The acme of Paul Thomas Anderson’s self-conscious plundering of the American cinematic canon, There Will Be Blood is so freighted with importance and fraught with visions of its own mythical, apocalyptic dimensionality that it would crumble under the sheer girth of its own doom-laden edifice were it not so classically skillful and crafty. Plunging right into the heart of not only Upton Sinclair’s short story “Oil” but centuries of canonical American masterworks, There Will Be Blood jumps headfirst over Anderson’s scruffy Altman fetish and sets its sights on the mac daddy of American filmmaking: Citizen Kane. It’s truly a cinematic Icarus, attempting to rope together a century of prior national cinema, cut through the fat, and encroach on – and then tyrannize and desecrate – the American sublime. It’s a foolish and foolhardy quest that Anderson’s film is destined to fail at, but bless it for trying.
And for succeeding as far as it does through its own personal paradoxes. There Will Be Blood dissects the decaying, putrefying cavities of American capitalism and individual egotism through a profoundly, unapologetically, almost immeasurably self-satisfied sense of its own self, a film whose infinitely-excessive qualities amount to a firebrand film about a fire-drinking man. A man, I might add, whose bloodthirsty ambition and take-no-prisoners ardor is equaled and surpassed by his film’s savagely operatic, calling-all-comers embroidery, a film designed with no purpose beyond barbarously and unabashedly destroying all competition in the fight for achieving American apotheosis. Much as Citizen Kane has all-too-often become a mimetic for the life story of its creator Orson Welles, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about the pernicious casualties of perfection and success is either so well aware of its theme that it cannot escape encapsulating it itself or is such a monumental failure of will to escape protagonist Daniel Plainview’s shadow that it falls embarrassingly close to becoming him. And then, as he does, achieving a hollow conclusiveness in search of its pitiless quest for final success.
Anderson emerged as a filmmaker in the mid-‘90s independent scene, but he’s certainly surpassed any attempt at listening to the spontaneous, reckless works conjured from the ‘00s independent filmmakers in the Mumblecore school – films which, in their sloppiness and shambolic particles of uncertainty, resist the ethos of perfection, mastery, or self-discipline. Which is to say, they embody a kind of American pragmatic resistance to stultifying categories and certainty; they admit the unknown, decategorize themselves, think through each moment as a fragment one can only link together tenuously, humbled in their awareness that their best attempts are fundamentally provisional. They aim for the anti-sublime, harbor no dreams of transcendence; they seem to work through the mess, charged with the resurgent spirit of independence.
Anderson’s film is, I think, equally aware of the American impulse toward fluidity, toward disrupting foundational categorizes and static positions, an urge mythopoetically emblazoned in our national creeds of individuality and independence. The Mumblecore films seek to embody that spirit while honing in on its risks – the risk of succumbing to bootstrap individualism, to a vision of self which in its individuality curdles into self-mastery, toward order, toward controlling others – and vandalizing them through a style which resists mastery and control. Anderson charts another path, as I elude to above: he styles his film, knowingly or unknowingly, in the spirit of that urge toward order, in the spirit of that pathology of perfection. His film becomes its central protagonist, a man who toxically masters his self-image at the expense of any compassion or empathy with the outside world, let alone the havoc his mastery wrecks on it. It’s an intriguing, imperfect gambit, and it’s hard to say whether the film is a failure or a success. It imbibes so thoroughly in its own greatness that it veers and vacillates between scintillating elegance, noxious, self-sanctifying annoyance, and self-conscious irritant of the same. For me, Anderson’s later films – The Master most of all – would discover how to turn this classicist, self-conscious greatness into a prism to refract deeper recesses without being trapped by the allure and gleam of their elegant surfaces, to fold hard and soft impulses together in a swirling vision of an America in freefall. There Will Be Blood, comparatively, has no diaphanous threads to speak of; it’s hard, full, masculine cinema, engorged with its own importance, and too much so to truly love. But it certainly, certainly tries.
Voicing its declamatory stature in its very title – There Will Be Cinema! – Anderson’s film is also proof positive that its protagonist’s devouring desires are legitimate: Anderson’s film would not be the incandescent display of mastery it is if men like Anderson and protagonist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) did not demand mastery above all. Plainview, who strikes oil in California in the early 1900s and quickly amasses an empire, is so violently, hermetically sealed into his own point of view, and Anderson, who strikes cinema in California in the early 2000s, is similarly tempted by these masculine illusions of performing mastery, threading his competence and craftiness and sturdiness into every shot and sound and sensation. This necessarily troubles any appreciation of the film, though, since admiring a film that so loudly and brazenly admits with every shot that it wishes to be the best necessarily raises questions about its very thematic prescriptions, since Anderson’s film, for all it intakes Plainview’s ethos, is thematically an anti-superlative critique of the barbarous nature of total achievement in the bootstrap, my-way-or-the-highway American tradition. Anderson’s narrative, so aware of the damage of Plainview’s personality to himself and others, is fiercely critical of his beliefs, but poisonously indebted to them, committed to the fire of greatness, a summit to which his film knows no cost not worthy.
