Tip of the Quill: A Journal
Critique: There Will Be Blood.

Last night my friends Matt and Clara and I went out after work to catch Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood. Matt’s a huge Anderson fan, and when he found out the film was opening up in Harvard Square, we rocketed down there to catch the 6PM showing. I myself am a fair-to-middling Anderson fan, having enjoyed Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, but not a big enough Anderson fan to have ever dedicated too many brain cells to the actual analysis of one of his films.
Until now.
First, let me say that it’s a darn good thing we went to the 6 o’clock showing, because at two hours and thirty-eight minutes it’s a long, grueling ride – especially considering that the entire thing is pretty much the tragic life story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). I will defer to the IMDB for the further synopsis (warning, potential spoilers ahead):

There Will Be Blood is a movie ” loosely ” adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson from the 1927 novel OIL! by Upton Sinclair. The movie centers on a character Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who starts out as a simple silver miner, that happens upon oil in his silver efforts. Fast forward a few years and he’s made himself a pretty rich man, a wise and shrewd business/oil man, that gets to the point to where he’ll step over anyone to get what he wants. You see, Daniel Plainview is not a very decent person, who constantly wrestles with his demons. He is a borderline nihilist, who doesn’t like people and thinks most humans are lazy and ignorant. You understand the only reason that he has people in his life is because he couldn’t benefit financially if he didn’t. Otherwise he could care less. It’s all about finding new oil spots with him, and nothing will get in his way and derail his goals. He may not be a good man, but you cannot deny his desire and work ethic. He risks his life more than once setting up oil derricks. But, he almost meets his match in the form of a young man of the word of God in Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano. This is not a good relationship. You see, Plainview wants to drill for oil on the Sunday’s property. And he wants to do so in a not so honest way, by chiseling them out of their share of money. He thinks the Sunday family are hicks. Ignorant with absolutely no business sense, which is somewhat true. But Eli knows they are in for more than Plainview tells them. Essentially, Plainview will be ripping off the Sunday family. Things start to happen that aren’t good. Plainview seeths for Eli. You get the idea that if he could kill Eli, and get away with it then he would. Eli, for his own merit, is a blow hard, and Plainview knows this. But for all of the hard work Daniel has done over the years, little things begin to perculate mentally with him. The demons begin to really get to him as he tries to hide and ignore them. Though he becomes rich beyond his imagination, there is a price to pay. Nobody ends up the true winner. Almost every human emotion is displayed in TWBB. Love, hate, passion, greed, jealousy, pettiness, paranoia, trust and sadness. Morality really becomes the true issues in this story. As for the script, there is much material for the thesp Day Lewis to sink his teeth into as Plainview. In reading, you can relate to why he accepted the role. Any actor would have. It’s a impressive script that should adapt well to the movie screen.

