CW: Mentions of sexual assault
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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (Released in 2006; watched by us on May 23, 2020)
A fantasy film by Guillermo del Toro. We watched it on Netflix!
This is perhaps one of the films I was most excited to see throughout this marathon … and it was not remotely what I was expecting. I mean this, of course, in a very positive way.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a dark fantasy tale set during the Spanish Civil War of 1944. It revolves around a little girl named Ofelia. She has an active imagination, which her pregnant mother and stepfather, the brutal Captain Vidal, disapprove of. Turns out they are quite wrong! Ofelia is actually the reincarnation of Moanna, the lost princess of the underworld, and in order to reclaim her immortality she must pass three tests. This is all as the war between Vidal and the rebels reaches a fever pitch.
Fantastical settings, fascinating monsters and creatively morbid worldbuilding — this movie just seemed to ooze everything that I look for in a story. If “Pan’s Labyrinth” was a book, I can certainly imagine myself shelling out the extra tens to get it leather bound and propped up on my topmost shelf. If I was exposed to this movie as a child, it would plague me with nightmares, but I would then grow to appreciate all the twists and convulsions that make this morbid tale so unique (this is what “Secret of NIMH” was to me, by the way). When exposed to this movie for the first time, I did not come in with the benefit of childhood nostalgia, but I was nevertheless amazed. And also very unsettled.
I was surprised by this, as I had initially watched one of del Toro’s other works, “Shape of Water.” I remembered being highly conflicted — and no, it was not because of the fishman coitus (definitely one of the strangest sentences I’ve had the pleasure of writing). I felt, though del Toro’s filmmaking was clearly masterful, that the writing struggled with incorporating the fantastical. I could not tell if “The Shape of Water” wanted to be a social commentary on societal belonging and prejudice, or if it wanted to be an over-the-top Spielberg-esque adventure movie. Perhaps, my main issue was with the villain, who seemed to be so cartoonishly vitriolic and sadistic that it killed any sense of realism for me. This wouldn’t be an issue for me in most fantasy tales — I’ve enjoyed much more off-the-wall movies. But when a movie like that is so clearly linked with real world issues and themes, I just feel strange.
Then again, I watched “The Shape of Water” once two years ago. I am beginning to think I might have to see that movie again and rethink my positions. That is because “Pan’s Labyrinth” arguably does all of the same things … in fact, it arguably takes these issues further. But here, I liked it.
I mentioned, once again in my “Secret of NIMH” article, that the field of animation could have gone in a much darker artistic direction if it weren’t for the Disney Renaissance. While not animated, “Pan’s Labyrinth” remains the closest example of what I had in mind. The movie lingers on the darkness and seems to mostly imply the positives (which is the opposite of what I’m used to in my fantasy). The creatures here are far from marketable — we will not be getting plushies of these fairies and fauns anytime soon (oh sheesh, just imagine getting a lifesize doll of the man-eating Pale Man). Even the good monsters are hideous and intimidating. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is definitely not the standard escapist tale … every rose is ladened with thorns, every step seems to be dangerous. Whimsy comes hand-in-hand with morbid curiosity. I am not used to seeing movies like this. And after seeing “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I would be interested in seeing more.
Dear reader, my opinions, as they currently stand, are very hypocritical. I do not have an explanation for why I thought this worked in “Pan’s Labyrinth” instead of “The Shape of Water.” Maybe, it was “Pan’s” lesser emphasis on real-life commentary, as the war itself generally acts more as a backdrop. Maybe, it was the more foreign (and thus, though I care not to admit it, less familiar) setting, allowing me to more easily turn my brain off on all the boring social schlock. Maybe, just maybe, my tastes have just changed. Oh no! I’m a critic, that’s not supposed to happen!
Yet, I at least understand why I thought it worked here. I’ve already explained that, and that is my job, so I’ll just leave it at that. But I will reiterate — dear reader, see this movie! Like how Ofelia is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, “Pan’s Labyrinth” feels like the true reincarnation of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and I’m sure we all know by now how messed up those were. It feels like a breath of fresh air.
