“That was one goddamn hell of a show.”
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
posted by Akiva
No spoilers, I promise. But I’d like to get a few thoughts in order about what is unequivocally the major American film of the year. There Will Be Blood is going to turn off many, many people, and I don’t just mean mainstream moviegoers. It’s a relentlessly sour portrait of what it means to have a Voice in America, pitting the twin pillars of American agency — Commerce and Christianity — against one another in a frontierland where the potential for money and power is oozing above the surface of the ground. As Ed Gonzalez notes in a quick comment over at the Slant Blog, the film lacks the “powerful, compassionate human interest” of other PTA films, and I know what he’s talking about. But I’d argue that humanity is purposefully thrown to the wayside in There Will Be Blood, which concerns itself entirely with the havoc wreaked by the monoliths of American power, represented by two characters who are clearly larger than life. Human beings have no voice in this film; Daniel Plainview’s son illustrates this idea all too literally. (The film runs for about 20 minutes before we hear a human voice, and when we do, it’s a voice spinning empty rhetoric before a crowd.) That compassion can find no purchase in a world dominated by greed is precisely the point.
Though PT Anderson claims that he only adapted the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking “Oil!”, There Will Be Blood has the shape and focus of an angry Socialist tract, an overblown but essentially truthful portrayal of Boss Tweeds and false prophets out to steal the bread of the common man. PTA may have ditched the book’s title, but he should have kept that exclamation point.
Still, don’t get me wrong: the film is the product of a rigorous aesthetic perfectionist, not the ragged looseleaf of a leftist zealot. PTA is really in full command of the form here, having grown out of the adolescent hero-worship that sometimes made Hard Eight and Boogie Nights feel like top-drawer tribute albums. TWBB is an exercise in minimalism and compressed release, and the more explosive set pieces are simply staggering.
There’s a wealth of biblical portent and near-apocalyptic fervor that PTA weaves into the fabric of the film much more gracefully than the Coen Bros. did in No Country For Old Men (where Cormac McCarthy’s metaphysics seemed unfairly/unnecessarily imposed upon the B-movie dynamic). This film held me so completely in its grasp that I didn’t question the outsize metaphors … unlike, say, the immediately baffling but brilliant-upon-mental-replay moment in Magnolia when an army of amphibians drop in on the San Fernando Valley. I don’t think There Will Be Blood ever pretends to be about anything less than myth. In contrast, the Coen film plays as a pretty nifty chase movie, and Magnolia concerns itself with a whole host of recognizable human neuroses.
TWBB powerfully argues that a weakness for spectacle is the ultimate American Achilles heel, and it seems fitting that its epic saga ends in 1927, the year the world meets the talking picture. I don’t think you need me to parse the political subtext of a film about a greedy prospector who colonizes a desert land, promising increased democracy if they hand over the oil. You’ll be forgiven for yawning at the conceit. But I defy you to resist There Will Be Blood‘s despair at the inexorably encroaching dictatorship of mass-media spectacle, one that has continued unabated since (at least!) 1927, making it ever easier for us to digest every little lie the powers that be are bent upon pushing. Consider this spectacular period-piece an attempt to win spectacle back for the spiritual offspring of Upton Sinclair, Clifford Odets, and Woody Guthrie, the ones hovering outside the margins of the film’s mythic drama.