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DVD SAVANT

There Will Be Blood
Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition


There Will Be Blood
Paramount
2007 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 158 min. / Street Date April 8, 2008 / 34.99
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Dillon Freasier, Ciarán Hinds, Sydney McCallister
Cinematography Robert Elswit
Production Design Jack Fisk
Art Direction David Crank
Film Editor Dylan Tichenor
Original Music Johnny Greenwood
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson from a novel by Upton Sinclair
Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The arrival of There Will Be Blood generated buzz aplenty as the hotly-awaited 'next film' from Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. This keen adaptation of part of the novel Oil! by the famous socialist Upton Sinclair is a complete departure from Anderson's previous pictures, and current trends in general. The year's other period pictures Atonement and Lust, Caution are lush romance thrillers upholstered with pretty pictures. There Will Be Blood's sparse narrative barely touches on Lewis' social comment, preferring to hone in on the remarkable character of a man who symbolizes the energy and initiative of the 20th century. Audiences were knocked out by Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, even if they weren't ready for a film without romance or car chases, where close attention must be paid to understand what's happening. The movie is important because 'what's happening' is the building of our modern industrial world, from the dirt up.

Synopsis:

Lone wolf miner Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) breaks his leg and must drag himself back to the assay office to confirm that he's found oil-bearing rocks in his silver mine. When his first wells come in, he hires Fletcher Hamilton (Ciarán Hinds) as his trusted associate and is soon a successful Signal Hill oil wildcatter. Daniel raises a baby orphaned by another miner and uses him as part of his sales pitch to get oil leases for less money than they're worth: "We're a family company" he says with a careful smile. A paid tip sends Daniel and his young son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) to Little Boston, a dirt-poor farm area in a dry corner of the San Joaquin Valley. Finding oil practically bubbling out of the ground, he makes a deal with young Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a self-styled preacher who wants to form his own church. Daniel scoops up leases from the surrounding landowners and moves in his heavy equipment and work crews, taking pains to avoid offending the fundamentalist Christian community. But he can't help crossing horns with Eli, who insists on pushing himself into Daniel's business. The first well comes in with an explosion that deafens young H.W., putting an end to Daniel's only heartfelt relationship. A lost half-brother Henry Brands (Kevin J. O'Connor, Peggy Sue Got Married, Love at Large) shows up looking for a job, and Daniel cautiously accepts him. Then the Standard Oil Company tries to 'help' Daniel by buying him out. Fiercely independent and (by this time) a confirmed hater of humanity, Daniel makes plans to build his own pipeline to the ocean. But to do that he'll first need to make his peace with the upstart Eli, who now wants Daniel to acknowledge his superior power as a faith healer.

Much of the spirit that made Upton Sinclair's book an exposé of rampant capitalism is present in There Will Be Blood, even if director Anderson doesn't take it as his central theme: the book is to real-life oil baron Edward L. Doheny what Citizen Kane is to William Randolph Hearst. Daniel Plainview has many admirable qualities, all of which are subordinated to his drive to succeed. He may look like a bum prospecting for silver, but he has the education of an engineer and a geologist. He knows how to find oil and personally invents techniques and equipment to get it out of the ground. Most importantly, Daniel Plainview is self-contained and goal oriented. Everything in his life, including the adoption of a son, is directed to compete and win. He's the original man with The Tools, Talent & Motivation.

Plainview adapts himself to his needs. I'm not sure we hear twenty words of dialogue in the first couple of reels, but by the time Daniel is addressing community groups, hoping to woo them into signing over oil leases, he's a seasoned public speaker. He hugs his son to promote a wholesome image for customers naturally suspicious of businessmen and lawyers. It's hucksterism of the first order, and despite his friendly smiles and courtesy, Daniel has no use for people in his life. In little Boston he comes up against a real obstacle in the form of the predatory Bible thumper Eli Sunday. Daniel recognizes a racket when he sees one and harbors a secret hate for this pretender with his hysterical church performances. After H.W.'s accident Daniel becomes an especially unforgiving misanthrope. He thought he could trust children but even H.W. 'betrays' him, if only by accident. You can't count on people, and if you let them, they'll screw you every time. The essentially harmless Henry Brands learns this lesson the hard way.

There Will Be Blood veers away from the story of Edward Doheny when Daniel turns to drink and displays of violent eccentricity. Doheny became a social lion and political player, and eventually met trouble in the Teapot Dome scandal, if only by association. Daniel bucks the big companies that make a business out of 'consolidating' the holdings of bona-fide pioneers like Plainview. If Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to make an ordinary crowd-pleaser, he might have had Plainview fight back against the Big Bad Capitalist oil cartel, perhaps hiring gunmen to protect his rights. This did happen occasionally. Or the director-writer could opt for ironic tragedy, and make Plainview into an idealistic martyr, like Warren Beatty's McCabe in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, done in by a faceless syndicate. 1

