Blood, Oil!, and the American Way

February 3, 2008 | 6 books mentioned 2 5 min read

coverI guess it’s not giving much away to say that, in the new film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, there is blood. Blood, oil, and baptismal water, symbolizing family, profit, and religion, are the humors that course through this story, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!. There will be exclamation points!

The movie follows the rise of a California oil prospector, Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis’s Plainview recalls his turn as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York – similar mustache, accent, and satanic intensity. In There Will Be Blood Day-Lewis does nothing to diminish his reputation as a captivating screen presence, arguably the finest feature film actor out there, and regarded by (at least) one female Millions contributor as one of the world’s handsomest men. Who am I to disagree?

There is nothing attractive about the character of Daniel Plainview, however. The film opens with a wordless twenty or so minutes, maybe its most riveting sequence given the increasingly disjointed nature of what follows. It is 1898, and a solitary Plainview is shown cracking rocks in a pit surrounded by barren scrub desert. So the man’s fever for oil is immediately established. It is as though the earth itself is his enemy, like the impoverished family from whom he will, years later, swindle the land that becomes his prize oilfield. Force is what’s needed in both instances, be it that of the pickax or the pocketbook.

Also established early on is the visual dexterity of Anderson’s direction. The contrast between desolate panoramas and tight close-ups of hard-bitten oilmen is reminiscent of Sergio Leone. I found it interesting that the music, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, also seemed at times to echo Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable score for Leone’s classic spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Then too, that long opening sequence minus any dialogue seemed a direct reference to Leone’s masterpiece, which starts the same way.

The story initially focuses on Plainview and his son, H.W., whose lack of a mother hints at a secret that Plainview keeps from the boy, ostensibly his “partner,” but more immediately a source of credibility for Plainview in his dealings with simpler folk. That’s the case in the deal that nets Plainview a parcel of land on which he hopes to make a big strike. Derricks soon dot the formerly pristine landscape.

What Plainview doesn’t count on is competition for the loyalties of the townspeople and oil workers alike in the form of Eli Sunday, son of the poor goat rancher from whom Plainview buys the land. Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) leads the community’s fledgling church. Eli is something of a Holy Roller, a faith healer, an evangelist. In Eli, Plainview sees weakness: Eli is just a boy trading in manufactured faith – not like Plainview, who trades in something real, oil. Perhaps Plainview subconsciously recognizes that he and Eli are actually the same. Both pursue power and enrichment by selling a bill of goods. In Daniel Plainview’s case it is that the community as a whole will profit as he buys up its land and takes its oil. In Eli Sunday’s case it is that he can heal people’s bodies and cleanse their souls. False profit meets false prophet.

It is a good setup, but the movie bogs down. Dano is cast to stand in sharp physical contrast to Day-Lewis (he acted with Lewis in 2005’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose). But there’s just no room for his Eli Sunday next to Day-Lewis’s berserk, mercurial Daniel Plainview. If there is a knock on Day-Lewis’ performance it’s that he doesn’t give Dano’s character any breathing room. This problem can maybe be traced to the weakness of the screenplay, which never allows for a plausible rivalry between the two. Then there’s Daniel Plainview himself, who, we learn, is a hardcore misanthrope. But why? Because he says so; he hates people. And he only gets worse and worse, drunker and drunker, as the movie goes on and on, clocking in at 150 or so minutes. Is booze the mundane root of Plainview’s problems then, his actual antagonist in this Greek tragedy? Might have to add that to the humors.

I thought this was a movie about oil. Instead, it becomes a movie about so many things that any cohesive narrative arc is lost. Anderson takes the audience in too many different directions. Scenes become disjointed and episodic. Plot twists, such as the appearance of Plainview’s long lost brother, feel contrived, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Jean de Florette.

Sinclair’s Oil! is the same way, starting out great and declining rapidly. It is interesting to note how different the original story is from the movie that it inspired. In Sinclair’s saga, Dad is a pretty reasonable guy, if prone to the capitalistic sympathies of a self-made oil tycoon. The story is told from the point of view of his son, Bunny, who, incidentally, does have a mother. And instead of evangelical religion, it is the workers movement, for which Bunny develops an unlikely affinity, that is the foil for the book’s central conflict. The rise of Bolshevism and the corresponding Red Menace hysteria that grips America in the wake of the Great War makes the oil magnates uneasy, and Sinclair strips bare the greed of men who have everything, but refuse to compromise.

What I enjoyed most about Oil! were the occasional passages, echoing through many years of cultural change, that ring as true now as they must have back when the book was first published. The book opens with a description of Dad guiding their automobile through the hills of Southern California with an eye out for “speed-traps” – in 1912. I also enjoyed this little tangent concerning Bunny’s apprehensions as to the atmosphere surrounding sports at his college:

…just as with the oil game… all the football and track and other athletic glory that had come to Southern Pacific had been stolen, and “Young Pete” O’Reilly was the thief! The oil king’s son had put up a fund of fifty thousand dollars every year, for the purpose of turning the game of college athletics into a swindle! The fund was administered by a secret committee of alumni and students, and used for the purpose of going out into the market and buying athletes, to come and enroll themselves under false pretenses and win victories for S.P.U…. and the pious Methodists who constituted the faculty were conniving at the procedure, to the extent of permitting these young huskies to pass farcical examinations – well knowing that any professor who presumed to flunk a promising quarterback would soon be looking for some other university to presume in.

That passage was written no later than 1926 (note the exclamation points, like little oil derricks dipping down into a well). However, as true as it is, this sort of moral muckraking on the part of Bunny does not make for a breezy 548 page read, and that’s why this book is more instructive than good.

The free-radical that resides in both There Will Be Blood and Oil! is a moral agenda that supersedes the story. Oil! is less a novel than a vehicle through which Sinclair seeks to make important points about the relationship of big business to labor, and the corruption that inevitably follows an unchecked grab for profit. Anderson’s agenda in There Will Be Blood is more subtle, but cloying to someone who wishes only to sit down and watch a good movie and not be preached to. Hard not to recognize dual indictments just beneath the surface of Anderson’s story: that of Big Oil companies, which, as we all know, trade in the destruction of the environment (and manipulate gas prices, making it more expensive for your average starlet to drive her Hummer half a block to Ralph’s – you’d think the price of cooking the planet would be cheaper), and the conservative right wing of the Republican party, dominated by the influence of Evangelical Christianity. Nuff said on that count, I think.

Oh Hollywood, where would we be without your guiding hand to show us to the truth? It’s not that I don’t share some of the political sentiment. I just wish that hand wasn’t so darn heavy.

is a writer, musician, and amateur sportsman in Manhattan, living on the Harlem side of Morningside Park near Columbia, where he recently picked up a degree from the Journalism School.