Guillermo del Toro is one of three legendary contemporary Mexican auteurs who have conquered the Oscars, bending the feeble Academy to their artistic whims. If you don’t keep up with the Oscars, you might not realize just how dominant their winning streak has been. But in the five years from 2014-18 (inclusive), four out of five best picture awards were won by one of the “three amigos:” Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro I?árritu, and of course, Guillermo del Toro. That should be five for six, because in 2019, Cuarón had created one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements in the movie “Roma,” and the idiotic Academy instead clumsily gave the award to the mediocre “Green Book” — I will bear this insult until the day I die. Rest assured, they are five for six in best director awards from 2014-19. They are often assisted by the incomparable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who sometimes goes by “Chivo.” “Chivo” means goat in Spanish, and you can see that the moniker is earned if you watch any of his movies. My personal favorite of the three is Cuarón, who is probably the most “traditional” of the legendary trio. His best movie, and maybe the best movie in general, is “Roma,” and del Toro (among everyone else who has working eyes) has been effusive in his praise. I?árritu pushes moviemaking boundaries like few others can, famously fashioning “Birdman” into a single continuous take.
Del Toro, who is our topic of study today, has always been the hardest for me to get into. Part of this is his melding of the supernatural or fantastical with otherwise commonplace elements in challenging, unique ways. Del Toro won his Oscar for “The Shape of Water,” a supernatural love story between a janitor in a secret government lab and a captured merman. But he’s directed a variety of genre films, such as “Blade II,” “Hellboy,” and “Pacific Rim.” You read that right — that movie about big robots beating up bigger monsters was directed by one of contemporary cinema’s most brilliant artists. Sometimes, del Toro’s more flamboyant style can distract from the depth of his artistic talent.
But “Pan’s Labyrinth” is perhaps the perfect del Toro movie. It’s a wondrous and beautiful synthesis of a childlike fairytale and a brutal recounting of rebellion against Franco’s fascist regime. Fairytale and fascism is, to say the least, an unintuitive pairing. But del Toro weaves together these disparate threads to create an utterly original moral fable that’s at once tragic, enchanting and profound. This is a masterpiece, one that deserves repeat viewings. And it’s an artistic triumph that will be the cornerstone of del Toro’s rich cinematic legacy (at least until he figures out another fantastical way to surpass it).
I’ll start with the character work. It’s fantastic. Sergi López gives a brilliantly sophisticated performance as Captain Vidal, a military officer of the Franco regime. Vidal is in many ways the stereotypical fascist; he’s chauvinist, takes a perverse and sadistic delight in torture, cruel to a point. But del Toro gives him depth that a lesser director wouldn’t have. The captain is indelibly marked by his father, who gives him a watch broken at the exact time of his death in battle; he wants his son to know that he died in battle “honorably.” López’s performance is delicately balanced, and we can feel the way that Vidal’s sense of honor and masculinity has been warped by his experiences, and we can feel empathy for him, but it doesn’t ever get to the point of trying to justify his actions ethically. It’s a smart, careful balance. Another one of my favorite characters is Maribel Verdú’s Mercedes. She plays a maid who is secretly working with the Spanish resistance. Verdú gives an empathetic performance, and she is a great friend to Ofelia. But the best part about the character is her steely determination that is hidden to the male characters of the movie. She’s a fantastic secondary protagonist.
This skill at characterization extends to so many characters in this guerilla war. There’s a doctor who tries his best to uphold the Hippocratic Oath in a time where saving people almost necessarily means killing others, a young rebel whose stutter does not hide his steadfast courage. This conflict feels real, alive and with a healthy appreciation of the real costs of war.
Del Toro isn’t just doing exemplary character work and story-telling though. All of this is a place where del Toro can explore the broader themes at play. The contrast between Vidal and Mercedes is part of a fascinating interrogation of masculinity and its role in violence. Vidal is a bit of a philosophical riddle, an exploration of fate and free will. Is he doomed to be evil? Is his son? There’s a beautiful moment at the end where the cycle of violence is broken, and it’s intelligent, tragic and poetic.
And readers, this is but half (!) of the movie! The other half is a wonderful fairytale featuring Ivana Baquero’s Ofelia, a young girl who is the long-lost princess of an empire beneath the earth’s crust, trying to return to her rightful place. The magical creatures like the little fairies, the massive toads and the faun are all wonderfully realized. They feel alive and real. One of the coolest creatures created for the movie, and definitely the scariest, is the Pale Man, who seems to have wormed out of del Toro’s nightmares and into mine. And yet again, this fantastical tale is also the stage for del Toro’s musings on temptation, oppression and morality.
