Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson drinks YOUR milkshake! This is the best film of 2007. Hands down. It’s not a perfect film by any means but it comes about as close to perfection as Orson Welles did when he made that obscure biopic Citizen Kane.
Superficially, this belongs in the Kane genre. A character study/profile of a self-made man whose very ambition, greed, misanthropy and ego get the better of him, it’s also the story of the beginnings of corporate America and it’s shadowy reflection, corporate Christianity. The character of Daniel Plainview is meant to be many things at once, not the least himself and is one of the most vivid ever recorded on film. Larger than life, cartoonish and yet real as any nightmare, Plainview stalks across the screen with such clarity that he seems like he’s talking directly to you.
Anderson’s screenplay is a startling adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!. Another muckraking novel of corporate injustice like his more well known The Jungle, Oil! has been considerably altered by Anderson to concentrate less on digging up the political dirt than on the psychology and sheer existence of the kind of man who creates his own isolated empire.
We first see Plainview in the bowels of the earth, chipping away in the dark of a deep mineshaft with his basic tools, a pickaxe and some dynamite. It’s 1898 but it might as well be 2040 and on the planet Mars. Anderson shoots this sequence and most of the movie as though it were The Shining or 2001, all intensely composed deadpan images with disturbing, nerve shredding music. Plainview’s work seems grueling: chip away some rock, light some dynamite and climb out to safety. Repeat and rinse. He goes about his business in the wilderness alone and seems quite determined. After breaking his leg in a fall from the shaft, we see just how determined this man really is. Plainview uses all his strength to pull himself up and climb back out of the shaft and it’s assumed, all the way back down the mountain into town. What’s so amazing about the opening ten minutes of the film is that there is not a single line of dialogue uttered as we watch just how Plainview goes about making his fortune, mostly with his own two hands. This sequence is vital to making the film work, as much of our understanding of and sympathy for Daniel comes from watching the man’s unflinching tenacity and stoicism. This also informs Anderson’s almost Kubrickian simplicity of storytelling: when one of Plainview’s workers is killed in an accident, all Anderson has to do is show the man’s orphaned baby in a basket and have Plainview look down at him to realize that he will become Plainview’s son.
The first words we hear spoken in the film and the last ones are appropriately from Plainview. “I am an oil man”, he says to a group of landowners looking to earn money from their oil rich land. He’s also a steely businessman which may be another way to say that he is a swindler and a con artist. The central conflict arises in California, on a tract of land owned by the devout Sunday family. Plainview goes out there on a tip from Paul Sunday (Paul Dano). Making a deal for the land, he agrees to pay Paul’s twin brother Eli (Dano again) $5,000 to build his own church to “serve” the community. But it’s clear that Plainview has his fingers crossed. This deal becomes a wedge between the men, who hate each other intensely, despite or perhaps because of, their similarities. What develops from this handshake are the seeds of our American cultural identity; the two headed dragon of Capitalism and Evangelicalism. Anderson’s film chronicles the rivalry between these two men for the “faith” of the community and demonstrates how each is willing to play dirty to get what they want.
But this is where Anderson surprises everyone. Though it is certainly epic in visual scale and everyone is rushing to label it so, There Will Be Blood is anything but epic in nature. It’s a quite small and minimalist look at this one particular man and his “plain” view. Most films of this nature would emphasize the “big” themes involving the rape of the land or the disenfranchised poor and this certainly does touch upon them. But structurally the film is about the biggest theme there is, that of human nature and Anderson keeps Daniel Plainview’s nature at the center of everything. Not that we leave the film understanding the man at all, he remains a mystery, but we feel as though we know him. As we know that a rock is a rock or that the sun sets and rises.
Plainview is a specific archetype within the American myth. The self made man who answers to no one, has the vision to see the future and is able to shape it to his benefit. In his one revelatory moment, Plainview tells his “brother” Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) that he looks at people and finds little to like in them. It doesn’t really explain anything but it’s clear he’s not excluding himself from the observation. Plainview seems to see the world on a primal level, as every man for himself, each vying for a piece of the pie. This philosophy stands outside conventional morality and against the brotherhood of man that Christianity proposes. Plainview does a lot of lousy things throughout the story but few that leave him feeling guilty. He is justified in his actions through his belief in the survival of the fittest. He just thinks that he’s the fittest of all and damn anyone who gets in his way.
When his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) loses his hearing during an oil derrick explosion, Plainview sends the boy off to a school for the deaf and remains isolated from him thereafter. This is never explained in the film but it seems as though he sees the boy as damaged goods in some regard, his handicap rendering him unable to compete equally with other men. To Plainview this makes him useless as a partner and heir. But it’s not a point of sorrow for him though he clearly loves the boy. It’s simply the way it is. Plainview’s philosophy is a means to the ends of ruthlessness without which one can be a victim of vulnerability.
