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PTA Redux: "There Will Be a Morally Unambiguous Ending"

Driller killer? Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (Photo: Paramount Vantage)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

As if I hadn't already given a day of my life to persuade you, the Museum of the Moving Image's two-day Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective is the must-see film event in New York this weekend, preferably with There Will Be Blood mixed in there somewhere for maximum, eye-scorching psychosis. (For starters, Filmbrain notes that a special TWBB viewing opportunity awaits Saturday in BAM.) My ongoing observation of the PTA front also reveals a few new ways of thinking about the latter film -- one either revisionist or plain inaccurate and the other dovetailing into my previous thoughts about Anderson as an utterly non-political filmmaker. (Look out, spoilers follow.)

First, NYC film writer Prairie Miller has her top 10 up at NewsBlaze, 90 percent of which I could take or leave. But something... bizarre happens when she gets to the "guilty pleasure" that is TWBB:

The second big movie this year about a serial killer, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Todd will, oddly enough, likely snap up the Oscars. Which may have a lot to do with the public's both fear and fascination off-screen with human depravity. But other than one sings and the other doesn't, Blood and Sweeney Todd have nothing in common. Anderson, who's turning into a real scene stealer in a different kind of sense, lifted the film's title from the caption for Saw III, and the narrative from early muckraker Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel about greed, Oil! Daniel Day-Lewis as the increasingly psychopathic robber baron who seems to rise from the bowels of the earth drenched in the lucrative goo like your basic monster and then wreak havoc on his fellow humans everywhere, deserves every Oscar he can get, just for sheer diabolical enthusiasm. The problem here is that Anderson drops Sinclair's political fury halfway through, to detour into capitalist versus evangelical crude slasher brawling. Oil and blood just don't mix here.

I don't think Anderson ever actually carried Sinclair's political fury in the first place, but I'll get to that in a second. Is Miller just wack, or is there something to her claim that Daniel Plainview is a serial killer? He murders two men onscreen in what could only be classified as psychopathic fury; regardless of his constitution ("I hate most people," he tells one of his eventual victims), plenty of despicable greedhounds go through life and cinema without acting on the compulsion to kill. Even for this film -- this character -- two murders is really kind of extraordinary. The climax versus Eli Sunday would be one thing, but there's precedent: He got away with one years before. What happened in the intervening decade-plus? What about those who died in his wells? Was he merely lucky? Grossly negligent? Culpable?

To this end, Anderson has referred to There Will Be Blood as a monster movie of sorts. But in a terrific interview this week with Josh Modell at The AV Club, he also addresses the consensus misplacing Blood atop the year's statement-film overstock bin:

AVC: Some people will surely see it as a message movie because Upton Sinclair's name is on it, but for other obvious reasons as well. Were you thinking about modern-day strong-arm capitalism and mega-church religion while you were writing and shooting it?

PTA: I was thinking that we'd better be very careful not to do too much of that. And what I mean by that is what I said earlier, that we should approach the film as a horror film and a boxing match first. You know you're walking into a film about an independent oilman and a guy that runs a church. The risks that you run are big, long speeches that would help in paralleling or allegoricalizing, if that's a word. [Laughs.] We thought, "Let's be careful." That's a slippery slope, isn't it?

AVC: Sure, but you know it's there. Do you let a tiny bit of it in to avoid the floodgates opening?

PTA: I suppose that's probably what it is. It's so funny, because ideally, once you get underneath the skin of these men, that stuff falls away.

AVC: Is there a small part of you that hopes people take away an anti-capitalist message?

Do I hope the film brings peace to the Middle East? If we can help in some small way. We're just one film. [Laughs.]

We haven't heard the last of this. Or maybe I haven't -- it's just the voice in my head.

Posted at January 4, 2008 10:23 AM

Comments (1)

Great insight on this movie. Frankly I'm suprised that STV would give this movie that much thought considering your tastes, but nevertheless....

Why is it that everyone (that I've read at least) ignores the point of view that Plainview is perhaps a victim in some ways. I am a pretty conservative person, but if one is thiking of Sincliar, isnt that some what of a socialist view? And are not Plainviews inner demons, as beastly as they seem, more "human" than that of almost any character in "No Country..."?

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