C&L Film Of The Month: There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood There will be blood if this film does not win Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Original Music Sco

There Will Be Blood

There will be blood if this film does not win Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Original Music Score. Directed by the now grown-up wunderkind P.T. Anderson and starring the weatherworn Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood is hypnotic, riveting, violent, fascinating and at times painful to watch. It is boldly, unapologetically and immediately an American masterpiece in the company of Citizen Kane, Giant and Raging Bull. I can safely say that because there is little wiggle room here not to say it.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Shot on location in Marfa, Texas and central California by Robert Elswit, we can feel the scope and the grandeur of the wide-open spaces that the West was and in many cases still is. Editing by Dylan Tichenor is tight, slight and seamlessly out of sight.

Jonny Greenwood’s (Radiohead) score is haunting, scary and yes, at times annoying. It surrounds you with electronica and when necessary chokes you with anxiety until you can’t breathe. I mean that in a good way, of course.

While I have respected him as a filmmaker, I have never been a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. His films, although heralded as pop culture triumphs, have always left me feeling like he was usurping the styles of greater directors. Boogie Nights, the film that put him on the map in 1997, while entertaining, felt snobbish and filled with intentionally dumbed down characters. You got the sense that he was mimicking Scorsese while ridiculing these Goodfellas of the porno world. Magnolia seemed Robert Altman-lite. Punch-Drunk Love, well that starred Adam Sandler. No reason to pile on.

You could tell from all three of these films (four if you count Hard Eight) that Anderson knew what he was doing. He just seemed to lack the guts to do it.

That is until now.

There Will Be Blood, built loosely around the story of Edward L. Doheny and major league ballplayer turned evangelist preacher Billy Sunday, has suddenly catapulted Anderson into the rarified air of Orson Welles and the pantheon of great American filmmakers. So complete is the disconnect from previous works and themes, that it is hard to believe this is even the same writer-director.


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What Citizen Kane (Charles Foster Kane) was to William Randolph Hearst, There Will Be Blood (Daniel Plainview) is to Edward L. Doheny.

A finely filtered adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, TWBB takes us from 1898 to the 1930s on the broad shoulders of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) who portrays the Doheny character as a get down and dirty oil man. One who hits his own pay dirt and carves an empire out of it. Along the way he adopts an infant, hustles simple folk out of their oil-rich land and encounters Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a not-so-veiled version of the legendary preacher Billy Sunday.

Despite its crisscrossing story lines of oil and religion, various critics have gone out of their way to suggest that this is not a political film.

Nonsense.

Upton Sinclair, the prolific author and muckraker who wrote The Jungle, which dealt with the conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry, and Oil! upon which this film is based, was one of America’s leading socialists, running at various times for Congress and later for governor of California.

Everything he did was political.

The fact that Anderson and Day-Lewis are not talking politics on promotional tours is more likely indicative of the marketing and promotion departments than the story department.

Sinclair once famously said, “The American people will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label.”

It’s the same thing with cinema. Americans will take a political film, but they won’t take the label. All The President’s Men, The American President, The Manchurian Candidate (2 versions), JFK, The China Syndrome, Nixon, Thirteen Days, Wag The Dog, Citizen Kane, Primary Colors, Gandhi, Good Night and Good Luck, Charlie Wilson’s War are just a few they’ve embraced. These weren’t marketed as political films.

And neither will There Will Be Blood.

TWBB dramatizes the addictive mad dog qualities of capitalism demonstrated through the rise and fall of the Doheny character.

In real life, Edward L. Doheny, like the Plainview character, hailed from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and was of Irish heritage. (Day-Lewis as made up, is a dead ringer for him with a Fuller brush moustache and black brimmed dress hat.) In 1903 he struck oil in Los Angeles, making millions and later forming the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company. At one point Edward L. Doheny was one of the wealthiest men in the world and was often referred to in the media as “the capitalist.”

His name still tags many roads and residences in the Los Angeles area where he drilled thousands of successful oil wells.

The Teapot Dome scandal during the Harding Administration almost broke him. He was indicted for the bribery of the Interior Secretary of which he was clearly guilty, but eventually was acquitted after spending a fortune in legal fees.

{Harding’s administration has been considered the most corrupt in American history, despite the fact that the president himself, Warren Harding was oblivious to all around him. Contemporary historians have already drawn the analogy to the current Bush presidency. An analogy I’m sure Anderson was well aware of when making this so-called, non-political film.}

From grimy hands-on gold digging to grand land grabs to large oil rigged productions, Plainview’s steady rise to economic domination comes to an abrupt halt when he encounters the roadblock of religion in the guise of Eli Sunday.

Two major forces in the creation of industrial America are pitted against one another here. Capitalism and religion. Both men are trying to sell the people something they don’t have. Prosperity on the part of Plainview. Salvation on the part of Sunday.

Anderson depicts these encounters with feral-like ferocity. One visceral scene has Day-Lewis smacking down Dano’s character to the muddy earth, almost burying him, while beating him into submission. (Dano might be the only weak link in the film, as he can’t seem to hold the screen with Day-Lewis. But then who possibly could? A previous, as of yet, unnamed actor apparently fled the production claiming he was intimidated by Day-Lewis’s performance. Dano came on as a last minute replacement.)
Sunday gets partial revenge in a later scene when Plainview needs the church’s permission for oil leasing and Sunday insists on baptizing the “sinner.”

Plainview’s fraudulent acceptance of this sadistic baptismal ceremony speaks volumes about the Bush crowds’ phony embrace of evangelical Christian beliefs and merely paying them lip service as Plainview does in the film.

An apparent means to an end in both cases.