The pairing of the two elements is unexpected, but perfectly executed. I found myself enchanted the whole way through, and the two halves combine to create a brilliant moral fable. I loved this movie. This is an incredible accomplishment by Guillermo del Toro, and it deserves your attention.
“Rashomon” (Released in 1950; watched by us on May 27, 2020)
A crime thriller by Akira Kurosawa. We watched it on Kanopy (Stanford provides all students with a subscription)!
Ah, we haven’t done an old black-and-white film in a while. Actually, looking through our checklist, I don’t think we have done an old black-and-white film for this column. Well, shoot … and here I thought we were classy.
Before we delve into “Rashomon,” though, I should address a considerable elephant in the room. “Rashomon” is a crime film, and rape is a recurring and very present part of said crime. If this makes you uncomfortable, it is worth warning you that the movie — while not depicting the act itself — does emphasize it, and it is not necessarily discussed in the most sensitive of ways. It is also infeasible that we would be able to discuss this film without mentioning rape. We do not blame you, dear reader, if you wish to skip this section.
With that said, while “Rashomon” is definitely a product of its time, there is something insightful to be gained from watching an old movie such as this. Colors can be quite overrated sometimes. But more than that, Akira Kurosawa’s approach to storytelling and how he uses the art of filmmaking is vastly different to his eventual, modern successors. This makes for an experience that resembles a highly engaging play more than a typical movie.
Near the city of Rashōmon, a samurai has been killed, and his wife has been raped by the bandit Tajomaru. A commoner, a priest and a nearby woodcutter (the latter claiming to have discovered the body) then listen to four differing accounts of the crime from the four relevant parties, attempting to put together the truth: The bandit, Tajomaru, depicts himself as a skilled and noble criminal. The wife depicts herself as a distraught and helpless woman. The samurai, as portrayed by a spirit medium, conveys himself as a good, loving soul who was tragically betrayed. Then, finally, the woodcutter reveals the truth.
The narrative gimmick of telling the same event through different perspectives is simple but intriguing. This is what I like about movies like these — the art of filmmaking is not yet so developed, so the storyteller must find ways to tell engaging tales with considerably less resources than what we are now used to. And I stand by the idea that limits very reliably spawn creativity.
Deceit is the key word here, and “Rashomon” gets a lot of mileage out of it. I initially expected the movie to go in the route of a “whodunnit,” and though I like my mysteries, “Rashomon” refreshingly strays away from the more predictable path. There is not so much doubt in who did what … Tajomaru, in all his over-the-top hamminess, pretty much admits to everything. Instead, what spawns these differing accounts is another just as essential vital concept: ego.
Each character (except maybe the woodcutter) tells the story not by what they could gain, not for the sake of justice, but by how they wish to be perceived by the outside world. Tajomaru, for instance, wants to be seen as cool, so everything in the story revolves around making him look like a suave Robin Hood-type criminal. In this account, he defeats the formidable samurai in honorable, skilled combat. In this account, the wife is seduced by his roguish, chaotic neutral charisma, not forced as every other story suggests. These accounts can get pretty gross to the audience, but I think it is meant to be. The movie does not pretend for a single moment that any of these stories are real. This all builds up to the woodcutter telling what we assume is the truthful account — chopping down (haha, pun) all the other egos in the process. Yet, rather ingeniously, even the woodcutter is guilty of this through his invisibility.
“Rashomon” is an intriguing, simple story that has caught my interest from beginning to end. It brought me back to my freshman dorm in SLE, actually; the simpler days, back when I could regularly breathe outside air and converse with actual fleshy people. This is the exact kind of movie we would watch every Thursday night. It is worth checking out in my opinion.
“Rashomon” is one of those movies that I’ve been told that I need to watch — directed by the famed director Akira Kurosawa, it’s a tale about the murder of a man and the rape of his wife told from multiple differing perspectives. It’s a simple idea, one that’s been repeated ad nauseam in a variety of other media, but executed with Kurosawa’s skill, the movie asks profound questions about truth and justice.
