Tuesday, 19 August 2008

There Will Be Blood

Lowdown: An entrepreneur getting into the oil business, serving as an analogy to the corruption that comes with power.
There Will Be Blood (TWBB) is one of those unique films about which I couldn’t really find a negative review. As in, everyone thinks it's great! That, plus its director – Paul Thomas Anderson, of Magnolia fame – meant I really wanted to watch it.
At its time Magnolia was unique in the way it conjoined different and seemingly unrelated storylines into one. TWBB is also unique but in a different way, to do with its slow and measured pacing. That pacing is augmented by a unique and unnerving score (which could get a bit on one’s nerves but does the job its meant to do). Most of the uniqueness comes from the way the story is told: Especially in the first half of the film, we just get to watch shots of key events taking place, with not much in the way of dialog or explanations. That is, instead of someone saying “I dug for oil yesterday and found it really hard”, the way films often do to improve pacing and reduce tediousness, you see the guy digging for oil and the suffering he goes through.
But I’m ahead of myself. TWBB is the story of Daniel Plainview (performed quite exceptionally by Daniel Day-Lewis). As the film starts we see Plainview digging for gold on his own, some time towards the very end of 19th century's California. He’s not into workplace safety and crap like that, so he gets severely injured while detonating dynamite. So determined is Plainview that he manages to pull himself out of his middle of nowhere pit and crawl from this middle of nowhere to a place that gives him $345 for the gold nugget he has on him; quite a lot of money for the time.
We roll a few years ahead. Plainview used the money earned from his nugget to start an enterprise of his own, this time digging for oil. He still isn't much into health and safety, mishaps happen at the office, and he has himself a child that he grooms.
We roll a few more years into the future and Plainview stumbles on an opportunity to buy cheap land where oil is obviously abundant. Plainview doesn't let much stand in his way to cease control over the land and its oil, semi tricking the people by not really lying to them about their lands' potential but not telling them the truth either, and exploiting everything in order to earn control and power. At this point he gets some opposition in the shape of a young aspiring evangelical priest, aptly names Sunday (in contrast to the aptly named Plainview who is portrayed as a very Social Darwinian agnostic). Sunday is also in a power trip of his own, and he also tries to use the oil for his own private cause; a lot of the film becomes the story of the struggle between the two. Not all of it, though: TWBB is mostly the story of Plainview's eternal struggle for power over everything, living and still, and the toll it has on him and on his surrounding.
By telling us a story that aspires to appear authentic about how the oil industry has started its way, the exploitation that was involved, and how even the morale compass of religion bent down to the power oil has brought with it, TWBB tells us why our world is the way it is today. Why, for example, we continue to rely on fossil fuels for energy when we live on a planet of molten lava and while we have at our disposal a giant fusion reactor eternally above us. According to TWBB, it's the power that comes to those in charge of the oil that drives them crazy with maintaining it, while we are too dumb to notice we're being exploited to be left with nothing but arid land at the end (which is not too far). Ultimately, TWBB is a story on human nature and its susceptibility for corruption when superior power is there to be had. The analogy with oil is good, the historical part of it is interesting, but the question remains - is TWBB a good film to watch, as in - do you enjoy watching it?
The answer to that question is a mixed bag. With its unique anachronistic style, TWBB is interesting. The performances are good, too. Then again, it's too weird, and with all due respect it's not the first film on how power corrupts humans. If anything, it's not that particularly good in the "power corrupts" genre, simply because its hero - Plainview - becomes more and more a mental case rather than a true villain. Around the halfway mark, and especially towards the end, the question of Plainview's rising level of evil loses interest and you just want the film to get on with it and see how Plainview copes with Sunday. To be honest, towards the end of the film Sunday seems to be forced on the film rather than an integrated part of it.
Best scenes: In order to secure the land he needs to run an oil pipeline, Plainview repents before god in the church of his archenemy, Sunday. He obviously hates every minute of it, but in order to get his reward he will do all it takes.
A notable feature on the DVD is the 15 minute special that compares authentic material from the early 20th century's oil digging days to the way the film portrays it, showing us just how authentic the film is. The sets, the characters, the motions, they're all based on real stuff. Quite amazing! This reminds me how photos my parents took of California in the seventies were full of oil drills; now almost all of them are gone as we've dug up almost all of the oil in the area. We humans are such idiots.
Overall: Quality wise, and with the arty way it was done, TWBB is a 3.5 stars film. I, however, liked it 3 out of 5 stars much.


Wicked Little Critta said...

As you know, I agree with you...and I concur with your vote for best scene. What incredible performances there. I think I saw him nearly break during that part.

So...in your opinion, what was the deal with Paul and Eli? Why were they never on screen together?

Moshe Reuveni said...

My theory is that it's a deliberate attempt to create confusion with the viewers.
Basically, the director wants us to wonder whether the two are the same, in the same way he wants us to wonder whether Plainview's son is indeed his son.
Personally, I didn't like this tactic.