Be Blood (2008), Paul Thomas Anderson's loose - very loose - adaptation
of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! is a huge mess, is being (like
its heavily award-nominated fellow production, the Coen brothers'
No Country for Old Men) hugely overrated, but is nevertheless an
entertaining romp. I can't deny it has impact, however scattershot,
misshapen, or misguided.
to note general features in the film, and how they sprout out of
obsessions Anderson has nursed time and time again in his previous
We have the sprawling, overambitious narrative (pretty much a given
in his works); we have the strained to the point of rupture relationship
between young man and father figure (Sidney, Boogie Nights, Magnolia);
we have the evangelical character as a figure of evil, hypocrisy,
pathos (again, Magnolia - you might call this an expansion of that
previous film's biblical, early-half-of-the-previous-century's tendencies).
We've got endless yelling and shrieking, occasionally terrific shots
and terrifically edited sequences, and yes, blood - glimpsed at
throughout the picture, lingered on (if not directly looked at)
in the final scene.
10 minutes are the film's finest, a wordless prologue with Daniel
Day-Lewis' oil-drilling Daniel Plainview (Plain view, changed from
Sinclair's J. Arnold Ross - Anderson is not one for subtlety), struggling
all by his lonesome self to set an explosive charge, suffer a mishap,
then drag himself into the nearest town for treatment.
Anderson has admitted to being inspired by John Huston's The Treasure
of Sierra Madre (1948), and this could be a sequence lifted wholesale
from that classic (with oil substituting for gold), but the Huston
influence doesn't stop there: when Plainview finally opens his mouth,
it's Huston as Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) that
speaks. In probably the nuttiest decision Anderson has made on this
or any other of his pictures, he (or Day-Lewis) decided to base
the actor's entire performance on Huston's voice, mannerisms, walk
in that picture.
I don't know
how that's supposed to work. It's distracting, but it's also fun
as all hell, watching Day-Lewis try to get away with it, pretend
he's giving us something original, taking it to town and several
suburbs beyond in size, intensity, well-salted meatiness. Hate it
or love it, it's a memorable performance - as if Anderson wanted
to give us Cross' life story, oil substituting for water (one thing
missing is the incestuous relationship with his charge - for some
reason Anderson doesn't want to go there with H.W. (Dillon Freasier),
the boy Plainview adopts after the father dies from one of many
drilling accidents (one wonders why the issue of on-site safety
is never once raised)).
fantastic. Always thought Anderson relied too much on his collection
of rock and pop records for borrowed atmosphere and secondhand poignancy;
with the help of Jonny Greenwood he applies a score that sounds
miles away from his previous efforts, both dissonant and barbaric
- like an idiot savant with a pair of steel pipes, banging away
his idea of a symphony inside an oil rig.
dialed down his in-your-face faux-Scorsese pyrotechnics - instead
of the camera rushing up to a main character (always wondered how
the actor could just stand there without flinching), we get long
shots of the surrounding terrain, as if Anderson had noticed for
the very first time that yes, America has beautiful vistas, and
yes, they are worth looking at once in a while.
I won't say he has a feel yet for landscapes - he's no John Ford
- but he does give us a sense of Plainview's isolation early on
and later, of the vast spaces within which the oilmen have had the
effrontery to raise their matchstick apparatus, penetrate the earth's
skin, suck out its black blood (blood and oil - and later milk -
are equated in many ways).
Later Anderson pulls off several sumptuously paced coup-de-theatre
setpieces - a leavetaking in a train that tugs (okay, yanks) at
one's heartstrings; a powerful eruption turned oil fire that burns
day and (most spectacularly) night, the flames casting a diabolical
glow on the workers' faces; a scene at a privately owned bowling
alley that not only gives us sense of exhausted opulence (the camera's
slow movements keeping us constantly conscious of the expensive-looking
bowling lanes, of the remains from a previous night's meal scattered
on the polished hardwood), but also of a game (an unstoppable ball.
a helpless tenpin) being violently played out between two men.
the film's and Anderson's characteristically biggest weakness. Anderson
has almost always been interested in dramatic climaxes - an interesting
premise to introduce his characters, then a quick lunge at some
kind of climax without bothering to bring in such boring niceties
as character development (think Julianne Moore freaking out at the
drugstore counter in Magnolia (1999)).
Thanks to Sinclair's novel Anderson has enough incidents to help
shore up his usual shaky structure (it just wobbles a bit here,
there). Perhaps his least persuasive ellipse comes between 1922
and 1927, when Plainview's child H.W. has become a young man (Russell
Harvard). The final scene between father and son is the worse in
the picture, I think, because we've barely been introduced to the
grown man (what happened to his firestarting tendencies? His antisocial
slapping? We get some suggestion that his girlfriend-turned-wife
reformed him, but that's like slapping a Redeemed by the Power of
Love sticker on his forehead and assuming all is forgiven) before
he's wrangling out his relationship with Daniel on a permanent basis.
Plus that sign language interpreter that sits in on their meeting
(H.W. lost his hearing in yet another of Daniel's 'accidental' oil
explosions) is a golden chance lost - the interpreter is previously
shot and presented as harboring some fondness for the boy, but during
this crucial sequence Anderson can barely spare any interest in
Aside from wasting all that furtive characterization spent on the
man, his perspective of Daniel, H.W. and their relationship together
might have added dimensions to the scene (Is Daniel such a monster?
Is H.W. such an innocent? Is he - the translator - some kind of
mediator, a father substitute, perhaps?), dimensions Anderson denies
us by denying the translator any voice on the matter.
I think Day-Lewis
also knew that this scene was poorly written and conceived; he looks
restless here, as if he wanted to put the young drip aside and get
on with the real meat of the movie. Every scene Day-Lewis has with
Paul Dano as Eli, Daniel's evangelical adversary, is terrific, they
have real chemistry together, and for all of Day-Lewis' considerable
skill Dano manages to steal the limelight every time.
Their final confrontation is the film's proper climax, with a strong
sense that the power play going on between them has gone on for
a long time (they previously appeared onscreen together in a baptism
scene that managed to be both horrific and hilarious, an unholy
union of Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan
of Arc, 1928) with Dano in the Falconetti role, and something by
Abbot and Costello).
What does any
of this have to do with American history, with relations between
big business and religion? Precious little, I'd say; my experience
with big business is that it's all too ready to embrace the many
hypocrisies of organized religion, that both institutions are too
eager to collaborate, share too many interests, too many common
If anything, organized religion is a business, and many businesses
with their philosophies and corporate cultures present themselves
as a kind of religion - in which case, this relationship, the most
adversarial in the film and source of its crude energy, is hardly
an accurate portrait of America, or any version of it in the past.
I can't consider Blood a serious work of art (though of the pictures
nominated for that damned golden doorstop, it's easily my favorite),
but it does have an outsized feel, a ponderousness that's new to
Anderson (and therefore refreshing, fairly), and you do see him
pull a few new tricks (the Greenwood score, for one) out his sleeve.
Add Day-Lewis' amusing (if nonsensical) film-length Huston impersonation
and, why, I think we can call this Anderson's best work to date.
Email me at email@example.com
First published in Businessworld, 02.15.08.