Thursday, February 21, 2008

Storywh0re's Oscar Best Picture Series - "There Will Be Blood" (Spoiler warnings)

There Will Be Blood is based on Oil!, by Upton Sinclair, which in turn was based loosely on oil baron Edward Doheny*. It was directed by Paul Paul Thomas Anderson, who also brought us Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

As the movie opens, we see an oil prospector scrabbling in the desert sand, at the turn of the twentieth century. He gets injured and literally crawls into town on his back. He resumes digging, persevering through setbacks. He adopts the orphaned son of one of his workers. He strikes it rich, going from oil prospector to “oil man”.

All in the first eleven minutes, and all without a word of dialog.

Our protagonist is Daniel Plainview, masterfully portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. The real narrative starts ten years after his big strike. An mysterious young man invites him to visit his family's desolate ranch in California, where oil literally lays thick on the ground. Oil on the surface is apparently apparently no guarantee of oil underneath the ground it—only one of many geological facts one learns from this movie. However, when Plainview finds that there are, in fact, reserves there, tapping them and piping that oil to the sea becomes his project for the next twenty years. He ruthlessly overcomes many obstacles, including reluctant landowners, Standard Oil, a long-lost brother, and a tragic injury to the aforementioned (very precocious) son. The principal conflict, however, is with a self-appointed preacher—the twin brother of the young visitor.

A Pagan high priestesses that I know has a list of pop movies which illustrate the Four Elements—Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This is definitely another elemental film—Earth and Fire. Oil, usually hidden deep in the Earth, is omnipresent. It is easy to understand, as Plainview talks about how oil will bring the bread and water to the community, how people could get excited about fossil fuels without thinking about the consequences. The Earth is not just valuable, though—it's mysterious and dangerous. The scene with the oil rig fire is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen on the big screen.

It's hard not to side with Plainview, if only because of his tenacity. There is no denying, however, that he's an asshole. His complete misanthropy is explicitly stated, but never explained. About the time that he's sitting alone in a mansion, firing a gun into the dark, you ask yourself--”Haven't I seen this before?” What? You mean a thinly veiled biography of a rich, influential and lonely man? Yes, you have. It was called Citizen Kane

Paul Dano, who plays the preacher, also does a wonderful job. I had been hoping that his rivalry with Plainview would illustrate a tension between commercial and esoteric values, but that never really developed. Instead, their story ends in a brutal and somewhat unexpected way. There is a sense of detachment and meaningless that left me with a cold, dark uneasiness. I found myself wondering: could a bully be incited to murder by the smell of fear, by the idea that they could get away with it? A terrifying question.

If you want to see an “arty”, somewhat heavy, very well-done film, this is a fine choice. If you're looking to laugh or relax, not so much.

* c/o IMDB

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