There Will Be Blood got to be an award-hogging cultural phenomenon before I could register any objections. So here they are:
My first objection to There Will Be Blood is the title. Totally misleading. There’s hardly any blood in the whole interminable epic. Characters get killed with a remarkable lack of spatter even when impaled by oil-drilling equipment, shot in the face, or bludgeoned about the head with an old-fashioned wooden bowling pin. Little known fact about 19th-20th turn-of-the-century Americans: it seems they didn’t bleed much no matter what you did to them.
Paul Thomas Anderson: Reason We’re Ashamed to be Americam #43
I assume this relative lack of gore is part of the film’s intended appeal to the art cinema crowd—you know, "Bloodless Films for Bloodless People." They’d naturally love its non-spatter deaths, its three-named director (Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and other notable crap), its literary pedigree courtesy of source material by an earnest socialist, Upton Sinclair, whose books they haven’t read but they’ve heard his name somewhere, perhaps in some undergrad American Lit class, and knew that they were supposed to like him whether they read him or not. They’d love the way it seems to be saying something important about America then and now, about capitalism being bad, about greed not bringing happiness and money not buying love, or money buying love but not happiness—I forget how it goes.
That reminds me of my other objection: the fact that the movie makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever. And that it takes almost three hours in which not to make any fucking sense and is very loud and chesty about it. It’s sort of like the experience of being trapped in a stalled elevator with an egotistical would-be creative type telling you his great idea for a rock opera that’ll revolutionize the form. I bet Paul Thomas Anderson has a great idea for a rock opera.
The movie, for you non-cognoscenti who haven’t already seen it several times and devoted weeks to parsing its finer nuances, is about Daniel Plainview (Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, the greatest actor ever to appear in so many rotten pretentious films in a row), a hardscrabble Western silver miner circa 1900, who strikes oil and buys up property in southern California, and strikes more oil and gets very rich and then announces he hates everyone, and acts on it, winding up a lone homicidal nutter stewing in his own bile. Why? Well, if you know your Anglo-American tales, the consequence of wealth is almost always a furious estrangement from your fellow man. You can be the most popular charmer who ever stepped, never happier than when six-deep in people, but the minute you get rich, look out. Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Potter, Citizen Kane: you know the drill. We love the idea that the rich end up alone, raving in their shadowy mansions, which is why Howard Hughes is still a popular movie subject; he was a real zillionaire who obligingly lived out one of our favorite plotlines. (Quick reality check: guess who actually ends up alone, ranting in the dark? Crazy homeless woman on a below-zero night, that’s a good bet.)
Oddly enough, whole early hunks of this film show us Daniel Plainview surrounded by other workers, miners, tough oilmen like himself who seem to have a wordless kinship based on toil and danger. Fifteen no-dialogue minutes of pick hitting rock, toting and drilling, solemn male stares, romantic sunlight gleaming off hat brims: I figured this was supposed to mean something. Especially when a representative Son of Toil (Ciaran Hinds, an Irish actor whose face looks as if it were hewn from a tree) sticks silently with Daniel Plainview like Tonto, enacting the role of Right-hand Man without the benefit of dialogue. Why no dialogue? What’s with this Tonto? Your eyes keep glancing at him nervously—here’s this actor in a prominent role, clearly meant to be noticed, taking up half the screen in scene after scene with nothing to do but write in a little book or otherwise try to look busy. It’s embarrassing.