At the end of the movie, it was very clear to me that I had just watched a masterpiece. The tale it tells about human morality is the bleakest out of the three movies we watched this week, and it’s dark and depressing. The world is not exactly a happy place right now, and this movie is about as far away from a feel-good movie as you can get, so if you’re looking for a happy movie to watch with the family, this is not it. But “Rashomon” isn’t a masterpiece in spite of the horrifying story that it tells but because of it. “Rashomon” is a tale of moral weakness, the lies we tell ourselves to self-aggrandize and hide our shame, the way we treat another when all the chips are down and the curtains are closed. The world Kurosawa depicts is bereft of faith and of justice, and it is populated by the selfish and dishonest.
I’ll also start off with the elephant in the room. The rape is not graphically depicted, but it is the central focus of the film. Interrogating the survivor’s chastity and virtue is a main plot-point of the film. I was, and still am, concerned about the way that “Rashomon” depicts gender and rape. The woman, Masako Kanazawa played by Machiko Kyō, is given very little agency, and after her rape (in her telling of the story at least) she asks her husband to kill her for her “infidelity.” She is denied agency in every version of events. At first I was just taken aback, but after thinking about it some more, I actually think having this many unreliable narrators is an interesting way to show how women’s experiences and agency were systematically devalued in this era. I’m not sure if it’s completely successful, but I don’t think it was completely unsuccessful either. This is probably the aspect of the film that is most dated.
However, the rest of the film holds up marvelously. As Mark says, the characters all lie about themselves in order to present the best versions of themselves to other people. But I think one of the most interesting liars is the dead samurai. He lies after he is dead, through a spirit medium. The priest is taken aback, saying that the dead surely would not lie. And it makes sense that the dead might be more truthful, as they have far fewer people to convince; our justice system even seems to give credence to the dead as well, as dying declarations are exceptions to the hearsay rule in courts. Kurosawa is far less optimistic on that front than our laws though. The samurai lies, and as far as we can tell, repeatedly and often. I think one of the most fascinating pieces of this movie is the way it interrogates not just the lies we tell others but the lies we tell ourselves.
I think that this point is what will give “Rashomon” a lasting cultural impact years later. The most horrifying movie that I have ever watched is “The Act of Killing.” In it, Joshua Oppenheimer visits Indonesia with a film crew and asks the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide to make a movie about their experiences with the genocide. The perpetrators, who still have power in Indonesia, lionize themselves. They turn themselves into freedom-loving gangsters, heroic fighters against oppression, all as they cheerily recount garroting hundreds of innocent civilians. But gradually, Oppenheimer strips the veneer away. The poetic version of the truth starts to slip, and one of the killers, a seemingly gentle old man who cha-cha’d on a roof on which you could still see a few decades-old flecks of blood from his victims, breaks down when he realizes what he has done. It’s not a moment of forgiveness, of absolution, but of a pathetic failure of humanity. This, to me, is the key insight of “Rashomon.” At our very worst, we might just be a few lies away from animals.
“Rashomon” is not a fun movie to watch. But I think it’s a necessary movie to watch. Hopefully, we can be a little more honest with ourselves. If you’re interested in more movies by Akira Kurosawa, one of film’s greatest directors, I’d recommend “Seven Samurai.” If you’re looking for a film similar in tone, I’d recommend “The Act of Killing.”
“There Will Be Blood” (Released in 2007; watched by us on May 29, 2020)
An epic drama by Paul Thomas Anderson. We watched it on Netflix!
Dear reader, admit it; you must be at least a little interested in horrible people. And you wouldn’t be the only one. That would explain why the world of film — nay, the world of storytelling as a whole — is littered with heartless, immoral protagonists. Heck, from “Goodfellas” to “Locke” to — it can be argued — “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Nitish and I have covered our fair share of these too.
But why? What is it about bad people who hurt others, skirt the rules, and probably don’t learn anything in the process that captures our interests so often? The answer is as obvious as it is variable. For some, it can be appealing to see behaviors play out that would otherwise be condoned. For others, it is in anticipation of the scummy lead’s eventual fall from grace. For the fancy pants (you know who you are), it probably has something to do more with the lack of usual morals, thus providing the story more room to cover more interesting thoughts and philosophies that would otherwise go untouched. For most, it is because we already know there are a lot of actually horrible people out in the real world. Excuse my tangent, it is just interesting to think about — and “There Will Be Blood” stands out as the king amongst a court of stories with not-so-wholesome main characters.
And of course it’s about an oil tycoon; of course it is. He has a handlebar moustache and everything.
