit snarky. But the truth of the matter is that this film, lauded as a ‘masterpiece’ by many brain-dead critics, and appearing on dozens of Top Ten film lists (to quote from the ad campaign) lacks a good story, good acting, and depends almost entirely on some ten to twelve minutes of bravura cinematography shoe-horned between the rest of the film’s rather undaring technical approaches. The fault is clearly Paul Thomas Anderson’s, for it is his script, based upon a minor novel by Upton Sinclair, called Oil!. The tale, especially for such a long film, is thin. A man named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is prospecting in 1898 California. He discovers oil, and by 1902 is involved in a drilling company. Many people write that the company is his, but we really do not know this. One day, a co-worker of his is killed in an accident, and we next see Daniel ministering to a baby. Earlier, the baby had been played with by the man who was killed, and many (including my wife) interpret this as his having taken the dead man’s baby. But, there’s zero evidence the baby was the dead man’s, or that the child was NOT Daniel’s- a point that later becomes important in the film. By 1911, the child is now named H.W. (Dillon Freasier), and called a ‘partner’ of Daniel’s, ostensibly to help sucker those more willing to trust a ‘family man.’
Enter Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), a young man with an oil tip about his town of Little Boston, California. Daniel goes there, and buys the land from Paul’s father Abel (David Willis). Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Dano), asks for more money than Daniel offered. Daniel then buys up the rest of the property about the town, and comes into increasing conflict with Eli, who is a psychopathic snake oil salesman wannabe preacher. After attacking his own father and ripping into his brother Paul (never seen again in the film), Eli starts a church called The Church Of The Third Revelation, and pretends to be a faith healer. After a falling out, Eli and Daniel part ways, H.W. goes deaf in an accident on the rig, and Daniel sinks into despair, sending his son away by tricking him into staying on a train he debarks. He also finds himself on the end of a con job, as a drifter who once knew his own brother, passes himself off as that brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). They hit it off, and fend off raiders from Standard Oil, who wish to buy Daniel out. Daniel instead turns to another company to build a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, thereby cutting Standard out of his profits, since they own the railroad that transports Daniel’s oil.
Then, at the sea, Daniel finds out that Henry is a fake, because he does not recall certain particulars of their boyhood town: Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. He confronts, him, shoots the faker dead, then wakes to find a man over him with a gun. It is a man whose property he wanted to but, but earlier snubbed. The man claims he’ll sell, but only if Daniel will be baptized into Eli’s church. The man implies he knows of Henry’s murder because he produces some of Henry’s possessions. Daniel thus joins Eli’s church, and is humiliated in public. This scene is overwrought, almost farcical (but not in its portrayal of the events- but in Anderson’s execution of them), and meant to serve as a ‘deep moment.’ It is supposed to be the key into Daniel, just as the childhood sled Rosebud is the secret to Charles Foster Kane. We then get montages of time passing, as H.W. returns to Daniel, grows up, then marries Eli’s younger sister. We are now in 1927, and we see Plainview, like Kane, is an abusive old drunk, alone in a dark manse. He is visited by H.W. (now Russell Harvard), who looks to start his own oil company. Daniel mocks him, refusing to listen to his sign language interpreter, and making H.W. speak aloud. Daniel views this as betrayal, that his son wants to be his competitor, and ragingly declares that H.W. was just a ‘bastard in a basket’ that he found, not his real son. It’s this scene that has led many to go back to the film’s earlier stages and interpret this as being literally true. But, there is no real evidence that the baby we first see Daniel playing with was not his own flesh and blood. The likelier interpretation is that Daniel, whose life has been oil for decades, feels betrayed, and lashes out at his son with a hurtful lie.
Regardless, H.W. leaves for Mexico with his wife, and some time later (likely two or more years) we see Daniel in his private bowling alley. He is lying drunk when Eli visits him. Eli has financial problems- even though he has made it big as a radio preacher (Billy Sunday anyone?), due to the Stock Market Crash (so we are at least into 1929 or 1930). He seeks a bailout from Daniel, by offering him rights to further oil-filled lands. Daniel makes Eli grovel, and admit that he is a false prophet and God but a superstition. This is payback for the ‘baptism’ Daniel suffered through. But, once done, and Eli at full grovel, Daniel tells him he’s already gotten all the oil from the lands Eli wants to broker a deal for. In doing so, He also builds up Eli’s brother Paul, setting off Eli’s rage that his brother has succeeded by partnering with Daniel. Eli is broken, and Daniel hurls bowling balls at Eli, and eventually clubs him to death with a bowling pin. Daniel is sitting next to Eli’s body when his manservant enters to inquire what is going on. Daniel matter of factly announces ‘I’m finished.’ Whether this is a reference to his own life ending for having killed Eli or simply a breaking of the fourth wall, and announcing the film’s end, is not made explicit.
