Note: In the following joint review, both John and Jason wrote up their impressions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
There's no question 2007 was an odd year for me as a reviewer. It's the first time I've ever personally found so many movies critically acclaimed by others not particularly to my liking. Among the films my fellow critics thought were wonderful and I thought were only a little above average included "The Assassination of Jesse James," "Into the Wild," "No Country for Old Men," and the subject of our discussion here, "There Will Be Blood." Maybe it's a matter of age; I'm getting grumpier as I get older. (A reader a while back wrote to tell me that anybody whose favorite film was "Casablanca" should no longer be reviewing movies.) I dunno. In any case, it's not that I actually disliked any of these films; they just didn't make it into my top ten.
"There Will Be Blood" is perhaps the oddest of the lot. On the plus side, it features a riveting, if one-note, performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead, some magnificent cinematography, convincing period costumes and settings, and several ambitious themes. On the negative side, it has a brilliant but one-dimensional performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, a relentlessly grim mood, an ambitious but simplistic and muddled set of themes, and an interminable length. Let's take some of those conflicting issues one at a time.
The movie, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia") and based on the novel "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair, begins well enough and then grinds on wearisomely for what seems like a lifetime without once changing its tone or adding any new substance. It's all about a prospector, Daniel Plainview, who strikes it rich in oil. The movie proceeds to tell the story of his rise to prominence in the oil world, covering a period from 1898 to 1927 that coincides with America's rise to prominence as a world power. The plot is simple, and it's elegantly revealed, yet it probably doesn't warrant the two-and-a-half-plus hours the film spends on it.
Next, there's the matter of Daniel Day-Lewis and his characterization of Plainview, around whom the entire movie revolves. Day-Lewis is undoubtedly brilliant in the role but the character is a drag. He's supposed to represent single-minded ambition, and Day-Lewis captures this aspect of Plainview's personality dead-on. Plainview is a mean-spirited SOB who stops at nothing to get his way and accumulate money and power. He takes advantage of everyone with whom he deals, and he is not above using his adopted son to gain sympathy. Never once in 158 minutes does Plainview smile at anything that doesn't bring him profit.
Plainview says he "believes in plain speaking," thus his name. Of course, he doesn't speak plainly at all, part of the film's sarcasm. Plainview lies to manipulate folks. He also says he has a competition in him; he wants no one to succeed but him. One thing is plain: He hates people and sees only the worst in everyone.
Day-Lewis nails the guy's ramrod-straight drive, and the actor does his best to hold one's attention, which isn't easy given that he's in practically every shot. The "however" is that despite the actor having won an Oscar for Best Actor in the part, it is still a single-note performance. Plainview's character is unchanging, and Day-Lewis's dour portrayal becomes somewhat tiresome going on for so long as it does.
What's more, every word Plainview utters he does so as a monumental proclamation. He never carries on light conversations as you or I might. The character is all business and has no friends, so he chooses his words carefully and slowly and articulates them as though they were pronouncements from God. Now, here's the thing: If the character had changed over the course of the story, developed for the better or the worse in some way, it might have mitigated somewhat Plainview's tedious, unvarying nature. In addition, I didn't find Plainview a particularly original character, which might have been the filmmaker's intent, representing as he does an emblematic type. In appearance, Plainview looks like Gregory Peck in "The Gunfighter," with his slim physique, flat-brimmed hat, and thick black mustache. And in voice Plainview reminds one of John Huston, with his measured, solemn, yet often stentorian inflections. Those are not bad archetypes to imitate, but it does tend to draw one's attention away from the character.
Then there is the matter of the movie's themes. Obviously, the most important one shows us the rise of big business in America and explicates its uncompromising demands on people, land, and resources, plus its eventual subjugation of everything around it. Then as now, oil is the dominant business of the world. So Plainview is the symbol of big business, "Big Oil," and if you're beginning to hate your oil company when it comes time to pay that gasoline bill every month, you'll feel much the same way toward Plainview. Yet that seems a rather facile and superficial theme for so long and ostensibly grandiose a film. Therefore, the story delves into a secondary theme, that of the importance not only of big business to the emergence of America as a world power in the twentieth century but the importance of religion as well.
It's the religious angle that had me puzzled. The film seems to be trying to make some connection between big business and organized religion, but if so, it lost me. Paul and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), twin brothers, appear to represent two sides of the religious coin: one the devout, personal side and the other the organized, structured side. Supposedly, business and religion in their own manipulative fashion vie for power and influence over people, and the "Blood" of the movie's title becomes a token of the blood, sweat, and tears of labor and the blood of the Lamb of God. Nevertheless, I found Paul and Eli's relationship with Plainview labored and confused throughout the film, culminating in one of the most incomprehensible closing scenes in motion-picture history.