It is the early 20th century. “There Will Be Blood” follows Daniel Day-Lewis, an ambitious prospector turned head of a mining company, who strives to first and foremost become rich and powerful (though it is worth noting, he never says this aloud). He adopts the orphaned boy of one of his workers who died on the job, and now uses him to portray himself as a warm-hearted family man. Daniel gets a tip one day pointing him to the property of the Sunday family, where there is supposedly a lavish amount of oil just waiting to be mined. He buys the rights and prepares to build up his empire, but Daniel finds an enemy in Eli Sunday, a zealous preacher with equally skewed morals. They proceed throughout the movie to try to out-man each other, each preparing their own evil monologues.
I must confess one of my issues from the get-go — this movie can get very slow. And I mean molasses slow. The first 10 minutes of the movie are nearly devoid of dialogue, showing Daniel simply working in one of the mines. There are several scenes when we see somebody walk from one point to the other, and we see the entire trek carry out. I’d almost say it has a horror movie’s pacing, which I am not sure works so well with a topic such as oil mining. This is a mundane concept that could already risk losing viewers — I’m not sure if the slow, methodological editing does it any favors.
However, the scenes that do work here are absolutely electric! While our characters start off civil, they begin to lose their screws as the film carries on, leading to some exhilarating moments that reveal a lot about their true nature. Daniel, for instance, gradually reveals himself as a sort of bully. When met with somebody who rubs him the wrong way, he would flaunt his money at the beginning of the movie. But at a certain point, he does not stop there; he begins to physically dominate his prey, becoming a surprisingly brutish figure. Eli, however, stands out to me especially. He starts out completely uncharismatic, being soft-spoken and rambly – sort of like a walking, talking, soggy board of wood. Yet, he too begins to show his own true colors. When embarrassed by Daniel, he comes home immediately to take out his physical aggression on his old father (and, though off-screen, it is mentioned he does the same with his daughter). His usually calm, droning voice becomes loud and squeaky. This characterizes the preacher perfectly as a coward who only chooses to act out against those he knows can’t fight back. Once those two figures are fully established, the story really clicks into place, leaving the audience to giddily watch as they both begin to descend.
In fact, this appears to be a huge theme in “There Will Be Blood.” As civility slowly gives way to madness, the acting goes from overly subdued to completely over-the-top. Separately, I would have a problem with both of these extremes, but together as a gradient they make this narrative all the more compelling.
Despite my issues with the pacing at points, I found myself enjoying the movie. If anything, I liked seeing these train wrecks of human beings interact with each other, embodying both the nightmares of capitalism and faith. I don’t know what that says about me, but I rest assured knowing that you, dear reader, will probably feel the same.
Mark enjoyed this movie, but to my reckoning, he did so insufficiently. Worry not dear readers, I have scolded him.
“There Will Be Blood” is the best American movie. It has the best lead performance that any actor has ever given. If you’ve watched a better movie, I’d be delighted to see it, but I’ve been running around watching would-be usurpers to see if a better movie is out there, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece comes out ahead nearly every time. It’s as immaculately constructed as it is ambitious. Anderson litters the movie with shots so beautifully composed that a Renaissance master could spend their entire lives in front of a canvas without capturing a fraction of the magnificence. When I decided that I’d be reviewing this movie, I knew that my review would quickly decompose into a series of grand sentences that my readers would think of as ludicrous hyperbole. But nothing in this review is hyperbole. It’s just that good. “There Will Be Blood” is an awe-inspiring film that will be remembered as the high watermark of American cinema. You owe it to yourself to watch it.
I’ll start off with the leading man. I think Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance of Daniel Plainview is his best performance. That makes it a leading contender for the best performance that has ever appeared on a screen. Day-Lewis is something of a mythical figure in contemporary film, descending from the Irish hills where he’s made his abode every few years and giving us mere mortals a transformative performance. He’s exceeded only by Katharine Hepburn in Oscars for a leading performer. The idea that he could give something less than a stellar performance is actually a punchline for a great Onion video. In this video, President Barack Obama pretends that he is a movie character, being played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The sketch works because Day-Lewis is so obscenely talented that you’re not 100% positive that it is a joke, that he couldn’t transform into another human being without anyone being able to notice a difference.