But, it does not matter, for the final scene is so over the top and silly as to be ludicrous, especially if this film is presented as a serious drama, much less a ‘masterpiece’ of one. It’s possible that the final scene could be seen as a delusion, a response to Daniel’s drunken despond over his disowning of H.W. And this is bolstered by the fact that Eli seems to not have aged at all since 1911. This makes sense, if the two men had not seen each other since- likely since Daniel would not want to see the man who humiliated him. The problem with that interpretation is a) it’s a transparent attempt to excuse the bad final scene and b) since at least two years would have passed since the disowning scene, to think that a man like Daniel would be still so distraught over that occurrence that he would have such a fantasy, is stretching the drama way past the credulity point. In this, and many other lesser moments, the film loses all claims on even being a good film, and sinks to mediocrity. While it’s been many years since I watched John Huston’s The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, that film is another film this film was trying to ape. In fact, Citizen Kane Of The Sierra Madre might have been a good title for this film- certainly better than the melodramatic and hyperventilating There Will Be Blood.
The two disk DVD package is a major disappointment. Disk One has the film and no bonus features. In this day and age, unless the director has a fiat against commentaries, they are prerequisites for a good DVD package. The film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Disk Two has a few extras but they are meager. There is a small featurette with photos and outtakes, trailers, a few deleted scenes, and a small film of dailies. There is also a silent film documentary called The Story Of Petroleum, from 1923. It’s not that engaging, and a poor substitute for an in depth analysis of the film.
Overall, There Will Be Blood is a film with a good opening, a few good potential moments and scenes (as with the faux brother), but it ends in near disaster. Its ending would rank as one of the worst in history (think Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon) if only the rest of the film had been stronger. Also, in no way, shape, nor form is the film an ‘epic.’ Other than the word ‘surreal’ the term epic may be the most overused and misused word in the arts. An epic is a tale that covers a great deal of history, time, and place. It also delves deeply into the characters and plot. There Will Be Blood is a series of cursory sketches that are meager and often poorly connected. I spoke of the hit and miss cinematography, but the musical scoring to this film is even worse. And, even if one were to put aside the technical lack, and the script problems, there’s the acting. It’s simply not good. The two main characters, Lewis and Dano have no chemistry, in the sense that their hatred of each other never seems genuine. And, while Dano is a cipher emotionally, Lewis chews scenery even more than he did as Bill The Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York. Granted, while not a great film, that film was better written than this one, but there is a certain cartoonishness in Lewis’s portrayal that neuters all attempt at real drama. One cares not a damn for any of the mannekin-like characters- save perhaps for the faux brother, whose very fakeness was designed merely to show of Lewis's character’s rage and psychopathy, but did nothing of the sort. It only made the faux brother’s character seem slighter by his casual dismissal from Daniel’s life. Also, the tale is both too linear and too sparse in development to have any real poesy. It relies not on characterization but grotesques- they aren’t even caricatures. And, after the first fifteen minutes, I kept wondering what a real visionary director like Theo Angelopoulos or Michelangelo Antonioni would have done with this film’s premise- even its footage, for quality editing could have severely tightened the film up, and made it less dependent upon overwrought theatrics. In essence, one can tell this was a Hollywood film, even from the first minutes of silence.
There Will Be Blood attempts to be epic, great, and tie in with the current political zeitgeist by showing viewers the beginnings of what caused global warming. Instead, it is a meandering tale that relies on soap operatic tricks (such as Bandy’s blackmailing Daniel into Eli’s church- why?) that don’t even have a payoff, however cheap; as well as being dull and poor in almost every filmic aspect (not unlike its twinned, wildly overpraised critical cousin, the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men). That this film got so raved over as a great piece of cinema shows how little critics and filmgoers today understand real art and/or care about it. Which scenario is worse is open for debate. This film’s quality isn’t.