Throughout his film, Anderson tracks the enmeshment of Plainview (a cipher for capitalism) and a young preacher (Paul Dano), who each vie for the soul of the community erected around Plainview’s empire, and of course, for the support of the other. Positioned at the end of America’s wilderness era and the dawn of modernity, it’s self-evidently, and schematically, an allegory for the birth of American neoliberalism and neo-conservatism (or the kindling for what would flourish into those ideologies over a half-century later). But we might remind that cinema itself was the other empire brewing out West at this time, and one which would shape American history as fully and as unambiguously, which would weave a shroud of beauty and success and tease the non-believers with potential glamour, if only they stoked their own selves toward success at any cost, subjected themselves to its harshest whims, and played by its rules. Anderson certainly has, and his film sometimes seems aware that it’s playing by those rules, using the classical Hollywood style to mount an implicit critique of the traditions which Hollywood has for a century criticized, embodied, analyzed, mocked, disowned, supported, and every other verb you can imagine. Just as Kane was prophetic of the self-critical spirit of Kane’s egotism, so too are works like All About Eve and Sunset Blvd enmired in the industry they so ruthlessly and wonderfully mock. There Will Be Blood carries that contradictory torch into the 21st century, embodying all the Hollywood ruse, the problematic magic of cinema that disowns the hands that feed and convinces us, at our own peril, that we are participating in the same critique.
And convince us it does. Make no mistake, my analysis does not preclude, but instead demands the film’s magnificence – it’s wonderful filmmaking, and needs to be. The film harbors no illusions about its murderous zeal for philharmonic grandeur, and it’s hard to argue with its success. Much akin to The Godfather, it is a film whose grueling self-enclosure precludes any alternative pathway to art that is not merely about the mythology of various breeds of capitalism – Mafioso in Coppola’s and frontier in Anderson’s – but about the mythology of cinema, about films’ ability to spiritedly sell us what it so often admits to be shrapnel and snake oil. There Will Be Blood, laminated in an implacable need for elegance and too-calculated mystery, is often quite masterly, especially when drumming up a sense of loss and genuine terror from the ground in violent geysers of pure cinema, a world hypnotically elsewhere but also, of course, our world. Monotone though its conflict may be at times, it is frequently impossible not to find oneself swept up in the totemic might of its vehement spirit, poetically sheared of extraneous depth and pared down to a kind of disenchanted American fable, a kind of ur-text in the American cinematic lexicon that harnesses the core of classical filmmaking and then blasts it out in singular boldface.
Thus, Day-Lewis’ thoughtfully manicured but deliciously caricatured portrait of this cipher of predatory capitalism is unsurpassable, a toxic-etching of an American obsessive as brutal and unerring as Charles Foster Kane, or Captain Ahab. And Robert Elswit’s lacquered cinematography is equally hard to argue with, especially during an explosion where an oil rig metastasizes into, at once, the erupting, uncontrollable fire of Plainview’s consciousness, the overflowing ethos of future possibility, and the funeral pyre for the American dream. There, now at its most apocalyptic, the film finally catalyzes the implicit sense of death and rebirth so central to its vision of lost-and-found-and-most-definitely-lost Americana, not to mention to Jonny Greenwood’s churning, wonderfully cyclical score (the first of several phenomenal contributions with Anderson). And central, lest I forget, to Anderson’s camera itself, finally having worked through his earlier films’ more needlessly excessive gestures, finally moving in lock-step with the film’s characters, bolstering their stillness and their falsely-actualized dreams of motion, rather than simply, showily pirouetting around them, as Magnolia was sometimes content to do. All this in tow, the film stalks a region somewhere between Fordian tough-ness and the soft, Malickian sublime, each a philosophy with its own meditations on nature, beauty, success, humanity, the relationship between cinema, the individual, and the earth. Wearing its craft, and its forebears, on its sleeve, the film boasts a collection of indelible markers of its skill, overflowing with an excess of carefully thought-through visual and aural signifiers of its effectiveness, a collection that qualifies as a Monument Valley all its own.
