Sometimes I’ll hear people say that they didn’t like a particular film because the lead character wasn’t likeable. I’ve never bought into that idea, and I like to point to “The Godfather” and its sequel as perfect examples of that. So I kept that idea in mind while watching “There Will Be Blood,” as I followed the rise of Daniel Plainview, a ruthless turn-of-the-century oil man who earns a fortune in the California oil business by buying up large tracts of land rich with so-called “liquid gold.”
His constant companion is H.W., the orphaned son of a worker who was killed in a job site accident. Plainview is a gruff father figure, but he clearly loves the child, at least during his formative years. Even when Plainview commits a crappy move that I, as a parent, couldn’t ever imagine doing, he seems to feel a twinge of regret.
One of the sellers of land to Plainview is a man whose son Eli is an unctuous minister specializing in faith healing. Plainview regards religion as a bunch of hokum, but he makes promises to Eli, and even undergoes a humiliating baptism, in order to acquire the land he needs. The two enter into an uneasy, antagonistic relationship, each trying to use the other for his own gains. Unfortunately, Eli doesn’t realize that he didn’t have the upper hand from the start.
So far, so good. Even when Plainview makes a cold, calculated decision about a man claiming to be his long-lost half-brother, I could understand his logic even as I found his behavior abhorrent. While I can’t agree with Plainview’s actions in many scenes in the movie, at least I could figure out why he made that choice, in light of the greed that drove him.
But then I came to the final scene, and I felt like the film went off the rails. Again, I understood his anger and his desire to get revenge on someone who had humiliated him, but Plainview crosses a line that didn’t seem to fit with any goal. He seems insane, rather than ruthless. I’ve read comments about his descent into madness in the film, but I don’t understand what caused that, aside from his alcoholism. The motivation became muddled.
Unfortunately, I need to knock my usual half-star off this two-disc DVD for its paltry extras. There’s no commentary for the film, and there’s no making-of documentary on disc two. The closest thing that passes for the latter is 15 minutes of photos and old film clips that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson used as research. It’s interesting to see how well the production crew replicated those archival materials, but many of the photos pass by too quickly to read their captions. I would have liked to see a discussion of how Anderson used those visual aids to loosely adapt Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!”.
The rest of disc two features two trailers, 12 minutes worth of deleted scenes, and “The Story of Petroleum,” a 1920s-era silent film — with music from the movie — that runs 26 minutes and explains the early days of the oil business. The deleted scenes are intriguing, although I can see why they were excised from a film that wound up exceeding 2.5 hours, and “The Story of Petroleum” is an interesting primer that should have been part of a larger documentary.