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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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.

MPAA: rated R for some violence and disturbing images

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • I’ve never bought into that “there are only 6 stories” nonsense. It’s like saying, “there are only two kinds of people: male and female.” Technically true, and almost completely meaningless.

  • Vergil

    My favorite review of yours yet, MaryAnn.

  • Vergil

    You are almost exactly entirely incorrect Prankster. They idea is not technically true, but carries a lot of meaning.

  • JT

    It’s difficult to write a review that doesn’t rehash other beautifully written reviews – The New York Times, The Onion A.V. Club and yours in particular. It’s an astonishing movie and a phenomenal performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.

    I’m wondering why it’s rated R though. There’s no nudity, no sex, no ‘strong’ language and the violence is not muted, but it’s not as gory as it is in many PG-13 films. The MPAA confuses me.

  • MaryAnn

    It may be that the violence isn’t cartoonish: there’s not much of it, but it’s pretty graphic. Not as gory as it might be, but Anderson doesn’t flinch from it.

  • In my opinion the movie was flawless. The tension that persists throughout is unparalleled. The comparison to the dinner scene with Joe Pesci is accurate; yet while that scene was brilliant for those few minutes on screen, this movie is THAT for over two hours. I can’t wait to see it again.

  • Jurgan

    I’m dying to see this movie, so when the heck is it going to open wide? Hurry up!

    P.S. I have not read this review- I’m trying to avoid any possible spoilage. I know very little about it, but what little I’ve seen makes me think it’s terrific.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s going to around 400 theaters this Friday… maybe even more now that Day-Lewis won the Globe.

    It will get Oscar nominations, too. And then it will go even wider.

  • MBI

    It’s not like I’m disagreeing with you, Maryann; this movie is everything you say it is. A world-changer, one of the best of the year, indifferent to the audience, an acting tour-de-force, and so on. But I think you neglected the most important aspect about it: It’s a movie where Daniel Day-Lewis gloats that he drank your milkshake. I think this is my favorite movie of the decade.

  • Chris

    MBI is correct. To me the milkshake is what seals this movie’s greatness. Citizen Kane didnt have milkshakes, and it certainly didnt have Daniel Day Lewis drinking yours up.

  • A Guy

    Finally got to see TWBB last night and there certainly is a lot to praise, but for me it ultimately doesn’t pass the “I’m definitely going to see this movie again” test. Nor does it pass the “when it comes on TV I can’t turn it off test” which, for me, defines a great movie.

    Your review opens by identifying, and then asking us to dismiss, TWBB’s fundamental weakness—lack of a satisfying story. Most of the fawning critical response to this movie reads like restaurant reviews that praise everything (menu choices, location, staff, presentation, ambiance, décor) except the taste of the food.

  • MaryAnn

    I think you’re misinterpreting what I’ve written. I do not say or imply that the film lacks a satisfying story, nor do I highlight any kind of weakness.

    Whom do you imagine critics are attempting to curry favor with by our “fawning”? Why do you imagine critics are lying in their praise of this film? What possible purpose would it serve… and if it does serve a purpose, why don’t we just praise every movie to high heaven?

  • A Guy

    I took your “six kinds of stories” intro as meaning “leave your expectations about story at the door because this movie is above meeting them”. You’re not, I presume, suggesting that Anderson has created a new type of narrative structure. Because for me there was a deficiency of story, not a transcendence of it.

    As for critics’ motivations, I sometimes think they become jaded after seeing so many movies (many of which they’d probably skip if they weren’t professionals) that, like an addict, they need a bigger and bigger hit to get off. So when a movie comes along with a really great and fresh element—such as clever cinematography or a great performance—they confuse that element with a great movie. For me, story is king: no performance, camera work, scoring, or any other single element can close the deal by itself.

  • MaryAnn

    Story is king for me, too, which I think the body of my reviews makes clear. And I see no deficiency in the storytelling here.

