Friday, April 18, 2008

Blood for Oil

On this week's Pop Culture America with John and Dave (Saturday, 19 Apr 2008, 12PM Eastern on blogtalkradio.com), we'll be examining the issue of faith in popular culture. With that in mind, one of the things we'll be looking at is Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which features last year's Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. I reviewed the film back in January (check those archives) and on the occasion of its recent DVD release, I'm taking another look, focusing on a different aspect this time.

There Will Be Blood (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The American Dream.

We all know what it is. You work hard, succeed, build a better life for yourself. You build for the future, not only for yourself but for your children.

All well and good. But once you've amassed the wealth, once you've built the future, then what?

By any reasonable measure, Daniel Plainview is the embodiment of the American Dream; he works incredibly hard at a highly dangerous occupation. He is smart and industrious and excels. And he is rewarded with a great deal of material wealth. And what end will he seek with his wealth? Let's let him tell us:

"There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone."

It might be tempting to write Plainview off as an extreme case, a cranky monster bearing no similarity to good solid American citizens like you and me. Well, like you, anyway; I'm not so sure about me.

But there are times when I look at people and I see them amassing wealth for the purpose of investing in elaborate security systems. I see them walling out the rest of the world in their gated communities. I see them building bulwarks against the teeming throng of humanity like modern day Prince Prosperos.

The scariest thing about Daniel Plainview is that his goal is all too common.

Plainview towers over Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood like the oil-drilling derricks he erects across the landscape. As portrayed by Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, he is a combination of indomitable will and raw consumption let loose and ravenously gobbling up anything and everyone in his path. What he can use, he prizes. What he can't gets chewed up and spit out with disdain.

One of the things he has no use for is religion and initially, he attempts to fob it off with simple diplomatic platitudes ("I don't belong to any church," he says, "I like them all."). But when Eli Sunday of The Church of the Third Revelation makes the mistake of trying to force Plainview to part with more money than he wants to, Plainview insults him and then later physically beats him down.

Eli is portrayed by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) and he makes the daring choice of playing the minister as a passive-aggressive mewler, prone to girlish yelps and screeches. After Plainview wallops him, literally dragging him down into the mud, he sits at the dinner table still covered in filth blaming his father and accusing him of being stupid. He's an eager martyrdom waiting to happen.

These two are destined for a confrontation. When it comes, it plays out in a surreal fashion that has yielded one of recent moviedom's most memorable (and oft-parodied) lines: "I drink your milkshake!" It has also baffled and infuriated audiences like no movie ending since ... well, since No Country for Old Men. Like its fellow Oscar winner, There Will Be Blood has a conclusion that is crushing in its inevitability and bold in its defiance of cliched touchy-feely closure.

There has to be more to this American Dream of ours than shutting oneself up in one's big expensive mansion and hiding from the world. There has to be.

Hasn't there?

I'm finished!

3 1/2 stars.

Well, not quite. DVD notes: There Will Be Blood arrived in stores last week in a disappointingly stark DVD package. The single-disc version presents the movie all on its own. The two-disc isn't much better, adding a couple of deleted scenes, and trailers. One of the deleted scenes, the "Fishing" scene, while an understandable cut, is a true gem. There's also a fascinating silent 1926 film produced by the Department of the Interior called "The Story of Oil." Anderson used it as a major research tool and it's easy to see the influence it had on There Will Be Blood.

DVD Extras: 2 stars.

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