There Will Be Blood Review

John Huston made perhaps the quintessential American film about the psychotic power of greed. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tells the story of downtrodden men displaced in Mexico who explode piece by piece over the course of the movie, including the extraordinarily paranoid Fred C. Dobbs played by Humphrey Bogart. This exploration into the slow deterioration of man’s soul, as caused by natural riches promised beneath the Earth’s surface, was supposedly watched by director Paul Thomas Anderson on a near-continuous loop every night during the filming of There Will Be Blood. I wonder how many times Daniel Day-Lewis watched Chinatown in preparation for his role as Daniel Plainview, who speaks suspiciously like Huston’s Noah Cross in the classic 1974 film. Coincidence or not, Plainview and Cross are both men who profit considerably in the early 20th century from conning Californians out of an essential natural resource. They’re also both mean sons of bitches.

There Will Be Blood uses four different, specific years to introduce significant shifts in the film. It begins in 1898, with a wordless Plainview finding silver despite suffering an excruciating injury. He’s resilient and focussed only on the power of a reward. Still nonverbal, Anderson shifts ahead to 1902, where Plainview has now progressed to looking for oil. An accident in the well results in Daniel gaining an infant child. He immediately fills the baby’s bottle with liquor from his own flask. Fifteen minutes pass before the first words in the film are spoken. Such restraint and maturity have never before been Anderson’s specialty, and these are the finest moments in the entire film. Images later on may rival this prologue, but Anderson is unable to sustain a feeling or mood worthy of the daring and exhilaratingly perfect opening sequence.

The initial soliloquy comes from Plainview, introducing himself as an oil man, and it begins as we’re still seeing him sitting on a train beside the infant boy, who will become his business and traveling partner. Daniel claims him as his own son and calls the boy H.W. This is now 1911, and we stay here until roughly the final half-hour of the movie. Plainview is visited by a young man who claims his family farm is located above a major source of oil. Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) bargains with Daniel for the location of the land. Plainview then sets off for the Sunday farm with H.W. in tow, under the guise of quail hunting. Once there, he encounters Eli Sunday (also Dano), Daniel’s foil for the remainder of the film and a brimstone-preaching minister. Plainview thereafter sets about charming and subsequently robbing the town’s residents of their land and oil.

(spoilers the rest of the way)

The relationship between Eli Sunday and Plainview is interesting because, as pointed out elsewhere, the two men basically share the same level of blame for fooling small town residents. Sunday uses the Lord as his tool and Plainview puts his wiles into stripping away the most precious natural resource they have. Both are self-serving serpents. I’m sure the idea that a man whose rhetoric and background involve both religion and petroleum has exercised a gross amount of power in the recent history of the United States wasn’t lost on Anderson. False prophets and, conveniently, false profits. It fits quite nicely, but I’m not sure wagging a finger at two of America’s most revered establishments really warrants the lengthy running time of There Will Be Blood. It seems like an undercooked notion, to spend such a long stretch with a despicable man devoid of sympathetic qualities in order to establish how hypocritical the longtime dependence on oil and religion has always been.

Despite my general enthusiasm for the film, I find There Will Be Blood to be extremely frustrating. No American movie in recent years, this decade certainly, has been capable of so much epic accomplishment and then squandered such a large portion of it away. The scope of the film is gigantic, literally bringing to mind George Stevens’ 1956 film Giant, set amid oil fields and also filmed in Marfa, Texas. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Robert Elswit is breathtaking, arguably bested by a pair of Roger Deakins-lensed films from 2007, but impressive nonetheless. The filmmaking from Anderson is of the highest order, filled with slow, subtle zooms that accentuate the distanced outsider perspective represented by Plainview and frequently emphasised by eccentric decisions to hold the camera on an actor just past the point of convention. The acting certainly grabs your attention, too, as does the often jarring musical score by Jonny Greenwood. What Daniel Day-Lewis lacks in dimension he makes up for with volume and one-liners. The strings in Greenwood’s compositions strike me as inconsistent, and shifting between commanding and distracting, but they’re undeniably inventive.

