First of all, don’t get your hopes up. There won’t be that much blood. I was very disappointed.
Second of all, Paul Thomas “the ‘Thomas’ means I didn’t direct MORTAL KOMBAT” Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD has the feeling of greatness. It has the smell of greatness, the texture of it. It flirts with greatness. I’m pretty sure it even left the club with greatness last night but there is no way yet for us to know if it got lucky with greatness. We can only catch up with it later and ask it. If it turns out later that it was only faking it I’ll have to admit it had me fooled. Here’s why.
It has an epic feel, an epic length, a supreme filmatic confidence. It has long stretches with no dialogue, because it don’t give a fuck. It knows what it wants. If it wants to show an emotional reunion scene from all the way across a field it fucking will. It has authentic period detail. A classy, tension-building score. Nothing noticably digital. Hubris. Oil. Madness. Mustaches.
Whether or not it’s great, it reminds you of greatness. It’ll make you think of CITIZEN KANE sometimes if you know how to think of CITIZEN KANE as a movie about a specific thing and not just as the official best movie ever made. It reminded me of THE GODFATHER a couple times. Mostly it reminded me of Stanley Kubrick. Not in some specific similarity but just in the way it made me feel, like watching FULL METAL JACKET or EYES WIDE SHUT the first time. Not being sure where it was going, whether it was almost over or just beginning, but every big leap or twist always felt natural, like I was in good hands, this guy knows what he’s doing. When it was over I felt like I would probaly have to see it again or go up into the mountains and meditate for a month before I’d know exactly what it was supposed to be about. But I knew it was pretty fuckin good. A pleasure to be horrified by.
(NOTE: this review contains some vague spoilers. I’m trying not to be too specific but I do discuss crucial scenes including the last one, and you really oughta see this one totally fresh anyway. Have some restraint, don’t fuck it up for yourself buddy)
In the first section I was impressed, but not bowled over. It was obviously epic, obviously good filmmaking. I could understand the acclaim. But it seemed like I would go away saying yeah, it was good, but I didn’t love it. It didn’t really connect with me. But then all the sudden it did in a definitely-classic scene where an oil well strikes with Plainview’s son* on top of it. The scene is epic, as the camera rotates around the panicked father carrying the injured son as oil sprays behind them. It’s terrifying, with its creepy score by some dude from Radiohead and sound design that puts you in the head of the little boy. It’s poignant in the way the greedy oil man protects his son and completely ignores that he’s just hit the motherlode. And then it’s tragic when he abandons this traumatized kid to fight a breaking fire, finally acknowledges his fortune and starts to laugh. And from that point on the movie is riveting.
Just so the movie doesn’t think it’s hot shit, though, I might as well harp on the couple minor problems I did have with it, both having to do with Paul Dano. He plays a preacher named Eli who has a cruel rivalry with Plainview and forces him to give money to his church, making the church dependent on oil. Minor Problem #1: there’s some business with Dano playing twin brothers. It’s not clearly explained and seems kind of silly for this movie. There are themes there with Eli being jealous of his brother, but if that’s a crucial part of the movie maybe it should’ve been explained better.
Minor Problem #2 is at the point in the movie when it skips ahead 16 years. All the sudden Plainview’s boy H.W. is a grown man, looks at least 30. Plainview is grey and weak and living as a crazy man in a mansion like late Howard Hughes or late Citizen Kane. Times have changed, but Paul Dano hasn’t. He doesn’t look a day older! He looks only a couple years older than that amount of time skipped over. Somehow the little boy lapped him.
I have to assume this was a conscious choice, it’s not like Paul T. Anderson didn’t know he was doing this. And I understand not switching actors like they did with the son, because the last scene is a confrontation between the two characters and it just wouldn’t work if we were getting used to a new guy playing the character. And you gotta kind of admire them for not giving him a beard or a receding hairline or some rubber wrinkles. They knew that wasn’t gonna fool anybody so they didn’t insult our intelligence with that. But I don’t know man. I looked it up. Paul Dano is 23 and looks young enough that he still plays high school kids. I had a hard time taking this leap. Am I supposed to figure the Lord kept him young? Or that he’s from the same planet as Natalie Portman in the Star Wars movies so the little boy she babysits grows up to be her hunky husband and she just changes dresses? Maybe he has a kidney problem like Gary Coleman. I don’t know, it’s kind of freaky. The way people came up with theories about MAGNOLIA, I figure it won’t be long before someone tells me that last part is all an opium dream or takes place in purgatory or it’s a vision reflected in the piece of silver he finds in the opening scene or there’s a tiny world inside his mustache or who knows.
