Sunday, June 7, 2009

REVIEW: There Will Be Blood

"Go ahead. Make my milkshake."

Let me save you 158 minutes: Daniel Day-Lewis plays a horse’s ass. The End.

Now, for the long version. There Will Be Blood is Paul Anderson’s (not that one) much-acclaimed 2007 drama based on noted capitalist Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!, which he wrote shortly before his classics, Airplane! and Police Squad! I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know how this movie compares, but I suspect I could have read the book faster. I have nothing against long movies, and in fact, I love movies that take their time to develop stories I enjoy, but about halfway through this epic, I asked myself the following question: Would I rather watch a badly-made movie in which stuff happens, or a well-made movie where hardly anything happens? The fact that I preface the film with this question might give some clue to my final answer.

This must be where Plainview gets his name.

The film opens in 1898 as Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) goes about the solitary task of prospecting out in the desert. It doesn’t look like fun. He falls into the little hole he dug for himself and breaks his leg. He crawls his way back to town and sleeps on the hard floor of a public building. All of this is pretty much to show that the guy came from nothing and was dirt poor when he was young, so that it’ll be very ironic later on when he’s fabulously rich and still miserable. I’ve got your number, movie.

"This is a horrible room, but the commercials do promise that I'll be much smarter in the morning."

Flash forward a few years, and now Plainview’s suddenly got his own business, drilling for oil. I guess the movie wanted to show him with nothing to start the movie, but didn’t want to do the legwork of showing him actually starting up his business. It’s a bit of a cop-out when your rags-to-riches when you skip the part where your character goes from penniless to employing a dozen or so men. Regardless, Plainview’s suddenly gone from hermit to savvy, unscrupulous businessman; raw wealth is his objective and screwing people less clever than him is his hobby. That said, he’s pretty good at his job, inventing some kind of Pumpjack, and later, the oil pipeline and slant drilling. Yeah, pretty much all of that’s his. Three humongous advances in oil drilling technology came from this guy. I’m looking forward to the film version of Upton Sinclair’s Isotope!, where an unscrupulous nuclear scientist invents the A-bomb, chemotherapy, and Godzilla.

"This will make me a fortune. I call it... American Gladiators!"

He goes around giving sales pitches to potential investors, bringing along his adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), whose real father died working for Plainview. H.W.’s a blank-eyed, nearly speechless, dark-haired munchkin who appears to have been ripped from an American adaptation of a Japanese horror movie. Plainview brings him along everywhere because he apparently has the self-awareness to recognize that, looking like sleazier Borat, he needs a little something to humanize him in the eyes of his investors, and Damien can do just that. Although this is Plainview’s overt purpose for taking H.W. everywhere, you definitely get the sense that as greedy and spiteful as he is, he is pining for a little love from his Matryoska doll of a child.

"I'm sorry, Baby Jessica, but my extraction fee of $4,000 plus 10% of your lifetime earnings is non-negotiable. Well, I'm afraid I have to go. It was a pleasure doing Capitalism with you!"

The main “plot” starts with a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) trying to get $500 out of Plainview in exchange for telling him the location of his family’s ranch, which he’s running away from, and which has oil bubbling up to the surface everywhere. I guess we’re supposed to see how much of a miser Plainview is for haggling at the $500 price, which was a big deal back then, slightly more than the cost of the average government stimulus package. But he relents and gets the location of the ranch, in Little Boston, California. He heads out there with H.W., pretending to be just a quail hunter, and is treated extremely kindly by Paul‘s ultra-religious family, including twin brother Eli, a charismatic preacher. (Yes, a charismatic preacher named Eli Sunday. It‘s easier for both of us if I just let this slide.) When Plainview scouts around and discovers that there is, clearly a ton of oil waiting underground, he tries to convince the Sundays that he’d just kind of like to buy their dirt-poor ranch because it’s a nice place to hunt quail. But Eli, aggravatingly polite as he is, calmly asks if he wants the ranch because of the oil, which ruffles Plainview a bit, who still gets the Sunday patriarch, Abel (David Willis), to agree to a deal: $5,000 down, and $5,000 when drilling succeeds in striking oil.

Stalin's audition tape for The Office

(Incidentally, because Eli and Paul look identical, I thought there was going to be a plot twist whereby we eventually learn that they’re the same people, and that Eli was manipulating Plainview. But like all plot twists I actually see coming in movies, it doesn’t actually happen.)

Plainview sets up a well, and Eli Sunday, suddenly rich, greatly expands the size of his church. Although they have mutual interest in seeing the well succeed, Eli’s very, very, very religious, and Plainview is very, very, very not religious. And very, very, very not fond of Eli. When Eli asks to deliver a not-at-all ostentatious blessing at the ground-breaking ceremony, Plainview agrees, but then winds up delivering a mocking version of it himself. When a worker dies shortly after drilling starts, Eli makes sure, in his hatefully soft-spoken way, that Plainview realizes the tragedy is his fault for not letting Eli do the blessing. I guess it never occurred to Eli that he could have done the blessing himself, anyway, without being introduced by Plainview. Or maybe God’s not so important, and he just don’t want his homies disrespecting him, dawg, which I think was more the intent of the scene.