Regardless, both Day-Lewis and the score are good examples of where the film loses its beautiful restraint exhibited in those initial 15 minutes and becomes something deserving of parody more than eloquent appreciation. Greenwood’s music is bothersome because it too often sounds like we’re watching an episode of the television show Lost, and frequently urges the viewer’s intended mood as glaringly as a ’50s melodrama. You get the feeling that Anderson and Greenwood were shooting for something along the lines of Ennio Morricone’s work on the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns or Tôru Takemitsu’s collaborations with Hiroshi Teshighara. Like the movie, the matching of unexpected sounds and images is ambitious, but heavily flawed.

Meanwhile, Day-Lewis essentially confiscated John Huston’s voice and proceeded to chew his way through the film. It’s an incredible embodiment of the character, certainly, but Daniel Plainview is dull and one-note, ripe for impersonation. Vacant stares and moustaches are hardly the stuff of great performances. There is no restraint to Plainview or Day-Lewis, and, yet, there’s also no substance. To put it in familiar terms, the performance is seepage, present on the surface but empty underneath. He’s a one-dimensional cipher of greed and deceit without a hint of anything more. The progression Plainview makes from shameless oil man willing to do or say anything to get his way into a crazed, pin-wielding psychopath is disappointingly abrupt considering the fact that the character is on screen for virtually all of the film’s 158 minutes. The seeds are gradually sown throughout, especially in the pair of restaurant encounters with the Standard Oil employees, but the chronological jumps and failure to provide little more than a thinly-drawn sketch of such a domineering character render the slide into bitter psychosis unconvincing.

The shift to 1927, when the final half-hour takes place, makes for the most unbelievably excruciating misstep in any film of recent memory. A startling jump to November 1963, with the oil man behind a grassy knoll in Dallas, wouldn’t have been any less ridiculous. Plainview sits with his man servant in a Kane-like mansion shooting at things. H.W. is grown up and wants to go out on his own, but all Daniel wants to do is spout off potential catchphrases intended to insult his bastard from a basket son. And that’s the comparatively restrained part. If not for the full-throttle reaction elicited by the film’s final twenty minutes, I might meekly float the idea that everything involving Eli Sunday’s visit to the Plainview house was some kind of dream. After all, Daniel is shown almost collapsing on the stairs before the cut to his passed-out body on a bowling lane. The Eli we see here is dramatically different in his interaction with Plainview, more confident and sure of himself, and less zealous in his religious furor.

But there it is. “Draaaaaainage!” Milkshakes and brain matter. Carnivorous gnawing of steak and God as superstition. It almost hurts to see over two hours of understated beauty, regardless of how emotionally empty much of it was, reduced to a couple of sound bites. The tone shifts dramatically into absurd disregard for any semblance of thematic or narrative consistency. The audience is bludgeoned by an anti-organized religion screed as subtle as a sky full of falling frogs. There Will Be Blood descends into camp? The unintentional ridicule and adoption of the film’s last scene as a way to mock, honour, and exploit seems wholly deserved. It’s not a blood-soaked rug being pulled out from under the viewer so much as a different movie entirely playing out before our eyes, a disorienting sketch with the same characters and actors, but missing the highly accomplished entirety of what distinguished the film from so many others. Why not a sequel? There Will Be Blood 2: The Pin Is Mightier Than the Sword, perhaps?

I’m being facetious, obviously, but rarely have I come across a film that simultaneously inspired incredibly strong affection along with equally powerful disgust, both within the same viewer. There Will Be Blood is at times offputtingly cold, reveling in its Kubrickian soullessness, while exhibiting some of the richest, most brazenly exciting filmmaking in recent memory. These nagging inconsistencies seem to mostly be overlooked, ignored, or unrecognised and the film received positively glowing notices. I can’t dismiss it any more than I can shower it with unqualified praise, though. The flaws I see are simply too distracting to go unmentioned, and the brilliance bleeding through is likewise bold enough to warrant a very complimentary grade. I have a legion of reservations about There Will Be Blood, and I think they all glare blindingly so on repeated viewings, but it’s an essential film from a highly talented director whose previous work hardly showed the potential in creating such an exceptional piece of cinema. If he can ever get past his own narrative shortcomings, the transcendent work of art he was striving for here may be within reach.