In “There Will Be Blood,” Day-Lewis is at the height of his powers. He gives a charismatic performance that is totally engrossing. Daniel Plainview is a shark in human’s clothing, smelling blood and oil and chasing it with a single-minded determination. Day- Lewis plays him like an apex predator who gives handshakes with a boxer’s hunched shoulders and coiled muscles, his thick turn-of-the-century California accent delivering platitudes with a razor blade beneath his tongue. His performance is impressively physical. The first 15 minutes of the movie don’t have any dialogue, and feature Day-Lewis working away in a coal mine. Plainview’s leg is broken and you can feel his muscles straining to pull himself up a ladder, feel the hot sand on his back as he drags himself across miles of desert to the nearest homestead so he can get the deed for his newfound riches. It’s dumbfounding how talented Day-Lewis is. Just look at this scene. It’s difficult for me to do Day-Lewis’ performance justice, so I only ask that you watch it yourself.
I think that the best part of “There Will be Blood” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible direction. His shot composition is incredible, and he uses light and intersecting lines to marshall our attention towards the most important parts of a scene. Look at this shot at 1:34, with a square of light at the top third of the screen and the lines of the ladder and wooden beams framing it. Similarly, look at 3:54 of the opening scene. The two rocks in the foreground corral our attention into the middle of the screen, and the berm that runs across the screen at the top keeps our eyes from floating too far up. At 5:40, our eyes naturally follow the line that the rocks make and Lewis’ movement to the top left of the screen. So Anderson moves the camera with that motion, showing us the struggle ahead of Plainview. Anderson often keeps the camera in motion, tracking movement or steadily pushing forward into a close-up. This makes it difficult for the viewer to relax, keeping us on a knife’s edge. Few of his static close-ups are centered; instead, he shoots faces from either above or below. These techniques keep the shots interesting, keeping our attention fixed.
Some of the most interesting parts of the movie are when he slows down. After building tension, Anderson lets it stew. I think this slowing down is necessary; if the quick pace was maintained through the entire film, the various dramatic twists would become expected, and their impact would be lessened. It’s only by calming us down that Anderson is able to surprise us yet again. I’ll concede to Mark that the movie can feel slow at times, but it’s necessary, in service of a greater narrative purpose. Without the calm moments, we couldn’t feel the electric tension. For example, there’s a moment where HW Plainview comes back from his exile to a deaf school, and he meets his father (Daniel Plainview). They start off hugging, and Daniel gamely meets his teacher. Then Daniel walks HW across the pipeline, in one of those long-takes that seems a little indulgent and pointless. But after Daniel and HW are safely out of earshot and away from prying eyes, they hug again, Daniel examines HW, and HW slaps him. That long take, while it first seemed out of place, had a well-defined purpose: to show us the distance between their private relationship and their public one. The father-son relationship is eerily business-like, and the gravid pause in between interactions (that pads the runtime of the film) is instrumental in showing us their discipline, their motions. Check out this scene, immediately after they reunite. There are similar pauses, and it still may seem a little slow, but look at everything that Lewis’ face reveals. The way he digests the insult of Tilford’s polite dismissal, the way he uses his child as a prop to return the perceived slight. I think Anderson’s direction isn’t slow but methodical. “There Will Be Blood” rewards rewatches; I’m on my fourth, and I increasingly find myself appreciating the method in the quiet moments rather than the loud ones.
I said this movie was the best American movie, and I mean two things by that. I think it’s the best movie by an American director, and I will until someone shows me a better one. But more importantly, this movie is about America — the ugliest side of it. It’s about an oilman with unfettered, ceaseless ambition, who hates the sedentary life bought by his riches and wants nothing more than to go back to dominating his rivals in the dusty desert. This movie is about a kind of atheistic faith, where appeals to God are cynical attempts at self-aggrandizement. We see this in the violence that Paul Dano’s Eli inflicts on his own father when things don’t go his way, and in the quiet, barely concealed umbrage that Daniel Plainview takes when there is suggestion of a higher power, when there is suggestion that his sins might need absolution. For Plainview, the sins of his past are not lessons but battle-scars, something to be proud of. It is an elegantly cynical view of America, replete with its crony capitalists and false idols. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar a few years after this movie for an entirely different type of American hero: our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. We ought to choose which of Day-Lewis’ Americans we want to be.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will be Blood” is America’s greatest cinematic accomplishment, and it is an uncomfortable interrogation of the American ethos. It has the best leading performance of all time. Watch it.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.