Wednesday, November 24, 2010
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007): Oil!
A number of reviews of There Will Be Blood make mention that this movie was loosely based upon the Upton Sinclair novel called Oil! It’s ironic that Sinclair’s screed against Capitalism is now being marketed in bookstores across America as the inspiration for a major motion picture. However, we are fortunate that the movie is only loosely based upon the novel. The carnival-like atmosphere that the movie succumbs to in its last half would probably have been sacrilege to someone with Sinclair’s sensibilities. Director Paul Thomas Anderson put together a movie that with its excesses and eccentricities almost matches his earlier movie, Boogie Nights. The direction the plot of the movie takes is almost impossible to predict, and after seeing the previews for this movie I would never have guessed it was going to contain so many comic touches.
Daniel Day-Lewis extravagantly plays up the role of Daniel Plainview, a character whose vices surpass those of any robber baron in history. To be fair, he starts out in the movie as a human being. As an oilman, he first strikes crude in 1898 just after John D. Rockefeller had retired from Standard Oil. After Daniel’s partner is killed in a work related accident, Daniel adopts his partner’s infant son and names him H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier). Daniel dotes on H.W. and refers to him as his partner. We then skip ahead to around 1912 when H.W. is approximately ten years old. A tip by Paul Sunday leads Daniel to some property in California owned by the Sunday family where oil is believed to be located. (Daniel pays Paul $10,000 in cash for the information and we never hear from Paul again.) We then meet the rest of the Sunday family. Most significant among them is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the son of Abel who owns the property. Though Eli claims to be a preacher and faith healer, his true talents lie in hucksterism. Eli understands what Daniel is looking for and Eli tries to bargain with him. Daniel offers the Sundays $5,000 for mineral rights and the right to drill on their land. (Daniel never actually pays the $5,000, but he does use the promise to pay as leverage to keep Eli in line.) Daniel then makes the pitch to the remaining citizens of the community that he can also find oil on their lands, and that he is (as he later proves) the only one who can accomplish this. The derricks on the Sunday’ land do strike oil, and Daniel understands that for the first time he is in a position to compete with Standard Oil, itself.
Unfortunately, during the oil drilling, H.W. is injured in an accident and loses his sense of hearing. Daniel, unsure how to deal with the boy’s handicap, puts H.W. on a train and ships him out east (in essence, abandoning him) so that Daniel does not have to think about him anymore. Now H.W., even as a young lad, had always been devoted and loyal to the man he calls his father. In fact, at this point in life he may have been the only person who Daniel shared any human warmth with. Shipping H.W. off was an action that Daniel would later regret. In the meantime, a stranger showed up in California who identified himself to Daniel as his half-brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). Daniel, having missed the companionship of H.W., found himself confiding in Henry his deepest and most misanthropic thoughts. But Daniel, while at a campsite with Henry and after making arrangements to create a pipeline that would take oil all the way from the Sunday property to the ocean, discovers that Henry was faking his identity and was not related to Daniel at all. Daniel then shoots Henry in the head and buries him. Another person does find out about the murder, however. That person is William Bandy (Colton Woodward), and Bandy coincidentally (there are always coincidences in movies) happens to be a parishioner in Eli Sunday’s church. Daniel then makes a deal with Bandy by agreeing to become a member of Eli’s church. Daniel is not so much worried about Bandy as he is in Eli discovering what Daniel had done. So Daniel, who up to this point has had only contempt for Eli and his religious practices, suddenly “converts” and, in a hilarious scene, is humiliated by Eli in front of the entire congregation for Daniel’s abandonment of H.W. (this was Eli’s way of making up for many past humiliations Eli had to endure at the hands of Daniel). Soon after this, H.W. is returned to California along with a tutor who is to help H.W. deal with his deafness.
We then jump ahead to 1927 (when the novel Oil! had been published and also shortly after the Teapot Dome scandal became public information). H.W. (now played by Russell Harvard) married Mary Sunday (the only member of the Sunday family who we could call normal) and decided that he wanted to move to Mexico to start drilling oil there. Daniel, now incredibly rich, sotted and beyond all redemption, feels betrayed by what H.W. is planning on doing (mostly he feels threatened by H.W. becoming a major competitor). Daniel insults H.W., tells H.W. the truth about who H.W’s real father is, and drives his son away. It is at this inopportune moment that Eli Sunday shows up. Eli, always a pathetic human being, has had some success as a pastor, but he’s still prone to greed. Eli informs Daniel that William Bandy has just passed away and had willed the Bandy’ land to the church that Eli leads. This makes for an interesting twist. Eli is convinced that there is still oil under the Bandy’ property and does not understand that Daniel’s drilling in adjoining properties has drained all of this oil away. In other words, Eli thinks he can sell the land to Eli for $100,000 (and the additional $5,000 that Daniel still owes). Eli also fails to understand how dangerous of a man Daniel has become because Daniel no longer believes in anything, and he also underestimates Daniel’s cunning. Daniel feigns interest in the property and says he will consider the offer if Eli will admit he’s a fraud and that God does not exist. It doesn’t take much for Eli to say this because Eli will say anything to get the money. After Eli says what Daniel asked him to say, Daniel only then tells Eli that there is no oil left to buy. After several minutes of taunting the hapless Eli, Daniel then in darkly comic fashion takes a bowling pin and beats Eli literally to death.