    It’s not that critics need “a bigger hit to get off.” It’s that we’re tired of seeing the same old shit over and over again, and we like when we see something new. “Something new” doesn’t necessarily make a movie good. But in this case, the “something new” is part of what makes this movie great… along with the story itself.

  • BW

    Excellent review, MaryAnn. I’ve never watched a movie comparable in length to TWBB that seemed to fly by so fast. I was just entranced throughout. I’ve been reading reviews for about three hours now after getting home from the theater, and now I realize I need to see the movie again!

  • I am dying to see this! Your review makes me want to rush out and buy a ticket!! If only :)

  • Valerie

    “… greed pushes him to do ever more horrific things …”

    I’m not sure I agree with that. Was it greed that pushed him to commit the last horrific act of the movie, involving a bowling pin, or to abandon his young son, or to hurt and alienate the then-grown son?

    Daniel’s character is as elemental, volatile and explosive as the noxious oil he harvests from the earth. Like any of us, he encounters junctions in his life when he must choose the more difficult high road that a more evolved person might choose, or give in to his lizard-brain, passionate and savage side (and, say, beat the crap out of someone). The more he gives in to that side of himself, the harder it is to rise out of that way of being, and the more convenient it becomes to let the magic of denial grease the way. I’m just not seeing greed as being his main flaw, but rather just good, old-fashioned weakness of character.

    On another note, would you and/or your readers care to help answer a question: Are Paul and Eli really twins, or is it just Paul, who has some kind of mulitiple personality disorder, who is imagining Eli? Thanks for any insights.

  • Valerie

    … Er, “juncture” is what I meant there, not “junction” — sorry.

  • MaryAnn

    At first I thought Paul and Eli were some sort of split personality thing, but later in the film other family members talk about Paul as if he were real, so I’m assuming he is real.

    As for the greed/character flaw thing, I think you’re splitting hairs. Aren’t we really talking about the same thing?

  • Valerie

    The NYPost has an article online in which Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul Dano are interviewed, and they pretty much answer the question that, Yes, Paul and Eli are two separate people. I thought that could have been clearer in the movie. Dano comes off so creepy in the movie that I found it concievable that he could have that multiple personality disorder thing.

    I don’t mean to diss your review, which is fine, but I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to say that it wasn’t greed motivating Daniel to commit those henious acts, such as bashing Eli’s head in. Daniel is a big, complicated character, which is great to see in a movie. I don’t want to gloss over that.

    BTW, at a post-movie Q&A at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, I heard Supervising Sound Editor Matthew Wood and Sound Designer Chris Scarabosio (moderated by Gary Rydstrom)talk about how they recorded old oil derrick noised from an oil museum in Texas. That frightening, discordant hum you hear in the movie was generated by a symphony orchestra (London, I think).

    You’ll notice that, unlike in many movies, you often don’t hear the scary music/sounds until after the frightening stuff happens. This is quite effective. Many people have felt like getting up and running out of the theatre during this movie.

  • MBI

    Plainview’s greed and his murder of Eli are both symptoms of the same cause — his complete and utter hatred of everyone around him.

  • Valerie

    I didn’t get the feeling he hated his workers, his business partner,the little girl that he defended from her father, his young son, etc. (It seemed he sent his young son away because he didn’t know how to deal with his new set of needs — and that’s realistic also considering the time. But instead of overcoming that, he chose the selfish way out, probably more out of fear than anything else.)

    This is something I like about this movie: It has us thinking a little further than perhaps we’re used to about things like morality — and how what passes for “moral” changes over time. You don’t see that touched on in too many movies.

    Daniel confided at one point that he hates everyone, but haven’t we all felt that at one time or another, if even for a fleeting moment? I suspect that someone who truly hates everyone doesn’t go around announcing that fact. It sounded like it might have been the steam-blowing-off rant of a passionate person who is frustrated with his inability to know and be true to himself. Very screwed up, yes, but not a one-dimensional hate machine.

  • Corey

    Not that I didn’t enjoy the film (it’s certainly not the worst, but it’s not the best by far), but character depth is not a substitute for story.