At the point the credits rolled, I honestly didn’t know if I liked the film or not. Anderson and Day-Lewis created a character that is so completely and utterly dark that he’s almost completely irredeemable; rather than sympathizing with his character, the audience is subjected to a sense of watching a predator at work. Robin Williams’ character in One Hour Photo is a sad, lonely man driven over the edge when his fragile world is tipped on its ear, and Williams’ portrayal of him is one that is almost completely sympathetic. Not here – Day-Lewis’ Plainview is, to rip off a phrase, “more human than human.” There is certainly something about him that reminds viewers of the starring critters from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, but at the same time he’s an evolved monstrosity, his sharpest teeth and claws coming as a result of purely human sins.
If you think about the majority of the Ten Commandments, a growing theme begins to emerge: thou shalt be human, by not engaging in animalistic behavior. “Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife” can be read as “thou shalt engage in social contract theory to maintain an exclusive mating relationship with only one other, previously uncommitted, individual”. While there are other animals that maintain monogamous, lifelong relationships, the overwhelming attitude in the animal kingdom is to get what thou canst, as often as thou canst. Plainview is, in some ways, a saint of sinners – by the end of the movie, we’ve never once seen him engage in any mating relationships at all. He acquires his son by essentially adopting the offspring of one of his employees when the workman is killed in an on-site accident, and in a later scene we see him waiting in a brothel while another character does his business (on Plainview’s nickel, no less), a distasteful look on his face. Plainview’s sins are mostly “higher” sins – while he does lie to construct his empire, Plainview elevates this to the art form of manipulation. Greed is elevated to a frighteningly concentrated level of drive, a work ethic overgrown into full poisonous bloom. Murders are committed, yes – the title is certainly an appropriate one – but they are almost exclusively acts of revenge, and even these acts of vengeance are done not out of envy, greed or lust but out of deeply, deeply wounded pride.
Plainview’s one sympathetic trait emerges in his dealings with family, although even this is twisted and tainted. When others question his parenting style, Plainview is reduced to a snarling, snapping feral creature, an artful blend of pride and chilling malice. At one point Plainview threatens another character who has dared to offer parenting advice that he will find where the offender lives, steal into his house in the middle of the night and murder him. Plainview is a deeply lonely man, and knows that he has truly screwed up relations with his adopted son, but God help the man who points this out to him. There is one scene where Plainview subjects to being brought low by the holier-than-thou preacher Eli Sunday in order to gain the land rights he needs to secure his empire, and Sunday proceeds to rub Plainview’s nose in his failures as a parent in front of the entire congregation. There is a brief flicker of genuine repentance and true pain on Plainview’s face as he makes the confessions that Sunday demands, but then Plainview’s facade slams shut again and the audience knows that Sunday has just crossed the wrong man, if you’ll pardon the pun.
In a rogue’s gallery of psychopaths, Plainview rubs shoulders with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Matt Damon’s talented Mr. Ripley. Each of these characters achieves true monstrosity while also demonstrating mastery of traits that our culture typically glorifies – Plainview’s rough-edged industriousness serves as a sort of protoform for the intellectual artisanship of Lecter and Ripley. Yet while Lecter and Ripley emerge as antiheroes of their own, anyone would be hard-pressed to create a franchise of films around Plainview. His character is a tragic one, compelling to watch but nowhere near sympathetic enough to leave viewers clamoring for more. But, of course, that’s not the point of There Will Be Blood; this is art, to be sure, and Anderson succeeds brilliantly in creating a single standalone piece that serves as a conversation piece among critics and laypeople alike.
For example, I can easily imagine using this film in future comparative media classes to show what film can do that books can’t. Anderson uses composition, contrasting color, and perhaps most stunningly, sound to create an artifact that really demonstrates what this media form has to offer. The opening scene of the film finds a young Plainview digging alone in a deep shaft for the silver that he will use to fund his eventual oil enterprises. The majority of these shots are tight close-ups of Day-Lweis’ profile, sweat dripping from his filthy face, the cinematography almost as perfectly claustrophobic as the shaft itself. The shaft is bleak, cast in dark, cold blacks and blues, and when Plainview strikes a match the tiny flicker of red light against that backdrop is beautiful. The sound effects are equally stunning – the film is often punctuated by the sounds of Plainview breathing, a ragged rasp that stands in stark contrast to the smooth butterscotch tones of his speaking voice, which Day-Lewis delivers in an utterly mesmerizing smooth, rolling cantor that sounds like he’s channelling Hugo Weaving. The score for the film is another bizarrely compelling piece of work, often consisting of dissonant swells and lulls with an odd, techno-industrial bent to it – which makes perfect sense when the composer is revealed to be none other than Radiohead’s lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
There is one scene in particular that stands out as a textbook case of the art of cinema – when Plainview’s son comes home after having been unwillingly sent away by Plainview for an unspecified amount of time, the reunion is captured in an extremely long shot. The camera keeps a huge amount of distance between us and Plainview, establishing a sense of disconnection in what would otherwise be a very intimate moment – which is exactly what’s happening between Plainview and his son – but this is complicated by the sound at this point in the film, which was, I’m pretty sure, captured by a clip-on mic; the theater is filled with the rustling sound of the two embracing, with Plainview’s breath, with the oilman’s whispers of what would normally be love falling upon (literally) deaf ears, resulting in an overwhelming sense of false reunion, showing their connection to be both torn and probably an illusion, which may be what it was all along.
Overall, There Will Be Blood is an ultimately rewarding experience. In the hands of a lesser actor Plainview might have easily descended into melodramatic moustache-twirling, but Day-Lewis and Anderson shove the character right up to the precipice of stereotypical villainy while still staying just barely in the realm of art. (It was Matt’s idea to imagine the role as played by William Shatner, which I hesitate to suggest here at the risk of having the film completely corrupted, but the mental image is howlingly funny.) It’s a display of skill by both the actor and the director to keep the film teetering on that brink without falling off, and when coupled with brilliant cinematography and sound design the complete package is definitely something to see. Far, far from the feel-good movie of the year, but a must-see for the literature, film and media scholars in the crowd.

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