Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Review: there will be blood

Went to see There Will Be Blood last night - wow - what a great film. If you've not seen it yet do not read this review, it is crammed full of juicy spoilers. Use the time you would have used reading this to bike down to your local independent cinema, you'll not regret it.

This is a film about oil and religion (very loosely) based on the socialist author Upton Sinclair's Oil! and as such it had the potential to either be a very happily received propaganda piece or a dogmatic screed - but it is far from either and is all the stronger for it.

The story follows Daniel Plainview's journey from grubbing in the dirt to an embittered oil tycoon. Daniel Day Lewis plays the role so maniacally that his young co-star dropped out half way through filming and a new preacher had to be found and the old scenes reshot.

Plainview is tough as old boots. We first encounter him digging into hard stone down a rock shaft of his own making. On his own in the middle of nowhere it's through sheer force of will that eventually he is able to summon up oil from the Earth and, gradually, over the years, builds his operation up from just him and his fists to a small gang and then an experienced crew.

Throughout the film, even when a tycoon, Plainview sleeps on floors and hobbles around menacingly exuding force and labour and hatred. But Plainview is no one dimensional murderous capitalist but is a complex individual who's loves and hates intermingle and who's extraordinary personality buries an ocean of passions beneath it. Passions that are neither tapped nor explained.

Whilst Oil! is a damning attack on capitalism which boasts leftist characters able to articulate the author's views (the preacher's brother becomes a union agitator and Plainview's own son a social reformer) the film refuses to speak and simply glowers into the audience - daring it to draw it's own conclusions.

That instinct was a good one I think. It would have been so easy for a film about corruption, oil and religion to fall into didactic propaganda and the characters to become simply puppets voicing a hard edged political agenda. Here we have remains to sift through, important moments left unspoken and characters having more flesh than simple cyphers.

What I particularly liked was the way that Plainview, who's "back story" is mercifully left unsketched (fingers crossed this starts a trend), has his psychosis seemingly forged in the desert. Instead of the usual leftist line that capitalists do "bad things" because of the logic of their position (which I think is part of the story) it adds into the mix the equally important fact that the way of being of a capitalist has a deep impact upon their psyche, shaping them. This point is important because often capitalists do things that are wrong and bad and stupid that are also against their own interests - if it's only the logic of their position that determines their actions there is no explanation for the countless examples of corporate stupidity.

Here our budding capitalist, with the sweat of his own brow and ferocious desire to succeed, is made of the right stuff to become successful - but is transformed in the process. The things Plainview had to do to become successful mark his consciousnes. He becomes what he does.

Whilst the lefties have been given the boot religion steps in to fill the gap, in often controversial ways. Well, controversial if you're watching the film in the Bible belt. The running thread of the film is that the evangelical "healer" is also a shrewd businessman and his church should be seen as a financial as well as an ideological institution. So much so that when, in the closing scene, Sunday is forced to denounce himself as a false prophet and that God is a superstition (all for the prospect of a little more wealth) it generated this incredible social atmosphere in the cinema where I was watching it.

I also suspect there is an intentional ambiguity as to whether the preacher really does *have a brother* (I told you not to read this if you hadn't seen the film) or in fact he has two distinct but related halves - the avaricious and the vain.

It also draws the eye towards the idea of oil or capital itself as religion. Whilst Plainview is forced to "confess his sins" publicly in church he likewise publicly humiliates the preacher - giving his own sermon at the well opening when he'd promised that honour to Sunday and teasing out his final spectacular, and willingly given, confession at the end. Plainview doesn't simply want to be rich - he's got no idea what to do with wealth once he has it - he is driven by deeper appetites, hotter passions. But there remains that enmity - between what's meant to represent, I think, the soul and body.

Whilst Plainview desires love, he also despises it. He craves family, but cannot coexist with it. He needs others, but primarily to demonstrate he is better than them. His virtues are his vices, and for that this film should be watched by as wide an audience as possible. This film is not an allegory of the foundation of American capitalism, but of its death.

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