"And now, everyone, I'd like you to meet my little friend, Peanut. Say hello to the nice people, Peanut."

When the well does strike oil, it strikes the crap out of the oil. Everyone’s just chilling out near the well when, all of a sudden, natural gas explodes from the well, knocking back H.W. just ahead of a massive fountain of oil. Plainview hurries his dazed and frightened son to safety, but is most concerned with getting the well under control. And that was probably a good idea, although a little late, because the well catches fire and goes up in flames. And it keeps burning for a while, then stops. And, uh, that’s it. Apparently it’s fine, and they still have oil. Really, the whole well-catching-fire scene looked a lot more important in the trailer.

"And once we break through the lines here, we'll have a straight path to Berlin!" "Vladimir, you eediot! This is a map of Iowa!"

Unfortunately, H.W. is now completely deaf, which both saddens and frustrates Plainview, who really hates closed captioning. When Eli approaches Plainview about getting the $5,000 that’s owed him, he instead gets a smack-down, with Plainview putting his Tom Selleck moustache to good use and pummeling him for not being able to faith heal his son, or even interested in trying. Eli is obviously impressed with Plainview’s fighting moves, because he tries them out on his father for agreeing to a deal on which they’re going to get screwed. In a better movie, the financial dispute would escalate until you‘ve got people pulling Tommy guns out of guitar cases. In this movie, this is the last serious mention of it we’ll hear in a while, because it’s time to move onto the next inconsequential story arc.

"Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. What? ... Eight and a half."

Plainview, still in a bit of a bad mood about not being able to communicate with his son, is approached by a man who claims to be his long-lost half-brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor, playing this as an irony-free version of Benny from The Mummy). Although Plainview isn’t one to warm up to people, he does have fond childhood memories of his brother, and seems to have a bit of a weakness for people who are supposed to love him unconditionally. And Henry’s a creaky-voiced, aimless loser, so it’s not like Plainview would have to worry about sibling rivalry, which I suspect he wouldn’t take kindly to. So Henry comes aboard as some kind of junior business partner/lackey/Igor, right around the time that Plainview tricks H.W. into boarding a train that will take him to a San Francisco boarding school for the deaf, all by himself. Awww, H.W. is being separated from his father. And that’s… sad.

"Oh, stop whining, son. I was married when I was your age, and now your mother, the rest of the commune, and I are very happy together."

Daniel Plainview’s prone to crankiness. When Standard Oil offers to buy up his business, their representative suggesting that it’ll give him more time to spend with his son, Plainview instead offers to cut the guy’s throat for telling him how to run his family. But he’s seemingly in a bind because he needs to transport his oil by train, which Standard Oil monopolizes and can jack up the rates for. Not to be outdone, Plainview plans to build a pipeline to California and sell to Union Oil instead. However, to build the pipeline, he needs to buy the property of an old man named William Brandy, who had held out selling to Plainview a while earlier because he was refused a personal audience. Whoops. Plainview rides out there and waits for Brandy to return.

"I don't know how to quit you."

While waiting, he goes swimming with his brother, and seems to generally enjoy the guy’s company. Daniel confesses that he generally hates people, and is consumed with competitiveness. Seeing as how World of Warcraft won’t be invented for nearly another century, he doesn’t have a productive outlet for these emotions. But in the course of spending time with Henry, he comes to suspect that he isn’t who he says he is. As they’re camping in the woods alone, Plainview wakes him up with a gun pointed to his face and says, “Name three presidents!” Wait, wrong movie. He asks the name of a farm from their childhood, which forces faux-Henry to admit that he’s not really Plainview’s lost brother, but just a friend of said brother, who took on his identity to get close to rich oilman Daniel shortly after real Henry died of tuberculosis.

"NOW it's an accurate phallic representation! Look at her go!"

Plainview realizes that although this man isn’t really his brother, he’s been a loyal friend whom he’s been able to open up to. Just kidding. He blows his head off and buries him in the woods.

Waking up, Plainview comes face-to-face with Brandy (Hans Howes), who isn’t so displeased at Plainview’s unkempt appearance, or the awareness that he had murdered a man the other night and was sleeping on his grave, that isn’t willing to sell his property. He just wants Daniel to get baptized is all. Hey, they stole this from Ed Wood! I knew Upton Sinclair was lifting all his ideas from somewhere!

"I don't know how to quit... Dammit! That Sunday bastard already used my joke! And this is a much better context!"