There Will Be Blood, like Treasure of Sierra Madre, is about the total destruction of a human being by the vice of greed. There’s little subtlety in this morality lesson, though the focus is on competing greed of the two major characters. Daniel only hides his greed when necessary, and is secretly ashamed of caring for anyone. On the other hand, Eli hides his greed in a cloak of piety. The assumption in the film is that unethical business practices go hand-in-hand with outward (though not necessarily sincere) displays of piety in order to make the business practices appear respectable. But here, the businessman and evangelist secretly abhor each other because neither side wants to be dependent upon the other. Both sides want to have control. In the film, Eli never was much of a match for Daniel. Eli’s only weapon was to try to use Daniel’s conscience to control him. However, by 1927 Daniel had no conscience left. (In fact, Daniel has become at the end of the movie a prototype of all evil tycoons on film in that he’s simply too bad to be true.)
Whatever differences there may be between the film There Will Be Blood and the novel Oil!, many commentators look upon the release of There Will Be Blood as an opportunity to revive the memory and the message of Upton Sinclair. Sinclair, of course, was one of the key figures of American Socialism during the first half of the twentieth century. Upton Sinclair and his admirers did liberally toss around the phrase “unbridled individualism” in their critique of Capitalism, though the phrase can be interpreted in different ways. To a Capitalist, “unbridled individualism” would equate to liberation and freedom of choice. To a Socialist, the phrase refers to cutthroat competition of the most extreme kind. If one considers Daniel to be representative of “unbridled individualism,” it’s difficult not to understand Sinclair’s aversion to its practice. But even giving this phrase its most evil connotation as Sinclair does, there still is an issue that needs to be resolved: who are the privileged few ordained to hold the reigns to prevent unbridled individualism – the Communists, Socialists, Monarchists, the Compact Majority or the Christian Right? Upton Sinclair likely wanted to personally hold the reigns himself. If this seems unfair, let me say a few more unflattering things about the man. Upton Sinclair was an opportunist in the same way that Eli Sunday was an opportunist in There Will Be Blood. The Jungle, Sinclair’s most famous novel, was ostensibly written by him to correct the abuse of labor in corporations, but it’s only remembered now for its sensationalistic descriptions of Chicago stockyards. The Cup of Fury is painful reading in its moral denunciations of those who drink alcohol. Sinclair, by the way, along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, supported prohibition. Proclaiming himself a pacifist, Sinclair supported Wilson’s decision to send troops to Europe during the First World War because, as Sinclair claimed, the defeat of Germany would mean the end of German militarism (too bad that he was wrong). Sinclair changed his party affiliation to Democrat when he ran for the position of Governor of California because he knew he’d receive less votes if he happened to be labeled a Socialist. Most damning, Sinclair Lewis in his novel It Can’t Happen Here satirized Upton Sinclair’s Utopian vision of America as dangerous demagoguery and a formula for tyranny where “freedom of the masses” was merely useful jargon since, to Upton Sinclair, “freedom was just a damn silly bourgeois superstition.”
Interestingly, There Will Be Blood probably owes more to Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, two novels written by Sinclair Lewis, than it does to Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil! Babbitt satirizes the modern businessman and Elmer Gantry satirizes evangelicalism. In either case, Lewis was pointing the finger at a corrupt culture rather than a political system that needed to be overhauled. And There Will Be Blood is a character study more than an indictment of a system of economics in that it only effectively points to the destruction of two individual souls. Plainview lost all feeling of human warmth when he became obsessed with the drilling of oil, and Reverend Sunday lost all genuineness in the pursuit of wealth and power.
There are a number of attributes to this movie. Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano, and Dillon Freasier as the young H.W. are outstanding in their roles, though both Lewis and Dano at times come extremely close to appearing as caricatures than real people. Despite some reviewers criticizing the movie for leaping from one period to the next without much of a transition, the storytelling technique is superb (for a Hollywood movie). For example, the detail concerning the oil drilling during the first half of the movie does help make us understand the motivations of Daniel as a character. The musical score, which admittedly has been talked about too much by commentators, does set a mood. And the overall product is wilder than one I ever imagined. Reviewers who have commented upon the length of the movie (2 hours and 39 minutes) or who have expressed regret that there are no major female characters (presumably to give the movie a touch of lurid romance) must truly be in short supply of things to say.
Like No Country for Old Men, the only other deserving Oscar nominee for 2007 Best Picture (I have not yet seen Juno), There Will Be Blood says much about what’s negative in our culture and it says it in an unflinching manner. But also, like No Country for Old Men, it says virtually nothing that is positive. This is a failing in both of these movies as neither movie suggests an alternative answer. Whether There Will Be Blood was influenced most by Upton Sinclair or by Sinclair Lewis, neither writer had the power to move readers the way great writers like Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens could. Hugo and Dickens had vision and real human empathy. Hollywood executives, so inundated in revenue, have like Plainview lost all focus. And that’s why the most powerful and positive of movies continue to be made elsewhere.
January 28, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008