There Will Be Blood (review)

Citizen Plainview

There are only so many kinds of stories that can be told — only six, some say, and Shakespeare told ’em all best anyway. And there are only so many different ways of telling those tales on film (if anyone has put a number to it, I’m not aware of it). So there’s a reason why it seems like we keep seeing the same movies over and over again: we are. Which is why when a movie like There Will Be Blood comes along, it is so deep-down thrilling in a way that’s both visceral and intellectual: It feels like it has reinvented cinema. It feels like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It feels, in a world so jaded by the sense that there is nothing new under the sun, like something new under the sun.
Which is weird, in its own way, because it’s very obvious that one must say, Well, Blood has an old-fashioned kind of ambiance to it, one reminiscent of maybe Gone with the Wind and 1950s epics like Giant and probably even Citizen Kane, in many ways. But even those movies, I think, wanted to suck you into their melodramas, wanted you to get lost in their stories and not think about whether they were Art or not. Blood, for all its roots in the entire history of cinema, from silent film onward, is like a new discovery, and it took me till now — I saw the film weeks ago — to figure out why. It’s this:

There Will Be Blood slaps you in the face. It’s Joe Pesci in GoodFellas raging, “Do I amuse you? Do I entertain you?” in that way that suggests that it could not give two figs what you think of it. It says, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, sitting there in the theater?” Blood is not contemptuous of you — it just doesn’t care what you think about it. It is not there for you, for your amusement, for your entertainment. It is there for itself. It is a found object that might well have sprung in its entirety out of the subatomic froth of the universe. In the superbly philosophical vernacular of the moment that encompasses all the randomness of the world into a whaddaya-gonna-do shrug, it is what it is.

And that is what’s so thrilling about it. Movies pander to their audiences, give them what they want, even when they’re not obvious about it: the indie that avoids a sentimental happy ending because it’s trying to be “real” for a smart audience does that as much as a bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping studio film aimed at everyone and their grandmother. Not Blood. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson — who’s made hard-to-like, easy-to-love movies from Boogie Nights to Magnolia to Punch-Drunk Love — starts out here with a painful pinch that makes you sit up and take notice, and by the time he’s done with you (not that he even cares that you’re watching), he has bludgeoned you to death with his story. A simple story, really, but one that goes where it needs to because its characters are driving it — there is no sense that these are fake people directed by the needs of narrative. Anderson doesn’t care if you approve of what they do or of where their actions take them — indeed, he has little control over them, because they’re strange and unknowable people. And oh my god that is an amazing sensation, to not be pandered to.

This is all based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, and it is, of course, very much a fictional story that runs on the rules of fiction — Anderson just makes you forget that. (You know what they say about Hollywood: Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.) Blood is as effortless as it is resolutely not easy — which could be said are the defining attributes of all great art — from the harsh discordancy of its weirdly urgent soundtrack, by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, which does not attempt to disappear into the background, to the oddly stilted yet deeply, coldly expressive performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) as Daniel Plainview, turn-of-the-20th-century oilman, who comes into a small California desert town and takes it over to pump out the oil under its sands. The slow, subtle hypocrisies of Plainview’s life — we see them long before he does, if indeed he ever does — are the story, as greed pushes him to do ever more horrific things, and the slow, subtle mood that Anderson sets with his long takes and unhurried edits lulls us into getting caught up in it all in spite of how little the overall effort seems to court us at all.

It’s as if Anderson and Day-Lewis are reminding us that this is all a shadow play of fakery and making us forget that at the same time. It works perfectly well with the overarching story of Blood as a mythology of oil, a fairy tale for the industrial age — it’s the story of human endeavor in the 20th century, really, ambition and avarice driving out all other thought, with tragedy inextricably intertwined with the mucky crude and the divisiveness of modern life that separates families and makes new families out of circumstance, and with the clash of the hardness of business with the inflexibility of that other defining paradigm: religious faith and the controlling power of the preacher. Paul Dano (the silent teenage son in Little Miss Sunshine) is breathtaking as the man of the cloth who butts heads over decades with Plainview — frankly, I would never have imagined casting an actor as young as Dano (who’s only in his early 20s) in this role, but he is potent and brusque and more than a match for Day-Lewis, underplaying what could have been a big, brash character and, ironically, making him all the more unforgettable the smaller and the quieter he gets.

This is one of those movies that may well vex casual moviegoers: it’s actively unpleasant, in many ways, and not in any way that allows vindication at its end by vanquishing a bad guy and letting hope shine again. But that’s why we critics are praising it: not because we’re deliberately trying to be obscure and elitist and cool and superior, but because we see a lot more movies than you do, and we’re hungry for originality and daring. And we see that here, like we haven’t seen it in a long time.

Watch There Will Be Blood online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.

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