I think There Will Be Blood is a well made film. The cinematography is beautiful. The score is a bold choice. I thought it was brilliant to use spooky music. The score suggests a horror film- which, along with the title, serves to ratchet up the suspense and build a sense of foreboding. Something bad- very bad- is going to happen.
And that's where the film disappointed me. I have no problem with slow, plodding development. Though I did say out loud "Get on with it!" during the silent opening sequence, I did think it was well done. It established how terribly hard life was back then. In fact, I remember being chilled at one point- it might have been a little later in the film, when Daniel finally arrives at the Sunday ranch and asks if he can camp on their land. Anyhow, I remember being chilled and getting up to crank up the heat in my townhouse. The endless shots of desolate gray skies and a chill wind must have had a psychological effect on me. I said "well done" as a nod to the director as I realized the stark difference between my easy comfort and the pioneers hard work and misery.
But this slow, meandering plot, with all the requisite slow, lingering shots has got to lead somewhere. I alternated between frustration and anticipation as I watched. The peak of my attention in the film was the scene where Daniel is sitting on his porch with his brother- or the man who has presented himself as his brother- and confesses he is terribly competitive and wants every other man to fail. Then he adds, "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking." He asks his brother if he feels the same way and his brother says no, with all his trying and failing he doesn't see it like that- he just doesn't care any more. Daniel remarks, "Well, if it's in me then it's in you." Whoa! That line stood out. That's foreshadowing if I've ever seen it. That really piqued my interest and I thought OK, we may find out this brother is not the quiet, broken man we think he is. We are going to find out that neither man can escape their father's blood and an intense rivalry will develop.
Only it doesn't. A few scenes later Daniel's brother is unmasked as an impostor and impassively excised from the script. And for what? To make a point that traditional conflict-climax-resolution story arcs are passé? Daniel's son is handled in an even more careless manner. The director inserts a shot of the son, now an adult, marrying the Sunday girl only so he can set up the very next scene. With no exposition of a juvenile son's deteriorating relationship with his father, no backstory that carries beyond an eight year old kid, the director expects the audience suddenly to become emotionally invested in the confrontation between adult son and miserable, contemptuous father. When Daniel reveals to his son that he's an orphan ("lower than a bastard") adopted for the sole purpose of having a cute face present when swindling homesteaders out of their oil-rich land, I cried foul. Yes, the director inserted a few cues along the way- the most telling of which was Daniel refusing to answer his brother's question about the whereabouts of the boy's mother. Still, I thought it was cheap and hypocritical. How is the audience supposed to feel indignant when it's revealed that Daniel Plainview does not love his son, he merely feigned love in order to enrich himself financially? The director didn't tend to the boy's character either. He merely inserted him into the story in order to set up a nasty verbal denouement, hastily arranged and devoid of any lasting impact.
I had lost interest by the time we get to Eli Sunday's triumphant return as a well-dressed, successful holy man, visiting "such an old friend" Daniel, at Daniel's beautiful California mansion. A tradition story arc suggests Daniel will take vengeance for Eli having forced him to confess his sins in public. But the film has shown an interest in bucking trends. So will a drunk, declining Daniel summon up the will and strength to confront the ascendant Eli? Will blood be spilled as the film's title suggests? Oh wait, Eli is not successful. He's lost a fortune in the market. Will Daniel suddenly show some compassion? Do I care about these sudden revelations? Oh wait, it is traditional after all. A beat-down and the credits role.
A good attempt but ultimately disappointing in my opinion. If a film insists on departing from the traditional path, it must do so for a reason. I can't see what was accomplished by this film's journey.
My sister responds:
Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts on the film. I cannot be as sharp in my analysis, as it has been a while since I’ve seen it, but I will make one comment. I think the slow, plodding, anticipatory pace of the film is apt, at least in one sense. The flatness and pace of the movie echo the long wait/search for oil. (“There Will Be Blood” is the filmmaker’s title; Upton Sinclair’s book from which the film is adapted is called, simply, “Oil!”) For Daniel Plainview, it is the process of finding and extracting the oil that defines his character, more so than the payoff that oil-ownership brings. The opening scene encapsulates the meticulousness of the process, chipping away rock slowly slowly, alone, quietly, in the dry western dust.
Anyway, I enjoyed the film. And I do agree with some of your readings of the plot development. I’ve never read the book, but it would probably make an interesting comparison. I remember hearing that the screenwriter made significant changes.
Good point about the pacing. And you’re right, it is interesting to compare novels and screenplays. The only one I can think of at the moment that I have some expertise in is Lord of the Rings.
I know I can be argumentative about films, but that’s actually a good sign. It means the film provoked me in some way- which is what I want out of a film. It’s strange. Sometimes I let things slide. Like with Gran Torino. I guess I liked it because of Clint Eastwood’s brooding presence. At Thanksgiving when we discussed the film briefly, Mom and Uncle B. made some good points against the film, and I thought, they’re right, those really are weaknesses.
Maybe I’m more critical of the very good films because my expectations are higher? Or maybe I get aggravated when I feel like I’m watching filmmaking technique and not storytelling.