Saturday, 9 August 2008

There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release date: 11 January 2008 (USA)
Loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!. Screenplay written by Anderson himself.

There Will Be Blood
is a story of discovery, family, wealth, ego and the unending battle of principles between money and religion. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a silver prospector who, by sheer accident, discovers an oil field while digging for silver down in the narrow shaft of a deserted field somewhere in the US. He suffers a terrible fall and somehow drags himself by sheer power of will to a nearby town-- a piece of suspected petroleum ore tucked in the folds of his shirt for assay. The first twelve minutes or so of speechless acting marks the beginning of this film. Long periods of silence punctuated only by the clank of a spade hitting cold hard stone, and the forced breathing of Daniel Plainview in the narrow dark shaft are the first sketches of a portrait that eventually completes the character of this ambitious man with it's several remarkable traits, follies, faults, and idiosyncrasies. Those first few minutes are also testimony to one fact: Plainview is a man of painfully few words. Unless he really needs to speak, he prefers to keep his thoughts to himself.

Fast forward to 1902 and Plainview now leads a small group of men working on a primitive oil well. In the process of mining oil, a man is killed. But not before Plainview sees his well spurt out the first burst of black gold. Oblivious of a co-worker's death, Plainview is seen rejoicing and revelling in the first contact between him and the black gold he now owns. There's a visible expression of exultant triumph on his features as he smears his hand with the greasy black fluid. That handful of petroleum is more than a trophy to Plainview. It is as essential to him as the blood flowing in his veins. It forms a part of his being. Whether in a soiled pair of workers' overalls or a cleanly cut business suit, Plainview reeks of oil. It is on his face, in his attitude: oil is his only conscience.

Plainview adopts the orphaned child of the deceased co-worker and brings him up as his own son. Plainview names the child, HW, a partner in his oil business-- tugging him along to all business meetings, concluding new leases and contracts with good success (since a child partner gives more credibility to Plainview). A young man named Paul Sunday (played by Paul Dano) visits Plainview and alerts him about the presence of oil in their farm in Little Boston, California, for a rather princely sum of $500. Under the guise of a quail hunt, Plainview travels with his son to the farm and is warmly received by the Sunday family. Plainview discovers that oil is abundant in the area (and also just beneath the land surface) surrounding the Sunday farm and offers to buy the land from the family. Eli (also played by Paul Dano), Paul Sunday's twin, gets more than a whiff of the real reason behind Plainview's interest in the land and manages to get a clause obliging Plainview to pay the Church of the Third Revelation (where Eli is a preacher) a sum of $5000, conditional on the success of Plainview's business.

Plainview succeeds in leasing all the land around the Sunday ranch except a slice known as Bandy tract and owned by a certain old man named Bandy, who refuses to let Plainview have the land until he comes to meet him personally. Plainview's ego forbids him do something like that, and hence he begrudgingly spares the Bandy tract. Meanwhile, Eli personally requests Plainview that he be allowed to bless the rig at it's inauguration and Plainview agrees, only to later embarass Eli publicly when he denies him his request and says a short blessing himself. A worker is killed at the oil-well on the first day itself. The next day, a bigger tragedy follows. A sudden explosion at the well ruins HW's hearing capabilities forever (he was lying close when the explosion took place), and also causes immense losses to Plainview's company. Plainview's eyes burn with fury and pain as he sees gallons of oil, his own life-giving fluid, disappear into red flames and black smoke. It is notable how Plainview rushes to save HW from the accident; notable because we get to know that his concerns for the boy are not yet completely financially-dictated. There is still a morsel of care and geniune affection for the little boy in the oil magnate's heart.

Later, Eli comes to Plainview to have the promised $5000 for his church, only to be beaten and humiliated by Plainview for not being able to cure his son through "faith healing", a practice Eli conducts frequently at his church. Eli returns home thoroughly disturbed and hurt, and in a fit of rage, violently attacks his old father for foolishly selling off such a valuable piece of land for a pittance.

A man named Henry comes to meet Daniel and tells him that he is Plainview's half-brother, showing a diary as proof of his claim. Plainview takes the man into his confidence, even in so far as openly admitting that he despises all men (for he perceives them to be jealous of his power and wealth) and that he can't stand competitors anyhow. A suspecting HW sets fire around the bed where Henry is sleeping, but the man escapes the ordeal. The young boy is packed to a boarding school for the deaf by Daniel for his misbehaviour.