For over 200 years, capitalism and religion have worked together and apart in the building of America. In real life, Upton Sinclair attacked Billy Sunday, a lifelong Republican, for being a tool of big business, but on many occasions Sunday condemned capitalists, “whose private lives are good, but whose public lives are very bad.”

There is far too much political symbolism to ignore in this epic film.

Plainview’s fevered addiction to oil, greed and money is eventually replaced by his physical addiction to spirits once his financial dominance has been achieved.

Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, is an addiction of sorts as well. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed,” states the bitter Plainview.
No amount of money is enough. Money is collected, hoarded, and saved for the sake of money. The early robber barons that built this country and some even today (Murdoch), seemingly create wealth for no other purpose than itself.

Today, we call them workaholics, but even in our self-help culture, this is not yet frowned upon. Rather, it is referred to in the therapeutic community as “the respected addiction.”
It is an addiction nonetheless.

Not to be confused with hard work, the workaholic abandons all pretense of an outside life. 12-step W.A. meetings are now growing throughout the country to deal with this seemingly American phenomenon. (Europeans look at us like we’re crazy regarding our obsession with work.)

Plainview’s drinking is not simply “screen business.” It is profound to his character. He can no longer physically work, so he has switched addictions. The angry progression of alcoholism in Plainview is glaring and ugly.

“I hate most people,” he states.

Plainview grows into a bitterly angry man. He is a misanthrope. A loner. He has all the characteristics of an alcoholic, which by the end of this nearly three-hour epic, he has become.

“I want to earn enough money to get away from everyone,” exclaims Plainview.
He states bluntly, “There are times when I look at people and see nothing worth liking.”
In reality, it is he himself that is not worth liking.

Early on, Plainview showcases respected American characteristics like self-motivation, work ethic and perseverance. In a way, he represents what is in essence, the American spirit. But there is a dark side and it grows throughout the film. He also showcases American capitalism with all its warts.

By film’s end, Daniel Plainview represents greed, corruption, and addiction.

It is this addiction that Anderson focuses on.

America was built on addiction.

Addiction to money. Addiction to tobacco. Addiction to slave labor. Addiction to sugar. Addiction to grain alcohol.

Indeed, the first laws ever written in America, in Virginia in 1619, were against public drunkenness. By the early decades of the 19th century, Americans drank roughly three times as much alcohol as they do today. Purchase any item in a 19th century general store and you were permitted a free ladle of grain alcohol and your child was allowed a free spoonful of sugar.

It kept customers coming back.

In fact, government regulation of addictive substances throughout history can be seen as an attempt to level the playing field of the marketplace. Businesses not selling addictive substances could then compete “fairly” with those that did.

Government regulation of vice is not about Big Brother or any real morality. Historically, it has been driven by the complaints of other capitalists for a level playing field. It was Northern industrialists who pressured Washington to end slavery in the South. And it wasn’t for moral reasons.

Is it any wonder that America has had such a long judicial history in the battle against prostitution, gambling and drug dealing? Is it any wonder that America loves the Sopranos and hates the Senate?

Remember the heads of the tobacco companies saying under oath that cigarette smoking was not addictive? They risked perjury to maintain their financial edge.
That’s why removal of cocaine from Coca-cola was so symbolic. America’s #1 refreshment was finally stripped of its addictive substance in 1929. They didn’t go easy. Coke was forcibly removed from Coca-cola only through litigation. Beer makers (their competition) had begun pointing it out to authorities in 1903, the year the company claimed they removed it voluntarily.

No country has battled its unregulated and regulated demons like America has. Dry states, wet states, moonshiners, bootleggers, Prohibition, Constitutional amendments, reversing Constitutional amendments. C’mon. This country clearly has a problem. And that’s just alcohol.

What of the other vices?

Prostitution has been “regulated” through legalized pornography. Gambling has been legalized through licensed casinos, racetracks and lotteries. And drug dealing? Well, the pharmaceutical industry is America’s new dealer. The capitalist playing field has been “leveled.” Marijuana just may be latest and last battlefield. Unless public corporations can directly profit from it, marijuana will continue to be illegal.

Billy Sunday was instrumental in helping launch Prohibition. He fought long and hard against the consumption of alcohol even after the repeal of Prohibition. The drunken progression of Plainview through the final act of the film is subtle, yet powerful. He is literally drunk with power, as many of our leaders are today. The film’s ending is violent, explosive and in many ways a showdown between capitalism and religion.

In the end, American capitalism is shown to be stronger than organized religion and although it has used religion to get where it wants to go, capitalism will toss religion aside when it no longer finds its services necessary.

Anderson depicts religion as “capitalism with white gloves on.”

Just another type of business. The preacher as the shady businessman selling a product. Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, et al.

This is a style of business that Plainview can never accept and why he despises Sunday.
The final scenes have a now-famous Sunday coming to Plainview, hat in hand, with business propositions. (These final sequences were shot in the actual bowling alley of the Beverly Hills estate owned by Doheny.)

Plainview is in the late stages of alcoholism. Only his rage survives.

And that rage explodes across the screen.

In Plainview’s world, you must get dirty. You must pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. You must dig a life for yourself out of the cold, dark earth.

If not, there will be blood.

If you look carefully, you will see all of America in this film.
The good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s the latter two that will stick with you.

A screenwriter/producer/journalist based in Hollywood, California, Mark Groubert is the Senior Film and Book Reviewer for CrooksandLiars.com. As a filmmaker he has produced numerous documentaries for HBO. Groubert is also the former editor of National Lampoon Magazine, MTV Magazine and The Weekly World News. In addition, he writes for the L.A. Weekly, L.A. City Beat, Penthouse, High Times and other publications. He is currently at work on his memoirs…or so he says.

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