Electricity & Lust

Movie Hall of Fame #1: There Will Be Blood

Posted in Movie Hall of Fame, Sam by Sam Unsted on March 7, 2008
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So this column will be a hall of fame for movies following the turn of the century. With the DVD release of the subject coming soon, I thought it appropriate to salute a film I’m not sure has even been matched thus far since 2000.

There Will Be Blood is among the finest works of movie-making I’ve ever witnessed. Prior to its release, the film garnered slavering praise from critics but warnings of impenetrability. The film, while considered already to be the masterpiece of a young filmmaker, was thought too daunting a prospect to capture an audience and could have too much fire in its belly to play with Academy voters.

They were around three-quarter right. The film was perhaps too large a lesson for many audiences but a two-and-a-half hour epic attack on America’s capitalist roots from the director of Magnolia was hardly going to set the box-office alight. Academy voters this year seemed intent on rewarding the return of the Coens and while they deserved it, There Will Be Blood towers above No Country For Old Men as an exploration of America’s past and present through the structure of that most classic of American genres, the Western.

Where No Country is though a solid neo-western revenge tale, There Will Be Blood is closer to the cerebral westerns of Anthony Mann or late-era John Ford than the Peckinpah blood and redemption tales referenced by the Coens. Loosely an adaptation of the sprawling socialist opus Oil!, by Upton Sinclair, the film concerns the rise and rise of Daniel Plainview, an oil baron working his way from the small to the big and leaving no stone unturned and no soul unbroken in his quest for wealth and power. He, with his adopted son HW, journeys into the far reaches of the American mid-west and happens upon some ripe gold land owned by the Sunday family. Eli Sunday, preacher of an evangelical denomination of christianity, clashes with Plainview as the latter attempts to take the oil from his land and become even more rich and powerful.

The metaphorical analysis of the film is plain to see but the subtelty with which the content is handled is breathtaking. Anderson allows the film to speak for itself as we witness Plainview’s rise to the pinnacle of success, isolated from society in his enormous Howard Hughes-esque house, shunning the affection of his father and still looking to settle scores with Eli.

Plainview is a monster but, presciently, he is a deeply American form of monster. He has no true desire for community or love, only for possessions and wealth. He wants to rule over the entire land and feels no remorse and the death of his enemies, through his own greed, is of no issue to him. He aims to beat and crush all around him and become the biggest and most feared of all oil barons. He is the epitome of a capitalist extreme on which America is founded.

The film features a fine supporting performance from Paul Dano as Eli but is utterly dominated by Daniel Day Lewis as Plainview. Channeling the vocal tones of John Huston in Chinatown, he is engrossingly vicious, dominated by his hatred for all around him and an unswerving desire to win at any cost. His performance, while a little much for some, is for me the finest since De Niro in Raging Bull.

The early comparisons to Citizen Kane hold up entirely. This is another deconstruction of America through analysis of a single outlook. It’s as perfect as any film I’ve seen for some time and a lovely introduction to our new feature.

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