But who cares, the greatness-odor on the movie overwhelms those quibbles and suffocates them. Dan D. Lewis gives an amazing performance that he will get an Oscar for, which is kind of too bad because it means Viggo will not win this year. And as talented as Viggo is it’s gonna be hard for him to ever top that butt naked eye stabbing scene, so that’s too bad. But Lewis is great, sometimes going way over-the-top, but Al Pacino in SCARFACE over-the-top, not Nicolas Cage for the past ten years over-the-top. Also great is the weird little kid who plays his son. And this is unusual but even the baby who plays his son as a baby gives a standout performance. I talked to somebody else who noticed this so I know I’m not crazy. I don’t think it was a puppet or a little person in a costume, I think it was a real baby.
And like I said, I don’t think after one viewing I really have a full understanding of the movie so I will just say that what seems most important to me and what I like most is these two relationships that Plainview has, the one with his son and the one with the incredible ageless preacher. The way he treats his son is powerful to me because it’s ambiguous and that makes it seem more genuine. The guy is a terrible father and a huge asshole. But there are times when it’s clear that his love is genuine. He just gets distracted by all this competitive businessman shit and it makes him fuck up. He tells cruel lies and half truths, he avoids talking about the boy’s mother or makes up a story. To be honest I was too thick to follow the true background of the boy, which is explained in the dialogue-free opening, so it was kind of a surprise twist at the end for me. But I love the way the asshole shell of this guy occasionally cracks and there’s a softy hiding underneath.
If you’ve seen the movie you know the excellent baptism scene. It’s so funny because of the way he only half-way plays along with this religious talk he obviously doesn’t believe, and because of the way Eli uses the situation to avenge him for the beatdown earlier. (By the way, it is pretty funny to watch Daniel-Day Lewis with a huge mustache beating the shit out of the kid from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. That was a good scene too now that I think of it.) But also the scene is kind of a punch in the gut because you see how it obviously gets to him to be talking about abandoning his son. And right after that H.W. has returned from whatever school he was shipped off to. Obviously Plainview didn’t just feel guilty in the moment. It made him realize the mistake he had made with his boy and try to correct it. But too late, looks like he already blew it.
The movie ends dealing with his relationship with Eli. So that might be a sign that Eli is a more important person in his life, which would be another sign that he’s a crappy father. Despite the weird aging problem this is an intense and unpredictable emotional and physical duel. This is some crazy shit. They’ve spent their lives hating each other, exploiting each other, beating each other up, tricking each other, lying to themselves and to everyone else. Eli is a huckster but also really believes in God and can’t understand why God lets him be such an ass. Plainview hates Eli’s bullshit, but is just as full of shit himself, and must know it, and might hate himself for it. And he hates religion, but he sort of found it during that baptism scene, and he hates Eli all the more for it. But he’s been battling this kid for decades and he finally pulls out all his cards and as far as he’s concerned he has check mate. (I just mixed a card playing and a chess metaphor. I was gonna try to do checkers too but it wasn’t working.)
To me it kind of seems like in defeating Eli he has also defeated himself, because it’s hard to imagine anything happy happening to him ever again after the movie ends. So it’s an ambiguous ending just like KING KONG VS. GODZILLA or FREDDY VS. JASON. Some people will say there are two endings, one where Plainview wins and one where Eli wins. But it’s an urban legend.
There’s no question in my mind that this movie will be studied and discussed for many years. What the ultimate conclusions will be, I do not know. I’m guessing “pretty fuckin good” will be one of them. Even if everybody later decides it’s a big bore and the depiction of the oil industry is inaccurate and the baby’s performance was digitally enhanced, I hope there will at least be some acclaim for the Radiohead dude for doing the score. That thing is spectacular. I would like to see some horror movies with that kind of sound. Good shit.
(This is one of the only reviews of the movie that will end in the word “shit.” Maybe there’s one that says it’s “the shit,” I’m not sure. But definitely not “it’s shit.” That would just be inaccurate.)
*by the way this is about an oil tycoon named Plainview, his little son, some preacher, relationships, and that type of shit
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.