Worst of all, Brandy belongs to Eli’s church, which makes the ceremony a bit awkward. Baptism in the Old West was a bit rougher than mine was. I’m pretty sure it was implicit that I was a sinner, but I don’t think it was rubbed in my face so much, and I didn’t have to proclaim out loud that I had abandoned my child. Must be Lutherans or something. As Plainview goes through confessing, then getting congratulated by all the parishioners, you kind of wonder for a bit if he was sincerely moved or not. Maybe he’s a changed man.

"Zounds! When I said, 'Well, I'll be damned! I didn't mean it literally!"

THAT doesn’t last long. When H.W. is returned from boarding school, now knowing how to speak sign language (Although Daniel himself still can’t. Whoops.), Plainview sits down to a nice meal with his son. Until he realizes that some of the Standard Oil people are at the next table. Uh-oh. Plainview throws a napkin on his head so he can shout insults at them without giving his son the idea that he’s a less-than upstanding citizen. Classy. Quite a bit nicer is H.W.’s relationship with Mary Sunday, a nice little girl that H.W. has befriended despite the fact that his father has the morals of Pol Pot and the looks of the Master from Manos the Hands of Fate. Unlike Daniel, she learns sign language so she can communicate with H.W., and when they both reach adulthood, they get married.

Borat. By Calvin Klein.

Flash forward to 1927. Plainview lives in a huge mansion with a butler and everything. No secret superhero identity, near as I can tell, although this movie was apparently based on only the first half of the Upton Sinclair novel, so you never know. He’s more pleasant than ever. When H.W. comes by to tell him (through an interpreter on behalf of sign language-ignorant Daniel; Dad will do anything for his child that doesn’t involve spending time) that he wants to end his partnership with his father and move to Mexico to start up his own company with Mary, Plainview congratulates his son’s initiative by telling him he’s both a traitor and an orphan, a “bastard from a basket.” Which is a real relief to H.W., who’s turned out all right for himself.

"Tell me where the stash is." "It's on your upper lip, boss. Ha, ha! I make joke! Just like you!" (click)

While sleeping on the bowling lanes in his mansion--among his many character quirks is that he’s accustomed to sleeping on hard surfaces--Plainview’s visited by Eli. Whom he still owes $5,000, but who’s not coming to collect. Instead, he’s offering to sell some more land of his to Plainview, believing it to have oil underneath. And with the recent stock market crash (recent 1927 stock market crash), Eli’s desperate for money, although he puts on a brave face and insists he wants the money to expand his church operation. Is it time for the Dickensian reawakening of the old miser’s heart? Or is it time for one last Plainview hissy fit before the ending credits?

"Now, Daniel, say five Hail Marys and wear this enormous hat for a week, and I think you'll be forgiven."

I’m going with B, Regis. To agree to a land deal, Plainview forces Eli to boldly proclaim, as if before a congregation, that he’s a charlatan and that God’s a delusion. He then promptly answers that he’s already slant-drilling into the land that Eli’s talking about, meaning that Eli’s got nothing to offer him. If you’ve waited the entire movie for the “milkshake” line, here it is. There’s a lot of verbal abuse, then a lot of physical abuse, then a lot of psychological abuse as Plainview further mocks Eli’s god, then some more physical abuse with a bowling pin to cap off the visit. Sitting there beside the dead body of his long-time non-rival, Plainview calmly calls out to his butler, “I’m finished.” Roll credits. Uh-huh. That’s the longest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm I’ve ever watched.

"Get this, son: Ohhhh! Jacob Marley! I am the ghost of Ebeneezer Scrooge! Mwa-ha-ha!"

If I could suggest one thing that would have helped this movie, it would have been this: a point. Seriously, what exactly was I watching this for? I realize that this isn’t supposed to be some fast-paced crime drama or anything, but some kind of basic conflict that progressed along with the movie would have been nice. Was the conflict supposed to be Daniel trying to be loved? There were certainly parts where he was trying to bond with his kid or his fake brother, but it’s a story that really only develops at all at the every end, when Daniel and H.W. disown each other. Was the movie supposed to be about Plainview and Standard Oil competing with each other? That could have been interesting, but Plainview’s success was never really in doubt, and it would be a real reach to call Standard Oil his “nemesis.” If I had to describe what the conflict of the story is, I’d have to say that it’s just generally about a greedy guy who keeps succeeding and keeps not getting loved anyway. It’s merely a character study, a $25 million one-man show where Daniel Day-Lewis gets to play off people, showing off every little nuance he’s imagined for his character. We’re supposed to be so enthralled by the crumminess of this guy that we don’t notice that he doesn’t have anyone interesting to play off of, or any particular goal he’s in danger of not accomplishing. Plainview’s little outbursts of bad behavior are often pretty amusing on their own, but without any serious suspense, they don’t amount to much of a story.

"There's no escape, Eli. I have you... pinned! Ha, ha, ha! Oh, I'm just on a roll tonight!"

Uh, sorry. This movie is essentially a 158-minute prequel to a Disney Channel TV movie, where Daniel Plainview is taught the true meaning of Christmas by Amanda Bynes.

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