With Henry, Daniel sets out with a map and constructs an oil-pipeline eventually closing on an deal with Union Oil. But, Daniel suddenly grows suspicious of his companion, and one night, at gunpoint, Henry admits to being an impostor. Henry says that he was a friend of Plainview's real half-brother, who has died of tuberculosis and left his diary with the man. Daniel kills the man and buries him at night. The next morning, he is woken by Mr. Bandy who says that he has witnessed the burial. Mr. Bandy even agrees to leasing the land to Plainview, on the condition that he is baptized into the Church of the Third Revelation, of which Mr. Bandy is also a member. Daniel is reluctant to agree to that for two reasons: one, the only god that he believes in is his ego; and secondly, it is Eli who will baptize him. Plainview had earlier witnessed a confession and healing ceremony at the church and had thoroughly despised Eli's extreme leaning towards belief in a superhuman force, besides his flamboyance in showmanship, perhaps, in Plainview's eyes, bordering a bit too much on overdoing his role of a mere padre. But Daniel eventually agrees. On the day of his baptism, Plainview has to suffer the terrible humiliation of submitting before God, that too at the hands of a young boy dismissed and humiliated by him only some time back. For Eli, the ceremony is much more than just an elaborate religious protocol, it is an opportunity to get even with the man who had insulted him so.

The story rolls to 1927 when HW returns to his father with an interpreter and asks permission to resign his role as a partner in Plainview's firm, so that he can start an oil business in Mexico with his wife, Mary (Eli's sister). Plainview, with his strong hatred for all competitors (and everyone in general), disowns the boy on charges of "betrayal"; revealing to him the fact that he was an orphan who he (Daniel) picked up only to facilitate his business deals. HW is hurt, but he stoically only says, this one time, himself, that he is lucky not to have any part of Daniel's character in him.

Eli returns to the Sunday ranch and begs for some money from Plainview because he has wasted money in gambling and poor investments. He proposes a collaborative project with Plainview to set up wells in the Bandy tract (which apparently hasn't yet been exploited). In a last attempt to impose his will on Eli, Plainview makes Eli proclaim that he is a false prophet and that "God is a superstition". Then he reveals how he has tapped off all the oil from the Bandy tract from the wells surrounding the land. A sudden surge of extreme ego blinded from truth by power and money hits Plainview, who reacts violently and kills Eli off by beating him continuously in the head with a bowling pin. In the final shot, Plainview's servant is shown getting down from the staircase to find his master sitting aghast beside the corpse of the victim. When asked what happened, Plainview merely states: "I'm finished". The conquest of money, power, and above all else, oil over his conscience is over, and in a sudden torrent of realisation, Daniel sees the truth that had eluded him for so long.

The film is remarkable because if it is the story of a man who was ruined by extreme ambition and power, it is parallel-ly also a story of how USA became what it is today. People similar to Plainview took the initiative and created the greatest capitalist state of all times; and therefore this film is essential to understand the national psyche of the country that virtually rules our world now. On yet another level, it is a poignant study of the eternal debates between capitalists/economists and religious scholars on the money vs. religion issue. The film is worth special regard because it is neutral, even possibly nihilistic to some viewers: it takes no sides; but softly, if repeatedly, shouts out that blind excesses of either money or religion can be harmful to moral development. It is notable that no characters in this novel, maybe with the possible exception of HW, is shown in the extreme shades of white or black. Both the chief protagonists, Plainview and Eli are painted in shades of grey: the former leaning a bit more towards the dark side than the latter. Eli professes to be a true prophet and yet, he cannot escape the clutches of revenge, rage or avarice. So much so that he is ready to confess that "God is a superstition" just to retrieve himself from a phase of total financial (and moral, if I may add) bankruptcy. Which is actually true in a way, since God ultimately is superstition in Eli's own case-- he never knew or understood The Saviour deeply. The development of Plainview's character is also worth mention in this review: because the man was not always the extremely egoistic maniacal power-hungry beast he became. In fact, his care for HW is quite genuine in the early days. It is only with time that money begins to devour and mislead his conscience, making him suspect and hate all his fellow-men. If Plainview betrays supreme ego, he also betrays extreme loneliness, manifest in his open confession to Henry.

Radiohead's lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composes a brilliant soundtrack for a period film like this. And lest I forget, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano are both excellent in the portrayals of their respective characters. Day-Lewis' Oscar is indeed well-deserved. Paul Thomas Anderson is perfect both in his direction and screenplay. This is one film that must be preserved well for posterity.

Finally, the meaning of the title of this film. A phrase from the first of the Ten Biblical Plagues, the film is also a warning bell for us, reminding why it absolutely essential to strike a fine balance in life, without indulging in any sort of excesses. It is as much a visual treat as it is a fine enunciation of the Buddha's Middle Path.

P.S.-- The original post has been edited on 22nd August, 2008 at around 10:00 PM (IST). The author pleads forgiveness for the several grammatical mistakes and instances of plain bad writing that crept into the original (hastily-scripted and blissfully unrevised!) review.