There Will Be Gold: “Blood” is the Year’s Best
January 8, 2008
I’ve been thinking a lot about titles recently, and part of me couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if Paul Thomas Anderson traded titles with Joel and Ethan Coen. Would “No Country for Old Men” capture the scope of Anderson’s vision? Joel and Ethan Coen’s “There Will Be Blood” would have more than met every viewers expectations of carnage, but I’m not sure if “No Country for Old Men” would have fit PTA’s movie (none of its old men have any country, but that that’s another story). There’s something both prophetic and alarming about the statement “There Will Be Blood.” The phrase is both a prediction and a demand. There will be blood. One way or another, there will be blood. This hesitancy is a quality that would have been lost in the Coen brother’s film, with its instant payout of violence, but perfectly elucidates Anderson’s genius. The movie is a slow build resisting all expectations, resisting all allegiances, yet mesmerizing in its beauty.
Midway through the movie, with the bodies not flying everywhere , I began to think about what the title might mean. Anderson has said that he changed the title from Oil! because there wasn’t enough of the novel in the movie for it to be a proper adaptation. The title was picked for the movie, for the story unfolding on screen, and not any other. There are no lost referents. One of the movie’s unquestioned themes is family, particularly male relationships. In the Times, Manohla Dargis emphasized the masculinity of this world, remarking that “Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women.” (This is true.) Dargis also seizes on the title, praising the movie for its historical sweep, “its raging fires, geysers of oil and inevitable blood. (Rarely has a film’s title seemed so ominous.)” Yet in her praise, she seems to miss the larger implication of the title. Blood certainly refers to violence, but also to family, to belonging. “There Will Be Blood” is the story not just of an oilman and the birth of the modern west, but a story about the need for family, for the need for everything family promises.
So much has already been said about the savagery of the movie, about its relationship to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the movie’s other themes that repeating them is almost unnecessary. So much has already been said about the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis, that whatever I could add would only detract, running the risk of turning the tide from justified critical praise to blogosphere hype. But anyone interested in Day-Lewis’ approach, in the process of becoming rather than acting, should listen to this interview he gave over at NPR. Paul Dano proves once again that his performance as Klitz in The Girl Next Door was no fluke, giving a wonderful performance as the preacher Eli Sunday.
But the biggest surprise of the film is its director, Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s rare indeed that a director whose early work was so celebrated could surprise so much; it’s probably even more rare for the hype to be deserved. This was the movie where Anderson figured out how to use his gorgeous visual style to serve the story, where Anderson figured out how to craft a surprising narrative that didn’t feel gimmicky (Magnolia), or go off in completely unforeseen directions. (Boogie Nights) The movie abounds with strangeness and challenges expectations at every turn, but nothing feels out of place. Three hours glide effortlessly by, gorgeously glittering away with stunning shots of landscape and industry. Anderson shows the beauty in even the most monstrous of machinery, in even the most monstrous of people. But most significantly, he trusts his viewers to pick up on smaller visual clues, to notice the heights of derricks or the intensity of a well, and Anderson uses every moment gained to improve his story.
In a year of Westerns, There Will Be Blood towers above the field. The genre has long been considered an integral part of the American mythology, but only a few westerns really make us think about what those values might mean. There Will Be Blood is one of those movies.