I also think it ironic that a single quotation from the film, "I drink your milkshake," has probably become more well known to the general public than the film itself. Plainview explains that he's draining another man's land of its oil by going under it, like somebody taking a straw, putting it into another person's milkshake, and sucking it dry. It shows what strength Plainview commands that he is able essentially to steal from other people with impunity. We find the milkshake line now well recognized, while I'm guessing only a fraction of the number who know the line saw the movie itself, which did only moderate business at the box office. By comparison, "Iron Man" and "Indy 4" took in more money in a single weekend than "Blood" took in during its entire theatrical run.
Still, there is much to enjoy in "There Will Be Blood," and I don't want to leave on a negative note. The look director Anderson has created is authentic and appealing in almost every way. One of the disc's featurettes shows us how closely the filmmakers used old photographs of the period to duplicate costumes and sets. Equally attractive is the cinematography, for which Robert Elswit won an Oscar. He captures the broad, open spaces of the American West with a welcome, poetic sublimity, the camera panning slowing and leisurely from shot to shot, augmenting the languorous atmosphere of the film's pace.
Most important, though, is Jonny Greenwood's musical score--spare, stark, often staccato, and classically influenced--along with the music of Johannes Brahms and Arvo Part working wonders to evoke the bleakness of the story line and the vastness of the story's canvass.
As a film about one man's obsessive egomania, "There Will Be Blood" does its job. I just wish it had done so with more conciseness, and with less bombast and presumption. A little goes a long way.
John's film rating: 6/10
The Film According to Jason:
"There Will Be Blood" is little more than the story of a man on a mission. A mission to accumulate as much wealth as possible. A mission to bring people under his control. A mission to stomp out anyone or anything that might clash with his philosophy. A man who claims to be a long-lost brother, a boy he raises as his own son, poor ranchers in California. The "who" doesn't matter to Daniel Plainview (a spectacularly engaging, terrifying, and magnetic Daniel Day-Lewis) as he builds an oil empire over the course of three decades. He only cares about the "what"…namely power.
Clocking in a a bursting 158 minutes, the latest Paul Thomas Anderson epic comes onto the scene reminding viewers more of the 1956 George Stevens opus "Giant" than anything else in recent or past memory. There is a slow, methodical pace to the picture at every turn; Anderson never feels the need to explain what has happened during large jumps in time or from one scene to the next. It is up to the audience to follow along and, most important, pay attention. The first half hour or so is devoid of any dialogue, substituting words for the tribal-inspired score from Jonny Greenwood. It brings to mind the work on the score for the television series "Lost" in that the music crescendos at climactic moments and then, without warning, spirals back down to soft, easy listening. Add in exotic sounding instruments--a pair of wooden sticks, perhaps--and this isn't a typical Western score. It's more alive than any soundtrack in any movie of this kind before.
Enough can not be said of Day-Lewis, Oscar winner for 1989's "My Left Foot." We follow Daniel Plainview's character arc with such intensity because of the actor, and we can pinpoint the moment things begin to go sour in his life. It's not the script pointing and shouting "Oh, this is a really important moment"; rather, it is a culmination of little things throughout the film, starting very early, compounding on top of one another that make Daniel the man he ends up being. The only things he has known are oil and his boy, H.W. (Dillon Freasier, quietly effective in the role). All he wants out of life, at least initially, is to be more than he currently is.
As Daniel's ego spirals out of control, he engages in a battle of wills with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, playing two characters), an up-and-coming minister. It starts over a simple negotiation and escalates to a beat-down in the mud, a humiliating exorcism and, finally, to the most violently nonviolent action sequence in film. It's not enough for Day-Lewis simply to get lost in the character; he fully inhabits Daniel from his mumbling, soft-spoken ways to out and out rage and the way spit drips off his lip when he and Eli engage in their final test of wills. His is a transformation of epic proportions benefiting the scope of "There Will Be Blood," and because the actor throws himself into the part, we don't see the man who played Bill the Butcher or Christy Brown or John Proctor. We see Daniel Plainview, a bitter, resentful, angry man.
It is Daniel Day-Lewis who makes "Blood" the immense joy to watch it turns out to be. Which isn't to say the rest of the cast doesn't hold up their end of the bargain. They do so in more understated ways. Eli's conversion happens mostly off screen, including the genesis of a terrifying encounter with his father. In his own way, Eli becomes the very thing Daniel is: power hungry, full of hubris, and desperate. The only disappointment is that we don't get to see him turn to the dark side, so to speak. Dano excels at the part because we have been conditioned to trust cherubic-looking teenagers instead of fearing them. He, too, feeds on the power and adoration his congregation gives him, something we become all too aware of in a baptism scene.
Anderson does a great service to all his actors with his directing style. No quick cuts or coverage of dialogue-intensive scenes. The camera stays focused on a speaker or follows the action in a single unbroken take, allowing the emotions to flow freely through the shot without creating them in the editing room. He also lets the action build, slowly yet steadily, like the slow ascent to the top of a roller coaster. We know the inevitable ending, but each time the tension is ratcheted up another link, it is farther for us to fall. It's not given to us all at once until Anderson is ready to unleash unbridled fury. His directing style, his slow pacing of the story, his Oscar-worthy lead actor, and the payoff any audience will remember long after the end credits have faded, suck us into this world, never letting our attention wane for a moment lest we miss another revelation.