That camera, by the way, frees up a film that, at times, weighs itself down too much, refuses to ironize (and at other times too obviously ironizes) its beauty, as if prematurely eulogizing the arc and passing of its own narrative before it’s even finished. Eulogizing his characters and the fall of America too, I might add, without really empathizing with them, much as the film’s signifiers – the emptiness of the landscape evoking the aimless loneliness of the American Dream, the church a mimetic for another kind of dream to cling to when the barbarous fluidity of capitalism locks into you – are often content merely to signify, and loudly, rather than to really explore the characters they dwarf so easily. In comparison to Anderson’s attempt to burrow into the lonesome Lancaster Dodd in The Master, a figure who resists such attempts but whose desire to erect a complete authoritarian family when he cannot find one in the world leads him to some of the same conclusions as Plainview, Anderson’s depiction of Plainview is that of a rictus monster, never more so than in the caricatured ending. In its final moments, There Will Be Blood grants us the very firm sense of resolution that viewers of The Master complained was lacking in that later, less placating film, one less interested in erecting monoliths to always-already known feelings about the lies of American lore and the nation’s fundamental hypocrisy as fuel for its particular fire.
While that film genuinely attempts a bold trek into the soul of lost, wayward characters who ultimately, perhaps accidentally, entomb themselves in and thus embody a nation’s dejection and confusion, There Will Be Blood seems to be walling itself up in a protective visual lamination, shoring up its stylistic credentials as if afraid of what it might mean to genuinely leave itself unguard, to expose itself to us. The kind of calculated, constipated stylistic self-possession Anderson practices here has no room for the threat of divergence, for an errant amble into the unknown. Defined by its ennobling aura of self-satisfied impermeability, it attains perfection not by wrangling with alternate perspective – like The Master – but by distinctly repressing and not incorporating alternative perspectives or whiffs of ineffability. There’s just no room between the lacquered lensing and the didactic language that recast complicated issues of capitalism as dogmatic bromides.
Make no mistake: this is, as nearly every reviewer has argued, a Great American Drama, but that nomenclature is less a statement of quality than intentionality. It’s arguably the Great American Subject: a person who doesn’t feel they belong in America turns to the egotism inherent in American capitalism to create a new America for himself, thereby revealing himself (most certainly himself) as the ultimate proxy for American “self-fashioning” to begin. And it doles out the style of classical American filmmaking about as well as any film of the 21st century. But, for me, personally, The Master and Inherent Vice embrace alternative imaginaries that demand less formally coherent styles and tones, that break and buckle while There Will Be Blood only galvanizes itself. Those latter films evoke the confidence of a filmmaker having achieved a kind of perfection, brazenly embracing failure by surpassing that constructed standard of success to experiment on increasingly unsound terms. There’s mystery in those films, subterranean truths told through whispers, intimations of a film unsure of itself, the ultimate mark of genuine confidence.
On the other side of the table, there isn’t one shot in There Will Be Blood that isn’t expressly confident in itself, but it exhibits a showier, shallower confidence, that illusion of mastery we began with. It has the oversized stylistic oratory and at-times frenzied, fanatical gloriousness of a preacher, and it tells a great fable, a vision of a damned America, a cautionary tale for a generation. But it refuses to subjugate itself to the potentially unhinged effervescence of its own prophecy. Rather than letting loose with thematic glee and a personal divine fervor rooted in spontaneous, individual expression – rather than feeling the tremor of its spirit – Anderson’s film commits to the rulebook of prestige cinema like religious dogma, subjugating itself to perfection rather than liberating itself to invent its own imperfections. The best fables are not conspicuously, consciously crafted, poised for understanding and graced with full knowledge of themselves and their intents. Rather, they project outward, daring to plunge into the abyss of the unknown by reaching past their protective layer of mastered understanding; they tease out the unimaginable, think-through the unfinished, aspire to the incomplete. There Will Be Blood is a prophecy, but it plays out with the foreknowledge of the conscious mind, not the curiosity of the unconscious mind where many of the truly prophetic leaps percolate, where the fascinatingly unsettled flickers of potential truth first arise. For good and for ill, then, There Will Be Blood is beholden to Daniel Plainview, entirely perfect in its construction, and, unfortunately, entirely myopic to other ways of living life, entirely closed-off from its own curiosity.
But I’m eminently grateful for There Will Be Blood all the same, perhaps because of its other prediction, not the one for America, but for Anderson. Perhaps There Will Be Blood was necessary then, its own form not of prophecy but exorcism. Only after ensnaring and enmeshing himself in abject formalism and visual splendor – the elegant, proverbial perfection of Old-Hollywood lucidity alloyed with modernistic soul-searching and the obvious authority of prestige drama – could Anderson purge his need to induct himself into Hollywood royalty and produce a film that is truly, masterfully, perplexingly unaccountable in its freakishly queer sensibilities and a sense of self that cannot entirely be placed. (Thus, his least respected Altman riff, Inherent Vice, also may be his best, since it reeks not of a need to become Altman so much as to bask in the possibilities Altman’s cinema engenders). Too calculated though it may be, Anderson clearly needed it, in more ways than one.
Score: 6.5/10 (excusing the harsh tone of the review, it’s really quite good in its own idiom, albeit an idiom I am skeptical of)