The Discs

This R1 DVD presents the film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with anamorphic enchancement, on a dual-layered disc. The progressive transfer is not without flaw, most notably in some periodic edge enhancement and a frequent lack of sharpness, especially in long shots. Though close-ups reproduce detail adequately, they're still relatively disappointing when compared with a typical high-profile new release. The cinematography here is so beautiful that I do think the softness of the picture becomes noticeable, though hardly distracting. Colours and contrast are both strong overall, but blacks may be a little inconsistent in their richness, with some possible artifacts at times. A bit of digital noise may be picked up, certainly never problematic though. The bit rate is very high and shouldn't be the source of any shortcomings. The unexpected lack of detailed sharpness is the main worry, but perhaps digital standards are at the point where the vast majority of viewers will find nothing worthy of complaint.

Audio is offered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, and sounds extremely clear and crisp. Jonny Greenwood's score clangs around all speakers with bristling depth and volume. The few moments of particularly loud action in the film are appropriately startling . Otherwise, dialogue and sound effects are close to perfect and volume levels are outstanding. This isn't a track where the rear speakers are constantly in use, but, when necessary, the audio nicely utilises all channels. Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround options are also included, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles for the feature and supplements, all yellow in colour.

As with several of Paramount's recent R1 titles, There Will Be Blood gets dual releases at different price points. The one-discer seems to be the film only, with no extra features at all. A "2-Disc Collector's Edition" gets a simultaneous release, retailing for a few dollars more, and containing several unique and fascinating supplements. The packaging itself is quite interesting. An environmentally-friendly digipak completely free of plastic, the two-disc set is housed inside a cardboard case like any other digipak. However, the discs themselves are located on a three-tiered fold-out with disc one sliding into an opening in the centre and disc two sitting inside a slit to the immediate right. The cover of this inner portion uses the film's original theatrical teaser poster. Three paragraphs of Upton Sinclair's Oil!, the novel Anderson loosely adapted for his film, are printed on one of the cardboard pages. This kind of packaging does present some practical concerns, like potential scratches and fingerprints on the discs, but the DVDs seem to fit snugly in their compartments. Also, in a departure from Paramount's usual policy of using grey-coloured discs, these are instead a shade of dark brown.

Consistent with the unusual packaging, the supplements found on disc 2 are certainly out of the ordinary for typical major studio releases. The single-layered disc contains a black-and-white silent film from circa 1923 entitled The Story of Petroleum (25:33). It was made by the U.S. Bureau of Mining in collaboration with Sinclair Oil Company and looks at the oil business in the 1920's. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, the print is beat-up with obvious damage, but never looks less than watchable. The content in the short film is highly intriguing and the addition of Jonny Greenwood's music, in a DD 5.1 audio track no less, makes it even better.

The remainder of the extras are found in a spartan little menu option and can be played consecutively or individually. "15 Minutes" (15:36) is a really compelling mixture of newspaper clippings, archival film footage and scenes from There Will Be Blood all set to Greenwood's score. It plays like a long-form music video. Next are the film's teaser trailer (1:25) and the excellent theatrical trailer (2:13), which I find far more perfect than the actual movie. A lengthy deleted scene entitled "Fishing" (6:15) follows. "Haircut/Interrupted Hymn" (3:15) was also cut from the film. These are both in anamorphic widescreen and transferred progressively, as are the entirety of the extra features, and the video quality is exceptionally good, better, I believe, than the feature. Lastly, "Dailies Gone Wild" (2:47) is a shot of Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview during a scene in the restaurant, with the camera fixed on his and H.W.'s table until Day-Lewis unexpectedly breaks up laughing.

Final Thoughts

There Will Be Blood is a film that makes an impression, but that doesn't excuse its deep flaws. Paramount's 2-Disc Collector's Edition seems light on supplements and is unconventionally packaged. Despite the absence of any interviews or direct participation from Paul Thomas Anderson or Daniel Day-Lewis, I still found the extras to be much better than the standard filler found on most studio releases. The set is a little on the impractical side, but I do like the idea of forgoing plastic (especially for a film that extols the evils brought upon by oil) and it is handsomely put together. Still, due to the somewhat soft image quality and the risk of scratches and fingerprints caused by the packaging, I couldn't blame those who might prefer to wait for the inevitable Blu-ray release.

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