No matter what the camera focuses on, it is wholly unconventional, whether it be the amount of darkness in a given scene, the way actors' faces are obscured, or the stark reality with which a raging oil fire is shown, billowing black smoke into the blue California sky. In all its magnificence, in all the potential destruction the fire could case, the scene is breathtaking, similar to the burning oil fields on our TV screens during the first Gulf War. As fire shoots up into the sky, engulfing a wooden derrick, it provokes a reaction within us: Not beauty or awe as one might expect, but of terror and sorrow. The work put into the construction and drilling, especially without the use of modern technology, is gut wrenching to see go up in so many flames.
"There Will Be Blood" wants to play up the battle between money and religion and, for the most part, it succeeds. The conflict begins very early, when oil rich land is dangled in front of Daniel's nose by Eli's brother, Paul. One of the first questions Paul asks is in regards to Daniel's faith. His response is clearly a lie when he refers to embracing all religions. And, subsequently, every scene featuring Daniel and Eli is riddled with tension based on their personal beliefs. My one question, though, is why? Why does Paul go to Daniel? Why does Eli take it upon himself to battle Daniel? Are Daniel and Paul the same person or twins? If they are the same person, why does Eli bring an evil to his home? To prove himself? To give him someone to fight against? See, the screenplay (also by Anderson) is content to present information yet not explain it. It by no means degrades the film and, I expect, an entire film class could be devoted to those issues.
(Why it is no one thinks to communicate with H.W. via the written word after his accident is beyond me. It seems like the easiest thing in the world to do, yet the solution doesn't occur to a single person. And while we're on the subject, his lineage is up for debate as well. Did Daniel really use him as a ploy to get land and support, or are they really related? Again, these relatively minor points don't matter except to make fascinating conversation.)
Even at its engorged running time, "There Will Be Blood" begins and ends in the blink of an eye. Director Anderson and his cast create a world and a situation epic in scale, yet based on a handful of people. There is no noble quest as in "The Lord of the Rings" or galactic stakes as in "Star Wars," only people caught in a tidal wave of events. Daniel Day-Lewis deserved his Oscar for Best Actor, as well as Anderson for directing nomination. "There Will Be Blood" ranks right up there with the best of 2007.
Jason's film rating: 8/10.
The Paramount video engineers reproduce the movie on Blu-ray in a VC-1, 1080p, BD50 transfer. It's the kind of transfer that will undoubtedly please most viewers while annoying some folks in the videophile fringe. You see, there is practically no grain anywhere, either in outdoor location shots or in the darkest indoor scenes. I suspect the engineers applied a degree of filtering here, resulting in a remarkably clean canvas but one that can sometimes look just slightly soft and glossy. There is also a little haloing but almost no jagged edges, with colors that are bright and realistic and facial tones that show up well.
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless codec renders the soundtrack about as well as a movie theater would reproduce it. There's a terrific left-to-right stereo spread, the voices and noises emanating all along the front soundstage, with proper depth as well. However, surprisingly perhaps, there isn't as much surround activity as I would have expected: a hint of musical bloom, the blaze of a fire, and the force of an explosion are about the extent of it. Nevertheless, the sound is smooth, natural, and dynamic when necessary, and quite subtle by turns. I enjoyed it.
There really aren't a lot of extras on the disc, perhaps because of the length of the movie. For me, the best of the bunch was "The Story of Petroleum" (HD), a twenty-five-minute, silent promotional feature created somewhere between 1923 and 1927 in black-and-white. The U.S. Bureau of Mines made it in collaboration with Sinclair Oil as a promotional feature at a time when the United States was the biggest producer and biggest consumer of oil in the world. Jonny Greenwood composed a new score to accompany it. Frankly, I found this old promo more fascinating than the main attraction.
The new extras are thirty-one minutes long, and the viewer may play them separately or all at once. They begin with "15 Minutes: The Making of There Will Be Blood" (HD), a segment that shows us how the filmmakers patterned their movie after real photographs of the day. After that are several additional scenes: a "Fishing" sequence (HD), a "Haircut/Interrupted Hymn" scene (HD), and an interesting and amusing variation, "Dailies Gone Wild" (HD), with a theatrical trailer and a teaser (HD) thrown in for good measure.
The extras wind down with a meager eight scene selections and no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"There Will Be Blood" is an unusual experience, to say the least. On the one hand, it seems to project an epic scale; on the other hand, it's really a one-man show. I've seen the movie twice now, and I wish I could get behind everything Jason praised, but for me it was rather a letdown. I found the film far too long, the themes confused, and Day-Lewis's performance a well-performed but one-note affair. Don't get me wrong: The movie is worth one's time. I'm just not sure it's worth more than one viewing, even in high definition.