This focus on the minimal within the epic is one of the reasons the film’s ending has been criticized. Certainly it is a very theatrical, larger than life sequence which allows Daniel Day-Lewis free reign to chew all the scenery around him. But it’s also the wrong ending for an epic and the absolute correct one for this film. We end with Plainview and Eli Sunday still arguing over that $5,000 and a plot of land. Each tries to humiliate the other, but as usual Plainview comes out on top. And then he does something else. Something that seems outrageous and insane and yet clearly apropos. In the end, we leave the animalistic Plainview sitting alone on the floor of his private bowling alley, eating a steak with his bare hands and saying the film’s very appropriate last words, “I am finished.”
Daniel Day-Lewis has given so many great performances that it’s becoming difficult to find new adjectives to describe his greatness. He is also proof positive that, contrary to popular belief, subtle acting is the anti-thesis of what people enjoy about performance. Like other actors revered for there talents such as Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Marlon Brando, the joy is in watching them transform themselves into a very specific and mannered character. In other words, we want to see the craft magically in front of us, whether it’s a foreign accent, a strange affectation of behavior or a complete physical transformation. It’s the very essence of theater, where an actor can entrance an audience by putting on a wig and making us believe he’s King Lear through the power of his imagination. Day-Lewis is gigantic in this film, both physically and metaphorically. Physically, he seems impossible large, a man as tall as the oil derricks behind him, lumbering through the landscapes like Godzilla stomping on Tokyo. Metaphorically, Anderson has taken the epic sweep of the film and placed everything on Plainview’s character. He is Daniel Plainview the man and then he is also corporate America itself. He’s a cold hearted businessman and capitalism in one image. That Day-Lewis can be all of these things and yet still show the humanity within the heartlessness is nothing short of magic and very deserved of the Academy Award.
As a film, There Will Be Blood is a clearly conscious stylistic break from Anderson’s previous work and perhaps an indication of the direction in which he hopes to head in the future. It seems that he has sowed the wild oats of indie filmmaking which forced him as it forces all young filmmakers to make instant impressions with their first or second film. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here, hopefully not into a creative stupor in trying to top himself over and over.
Technically, everything gets high marks on this Special Edition DVD. Great image and sound quality. I just wish I could talk about all the great stuff that’s included to make it a real "special edition". The cover has a nice image that relates to none of the film’s official advertising, instead going for a real Criterion classics look. That’s nice and all but what’s inside is not exactly Criterion level in content. The packaging itself is probably great for the environment as it’s mostly just paper, but bad for collecting. I almost broke the discs twice trying to slip them out of the cardboard sleeves. It should not be a risk every time you want to watch a film.
What we do get is fairly well done. “15 minutes” is probably that long but is an unmoderated look at the images and research that inspired the look and content of There Will Be Blood. No comments from Anderson or the legendary Production designer Jack Fisk, but some great images from the early days of oil drilling are shown next to images from the film itself for comparison. All of this is scored with more music by Jonny Greenwood the Radiohead guitarist who contributed such an amazing and violent score to the film.
We get a look at a pair of deleted scenes called “Fishing” and “Haircut/Interrupted Hymm”. Both are very good scenes which are simply more of the same of what appears in the film. “Fishing” shows more of the process of oil drilling that the film already establishes with real authority. “Haircut/Interrupted Hymm” show more personal moments between Plainview and his son, but this is also something already clear in the film.
“Dailies Gone Wild” is not about shooting the film during spring break. It’s just what appears to be an improvised outtake from the scene where Plainview takes his son for a steak at a local bar and has a confrontation with some Standard Oil men. It’s clearly unfocused dramatically but interesting to see in terms of how the film may have been developed from and off the script page. But this is another example of the problem with these extras: there’s nobody manning the fort. These pieces appear without explanation, with no commentary by any of the participants and then just end. The teaser trailer and official trailer are also included as well as an archival silent film from 1923 called The Story of Petroleum which is exactly that. An early chronicle of the oil business with more music by Greenwood.
Although he’s been hard to shut up on most of his other DVD releases, Paul Thomas Anderson does not do a commentary for this very enigmatic and unique film which, of all his films, could really benefit from one. Either he’s planning on doing one in the future in some double dipped version or he’s just changed his thoughts on commentaries in general, like Spielberg and DePalma, preferring the mystery rather than exposing all the secrets. Either way, it leaves this collector’s edition with the feeling that it’s somehow incomplete and unfinished.