  • Valerie

    I saw a story there. Two thoughts:

    1. With epics, there is often so much going on in the depiction of sense of time & place, the story can get kind of lost in there. As someone rather familiar with that era of California history & its denizens, I was impressed with how small town Calif life of that era was depicted.

    2. We’re so used to being fed stories with the type of character development wherein the character trajectory goes something like: bad/weak -> epiphany -> better person. This is a time-honored way of selling tickets to the masses. In this movie, we see something like the opposite. He is not necessarily a saint, but he’s hard-working, brave and industrious, he cares for the child, he defends the abused girl, he is decent about taking care of his workers. So: Possibly decent/average person -> bad choices and weakness of character -> monster. That is as unsettling as the music of this movie. It’s like the elephant in the kitchen: there are people like that all around us. Maybe we prefer not to be reminded?

    On another note, I would like to see a movie deal a lot more with the way things were back then that we don’t talk about anymore. How incredibly racist, unfair to women, cruel to animals, destructive to the environment, and so on, it was. More openness and dialogue about this might spur people to think about how our social mores might be viewed in 100-200 years. As a society, most of us are like people walking with our eyes closed, barely looking back or looking forward.

  • MaryAnn

    Daniel is a big, complicated character, which is great to see in a movie. I don’t want to gloss over that.

    Oh, I agree completely, and I did not intend to imply anything contrary to that.

  • For some reason I thought Paul and Eli where the same people. Couple of a reasons what lead me to think this other then its the same actor, when Eli comes down to Daniel and his sons camp for “Quail hunting” , he introduces him self as Eli, then he walks away, and Daniel and his son look at each other as if maybe they are confused. Perhaps there was no confusion, and Daniel sees an understanding in what Eli’s gig is, then Daniel looks at his son and nods, like “you get it to? Ok, dont say anything”.
    The gig being he posed as Paul so he wouldnt get blamed for bringing the oilers in town. But if there was no gig and Paul and Eli are twins, thats fine because the movies mainly all Eli.

    Overall , yeah this review was pretty much dead on. Probably the longest one I’ve read from you. I agree 100% on why its a great movie.
    I gota tell thought, the theater I saw this at, the screen was all scratched up and a yellow line would appear in the middle of the screen, on and off. I thought i was seeing the grindhouse version of “there will be blood”. It was playing in the back back, the theaters smallest screen.
    It was great though i love the transition from the industial age to the roaring 20’s. I also felt it had like a not-so-silent Silent movie feel. The music was like the uh-oh music in “the great train robbery”. Its as if PTW went back in time with new cameras and filmed this in the time frame the movie was filmed in. It just had a real tip top original feel to it like you said.

  • MaryAnn

    I thought Paul and Eli were the same person for the same reasons you name, HellsDevilJ. Anderson says this was not his intention, but I don’t think it diminishes the film at all — it merely adds another odd and intriguing detour.

    the screen was all scratched up and a yellow line would appear in the middle of the screen, on and off

    That sucks. That was probably a print that’s been touring around for a while — that’s what tends to happen with small releases: a few prints keep moving around. Unlike a superwide release, for which 4,000 prints or more are out there on opening weekend.

  • Valerie

    Just for the record, I saw it (as I mentioned) at the new state-of-the-art Lucasfilm Digital Arts Center in SF’s Presidio, and the folks operating the sound kept it cranked up so loud that a good many of the patrons had their fingers plugging their ears through much of the movie.

    Theatres might consider having someone with normal hearing test the sound levels.

    A bit off topic, but still.

  • Chris

    I just couldn’t get past the melodrama-the twirly mustache villain type DDL played. He even looked and sounded the part. But for me, the worst thing about this movie was the SOUNDTRACK. Every time the horrendous soundtrack cued up for more dirge-like groaning, I had to roll my eyes.

    Once I reached the halfway point and realized the movie wasn’t going to get any better, that I’d seen this all done much much better before, I turned it off in relief. I have no idea why this film effected me like this when so many appear to have loved it, but I’m calling bullshit on this one.

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