Here's my full review of the Oscar Best Picture nominee in The American Conservative:
"There Will Be Blood"
No movie of 2007 sounded more promising than "There Will Be Blood," which stars the titanic Daniel Day-Lewis in a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 roman a clef novel about prospector Edward L. Doheny, Oil!
In 1893, Doheny sank the first oil well in Los Angeles, digging 155 feet down by hand. His oil discoveries all over California and Mexico (where he employed a private army of 6,000), enabled him to give his son the most imposing house in California south of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon, Greystone, a 55-room Beverly Hills mansion with a private bowling alley (where the last scene of "There Will Be Blood" was filmed).
During the Harding Administration, however, Doheny, a Democrat (but an open-minded one), became entangled in the Teapot Dome scandal. After receiving a no-bid contract to drill on Navy lands, he sent his son and son's secretary with a "loan" of $100,000 in cash to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall.
Outraged, the muckraking socialist Sinclair wrote a verbose but well-researched novel about oil, "the black and cruel demon," leavened with some surprisingly affectionate depictions of the old rascal. If Sinclair had waited two more years, though, he would have had the perfect climax. In 1929, having been acquitted of conspiracy, Doheny was still facing trial on bribing Fall, when his son and his son's secretary, both potential witnesses, died at Greystone in a murder-suicide. Who had murdered whom? The police quickly blamed the underling and the newspapers went along.
The Doheny affair was not forgotten, however, by a Los Angeles oil industry executive named Raymond Chandler. When he drank himself out of a job in 1932, Chandler tried writing detective fiction. The ambiguous Greystone killings became the archetype for Philip Marlowe's cases, with Doheny Sr. perhaps the inspiration for the dying General Sternwood who hires Marlowe to launch The Big Sleep.
It would be hard to go wrong with source material this vivid, and harder still with Daniel Day-Lewis (Butcher Bill in "Gangs of New York") as the oilman. This is only the eighth movie Day-Lewis has appeared in since he won the 1989 Best Actor Oscar for "My Left Foot," in which he played an angry Irish slum lad so disabled by cerebral palsy that he can't speak, yet who becomes a famous painter and writer using the only part of his body he can control.
Day-Lewis claims he felt like a discriminated-against outsider growing up in England because of his half-Irish and half-Jewish ancestry. In reality, his Protestant Irish father, C. Day-Lewis, was the Poet Laureate of England, while his Jewish grandfather, Sir Michael Balcon, was the head of England's most beloved movie studio, Ealing, when Alec Guinness made his comedies. Day-Lewis's combination of English privileged-class panache and American Method Acting self-absorbed intensity has made him possibly the most formidable of all contemporary screen presences.
And, in the hands of the Bard of Studio City, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, maker of such memorable San Fernando Valley-obsessed films as "Boogie Nights" and "Punch-Drunk Love," "There Will Be Blood" had the potential to displace "Chinatown" as the Southern California period masterpiece.
Yet … despite a handful of great scenes, the strangely apolitical "There Will Be Blood" turns out to be just another movie about movies. Anderson entrances the critics with countless references to film school staples such as "Citizen Kane." For example, Day-Lewis's mid-Atlantic accent is lifted from John Huston's villainous tycoon in "Chinatown," which in turn points to Huston's classic about greedy prospectors, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The ominous, annoying orchestral score by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood is nearly identical to György Ligeti's buzzing insect music used by Stanley Kubrick in "2001." Indeed, by the (perhaps intentionally) comic conclusion, the oilman has devolved into "2001's" ape-man, clubbing someone's head in, although with a bowling pin rather than a bone.
Regrettably, there's not enough to entertain the non-cinephile during the abstract, glum, and static first two hours. Have you ever had that nightmare where you are back in a college on Final Exam day, but you haven't read a word all semester? I wonder if Anderson similarly woke up and realized he had made 120 minutes of a movie starring the world's greatest actor, but had barely given him anything to do. Whatever the explanation, the last 40 minutes suddenly consist of Day-Lewis overacting shamelessly. It's silly, but at least it's lively.
Rated a soft R mostly for art house cred.
On World Socialist Web Site, David Walsh offers more details on just how badly Paul Thomas Anderson blew it by draining all the politics (and most of the realism and rationality) out of Upton Sinclair's novel. It's quite helpful to read something written from such an old-fashioned leftist point of view (in contrast to contemporary leftism, which is all about status-seeking).
Why did I like Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" so much, yet was so frustrated by "There Will Be Blood," when they were both highly irrational depictions of mentally unbalanced characters?
It's not that I knew the real story of Edward L. Doheny when I saw the movie and was frustrated that Anderson left out all the best parts. I'd been to his son's mansion, which is now a park, and knew sci-fi writer Larry Niven was descended from Doheny, But I wasn't aware of Doheny's connections to Teapot Dome, the murder-suicide in Greystone, or how the case inspired Raymond Chandler. I may act like a know-it-all in my movie reviews as I fill in the background on whatever the movie is about, but I'm really just looking stuff up on Google a few hours before deadline. (Why almost no other professional critics ever use, oh, say, Wikipedia to find out anything about the subjects of the movies they review is beyond me.)
No, I'd looked forward to the movie, saw it, didn't think the sum of the parts was equal to its impressive pieces. Then, I went home, read parts of Sinclair's novel, and then looked up the real Doheny story, and was amazed by how much more cinematic was the true story than was than the plot of the film.
In "Punch-Drunk Love," Adam Sandler's character isn't quite right in the head, and you feel his pain. You watch, almost from within his head, how his mental illness messes up his career and his personal life and feel sorry for the poor bastard. You rejoice when he finds true love at the end, even though you know it's just a fairy tale. (Among many other implausibilities, Sandler has seven sisters and he must do battle with four brothers.)
In contrast, the Daniel Day-Lewis character's insanity doesn't seem to be related to anything. It doesn't prevent him from getting incredibly rich, but it doesn't seem to help him either. His madness just suddenly manifests itself whenever he's in the presence of this one guy he hates for no particular reason.
Also, please do see Kevin Michael Grace's short, witty reviews of this film and two other Best Picture contenders, "Juno" and "No Country for Old Men."