Anderson instead chooses to follow Plainview's character out to the end. Like Charles Foster Kane, Plainview gets everything he's after. He ends up ensconced in a Pasadena mansion, pushing away everyone who knows him. As the man who owns the entire Monopoly board, Daniel's the big winner in a vacuum of wealth. He has nothing left to prove, yet he's still interested in crushing old foes, just for the joy of it. A man has to have his hobbies. The brutal ending takes place in a private bowling alley, a galaxy away from Daniel's beginning slaving away at the bottom of a silver shaft.  2

There Will Be Blood is the role of a lifetime for Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who seems to change completely for each role. For the voice of Daniel Plainview he channels aspects of John Huston's deep drawl. Robert Elswit's glowing cinematography doesn't need to design shots to make Plainview the center of attention; Day-Lewis commands that at all times. We see the façade and the man thinking behind the façade, but Plainview is also no mystery. He's quite simple and direct in everything he does, and explains out loud to Henry Brands exactly why he doesn't like people. Most stories about power and greed exist to levy moral judgments. Day-Lewis's Plainview is as true as can be to his convictions. He personifies the man who simply must get to the top of the heap, no matter what.

Anderson makes the long movie go by in a flash, as we realize that this 1905 California is less familiar to us than the prehistoric animals in the La Brea Tar Pits. We need to pay close attention to follow Daniel's early progress, and since nobody explains the workings of an oil derrick, the film's reconstructions of mining are fascinating. The effects of the drilling aren't explained either. Little do the farmers realize that when the oil's gone, their land will be stained with oil slag and the underground water table as likely as not poisoned. Plainview promises to bring in milk, bread, schools and social benefits, but once he has the oil, he'll be gone.

But Anderson's key concern is not social commentary; he's much more interested in the fight for men's souls. Daniel holds Eli Sunday's hypocritical faith healing racket in contempt, but he has nothing to replace it with; his own game deals in a similar swindle of 'the people'. He's a realist who believes in oil, dreams of success and little else. When Daniel gets what he's after he has nowhere to go, and totters around his mansion in utter isolation like Charles Foster Kane. After his sensational movies about the Porn industry and L.A. madness, Anderson has made a powerful meditation on human ambition.


Paramount's 2-Disc Collector's Edition of There Will Be Blood places the impressive feature on one disc and a brief selection of extras on a second. The enhanced transfer is beautiful; we suspect that Paramount cancelled a possible HD-DVD release when Blu-ray took the lead. It'll probably be the better part of year before films from Paramount and Universal appear in the 'winning' format.

The extras are lean: no commentary and no making-of featurettes, which at least spares us the usual sit-downs with actors and filmmakers telling us how excited they are to be making great art. Disc two instead expands on the film's historical authenticity. A fifteen-minute slide show compares Anderson's research materials to scenes in his movie -- buildings, wardrobe, hair cuts, men's faces. Many of the original photos have captions from old books or museum displays. Two trailers follow, and then a pair of extended deleted sequences. "Fishing" is at least half a reel long. It breaks with the rest of the film by using a verbal explanation to explain a specific drilling problem. The drill bit snaps off hundreds of feet below, so the men must use specialized gear to try and snag the remainder and haul it out. Daniel has an excellent exchange with Eli's father Abel, that spells out Abel's religious mania and Daniel's low opinion of the Sunday family -- he says that Eli is insane. "Haircut / Interrupted Hymn" shows H.W. preening his father to greet the parishioners who have come to bless the start of drilling. It helps emphasize Daniel's emotional investment in H.W..

The end of the extras package (which can be played as a group) gives us an uncut performance take called 'Dailies Gone Wild'. Daniel Day-Lewis becomes ornery at the restaurant, until some flub stops the take. He and H.W. react --- but remain completely in character.

A special extra is an entire industrial film from 1923, an excellent silent called The Story of Petroleum. It explains the workings and engineering behind many of the authentic-looking procedures shown in the movie. A new music accompaniment is by composer Jonny Greenwood, whose eccentric score for the feature garnered a lot of attention in the press.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, There Will Be Blood rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, deleted sequences, 15-min research 'slide show', daily take of Day-Lewis performance, 1923 silent industrial-educational film The Story of Petroleum.
Packaging: Folding card holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: April 4, 2008

Footnotes:

1. I guess that 'commercial' version of the story would probably turn out like the Stanley Kramer film Oklahoma Crude, from 1973. There Will Be Blood leans more in the direction of Terrence Malick's mostly non-verbal Days of Heaven, but focusing less on lyrical beauty, and more on character.
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2. In 1927 Doheny built Greystone Mansion, a palace with gardens and coach house just off Sunset Blvd. where West Hollywood meets Beverly Hills. It's been in dozens of movies, with its gate and drive featured strongly in The Invisible Boy and The Day Mars Invaded Earth and the gardens covered in The Legend of Lylah Clare and The Loved One. The American Film Institute was located there for several years in the late 1970s; I remember visiting several times. Author James Ursini would conduct Oral Histories at Greystone, and used to eat his lunch down below, in the mansion's underground bowling alley. He told me he felt a chill when the final scene of There Will Be Blood came up on the screen. The history that lasts is the history that money makes.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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