Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

‘There Will Be Blood’ challenges viewers’ conscience

What does it mean when the Academy nominates not one but two films for Best Picture that offer no tidy conceptions of “right” and “wrong,” no chance for redemption and no just punishment, but instead only depict greed, revenge and their natural consequences? “No Country for Old Men” was the first, and now we have “There Will Be Blood.” The Academy must either be growing more pessimistic or more realistic.

It’s not as if these are new notions that writers and directors are exploring: Paul Thomas Anderson based his screenplay for “There Will Be Blood” on a novel titled “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair, penned in the 1920s. And yet the Academy has shown an obvious tendency in the past towards films that serve up some sort of ethical code, albeit a usually complicated one: “Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Lord of the Rings” and even last year’s “The Departed” all held implications that there are moral actions and there are immoral actions and our job is to pick and choose between them.
So what happens when we are given a film that doesn’t show us the right thing to do, that makes us question whether there even is a right thing to do? This is the challenge Anderson presents to us in “There Will Be Blood.”

The film follows the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an oil prospector looking to get rich at the turn of the last century, when the business was still in its youthful stages. Early in the story, a fellow oil worker dies, leaving behind a baby boy, whom Plainview decides to adopt and raise as his own. Don’t be fooled, however, by this most seemingly virtuous gesture: Plainview uses H.W. (Dillon Freasier) as the face of the “family” oil business he begins to run in New Mexico.

Soon, Plainview gets a tip from a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about a poor town in California resting on top of a sea of oil just waiting to be tapped. Plainview makes haste towards the town with H.W. in tow and proceeds to buy up land from almost every family settled there in hopes of building an oil empire. He would have succeeded with little difficulty, too, if it hadn’t been for Eli Sunday (also played by Dano), Paul’s evangelical pastor of a brother who engages in a subtle power struggle with Plainview. Eli’s religion, however, is no more moral than Plainview’s thirst for oil, and their manipulative battle for power sends both of them spiraling out of control.

The most impressive aspect of “There Will Be Blood” is that there are few people who would identify with, or even like, a single character in the film, and yet it is impossible to not become completely invested in their actions. This can mostly be attributed to the powerhouse performances, especially Day-Lewis’. As Plainview, he is perhaps the most charming psychopath ever to grace the silver screen, smiling and smiling beneath a perfectly-groomed mustache until someone aggravates him and he calmly informs him that he will find him and cut his throat. If there was ever any doubt that method acting is useful, proof of its effectiveness can be found here, and the Academy should be disbanded if they don’t award Day-Lewis a little gold statue for this accomplishment.

Though Day-Lewis eclipses the other actors in the film, Dano’s impressive performance should not be overlooked. For such a young actor, he tackles a difficult role with confidence and nuance, bringing a ferocity and drive to Eli that a lesser actor might have missed.

Anderson took a great risk in creating a film with no hero to root for and no clear lesson to be learned, and he pulls it off masterfully. He uses stark visual imagery and a fantastically jarring musical score to drive the plot along as much as the script. There is a scene in which Plainview finally taps into the oil beneath the town, which comes spewing up from the ground and begins to burn in an enormous geyser of fire. Plainview and his business partner stand silhouetted victoriously before it as the sky around them turns a deep, blood red and the music sounds like a thunderous, pulsing heartbeat, as if Plainview has opened up the very gates of hell itself. In this moment, Anderson glaringly reveals that no good can possibly come of this, and yet Plainview is as unstoppable as death.

By the end of “There Will Be Blood,” filmgoers can only hope that the natural state of their world is not quite as corrupt as the one produced here by Anderson.

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