There will be Blood… and there was Blood

February 10, 2008

Just saw There Will Be Blood. Well, it blew me away. PT Anderson’s new film “There Will be Blood” is a cold, hard, black masterpiece. Clearly the only film in the running for an Oscar that fully deserves it. Anderson has taken Upton Sinclair’s novel on the early Oil fields and turned it into a misanthropic theological cinematic triumph that could be the best film of the past 12 months. Or at least top three or four.

Better I thought, than my other two recent raves “No country…” and “…Jesse James..” the film plays around a deep basic theological discussion between the two main characters. The first is Daniel Plainview (name as destiny) played to perfection by Daniel Day Lewis. Plainview is an outright misanthrope who hates all people except family and is mighty distrustful of them. He is only interested in one thing. Oil. This he ruthlessly searches for and attains at the hands of his many devious deeds. He blatantly rips off the land owners and fowls friend and foe alike in his search. To Anderson’s credit the left wing nonsense of the Upton novel is toned down or gone and replaced with a theological/ metaphysical voice. This dialogue exists with the other main character, Eli Sunday. Sunday is a determined idealist son of one of the men ripped off by Plainview and through a heightened sense of his own value in the world, takes the religious humanist perspective in the film.

Spoilers ahead. Don’t look for any Scorsese or Ferrara mystical religious musing here, the film takes a cold look at theology much to Anderson’s daring and credit. Plainview is clearly a nihilistic existentialist out to exploit and dominate for its own sake. He is challenged in his world view (apart from family diversions with his son and fake half brother) by Eli Sunday, who due to his pious beliefs makes Plainview perhaps question his own perspective. For example over his displicable treatment of his own adopted son, who he sends away like a freak when he becomes deaf. To Plainview, life is nasty, cruel, brutish and short. He takes solace in liquor, oil and domination. Eli builds a church from Plainview’s funds and a congregation to pursue the idealist path of the sharing of Christian humanism and good will. Plainview takes Eli’s positions personally after he breaks down at a service he is forced into… to get a final property that will give him a pipeline. Plainview is a gangster archetype par excellence who doesn’t like to be crossed and he feels betrayed and mortally insulted by Eli.

Plainview’s son is the only moral character of sorts who grows up to resent and leave his adoptive father over his evil ways. But he is loved by Plainview, who spurns him with bastard taunts as he leaves, and this love is Plainview Snr’s only redeeming feature. For all his achievement, wells and wealth, Plainview is empty, drinking himself into the grave. A monstrous shell. But still he holds true to his world view, as a badge of gangster honor.

In the excellent climatic scene Eli, now a confessed sinner (and probably embezzler) comes to Plainview to seek money for the last sale of the last plot of land in the area. Plainview asks Eli to admit he is a fraud and says he will give him something. Eli, in a fatal mistake, does so and admits he is a religious charlatan and that God is a superstition. Happy in the confirmation of his own beliefs that everyone is corrupt, Plainview characteristically takes immediate action. He gets a bowling pin from his personal bowling alley and bashes Eli’s head in with it. When the servant comes down to pick up a plate of food Plainview was eating and sees the brutal ‘There will be blood’. Plainview answers eerily “I’m Finished”.

Yes, a masterpiece basically. On the money, cold, daring, to the point, brutal. Like a falling mining pipe to the head There Will be Blood offers us the perverse anti epic. A sort of Non Citizen Kane. Nothing redeems Plainview. There is no Rosebud. He may have believed redemption possible, hence his interest and antagonism with Eli Sunday. Indeed, Plainview may be the main religious character in the film as his black heart, may acknowledge the possibility of its opposite. But at the end, it is not. We are left with the cold hard nihilistic brute reality of reality itself.

Day Lewis tones down his Gangs of New York character and adds a John Huston accent to give probably his finest performance yet. Paul Dano is well cast, if a little young as Eli Sunday, dressing like he is in a band like Interpol or Arcade Fire. It provides a needed ‘in’ to the film for the under 30′s though and his performance is good. Ciaran Hinds and Kevin J O’Connor are excellent, too, in support, as is Dillon Freasier who plays Plainview’s son H.W. The score is compelling and haunting by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and helps build on its anti epic mood, by the odd synth drones and building Phillip Glass like strings. Robert Elswit’s cinematography also is beautiful but unsetteling in its portrayal of desert landscapes contrasted with the oil and dirt drenched humanity.

Politically the film is innovative. The parallell’s to Bush are obvious down to the double lane bowling lane that exists at the Whitehouse. The endless nihilistic search for Oil and domination for its sake is laid bare. But the film says if you are to defeat the Plainview’s of this world it will not be via metaphysics, religion or their off shoots in Socialism and Communism. You will defeat them only by playing them at their own brutal nihilistic game or perhaps at something new, something that eludes even Plainview’s nihilism. This something is hinted at by the films lyrical beauty and something that the movie longs for. It is also something that we hope is coming…

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