“When’s he going to drink the milkshake?”
I spent most of the two-and-a-quarter hours leading up to the instantly iconic milkshake rant in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood asking myself that question. Even as I was paying attention to the extraordinary feats of performance and cinematography, marveling at Anderson’s command of the sprawling epic form and gaping at his horrific portrayal of early American industrialism, I found myself waiting for the scene I knew was coming.
Such is the experience of watching an acclaimed movie years after its cultural moment has passed. It’s happened to me recently with Bridesmaids and in the past with countless other movies.
I always try to consciously put myself in the shoes of someone who’s seeing the movie around the time it was released, but inevitably my thoughts wandered to the Oscars I knew the film won, and the ephemeral quotes I’ve seen floating around, and even the reaction to Anderson’s subsequent film The Master, which drew equally ecstatic praise from some critics and more muted attention from others. It’s not wrong to experience movies through these lens. We’re people who have experiences, and we shouldn’t have to suppress those experiences for the sake of experiencing art in exactly the way the artist expected we would. It’s this disconnect that creates such film critic terminology as “holds up” and “stands the test of time.” And There Will Be Blood certainly does.
Until last night, I’d never seen one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, and now all I want to do is watch more of them. I was pleased to find that the movie transcended my unfounded anticipation for that one moment – the oft-quoted line is actually just one piece of a lengthy monologue and an even lengthier sequence that proves to be one of the most unnerving I’ve ever seen on film. As the increasingly monstrous oil prospector Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis makes his outstanding work in Lincoln seem like a one-note caricature by comparison. Similarly, my experience with an unhinged Paul Dano in 12 Years a Slave could not possibly have prepared me for the depths of his rage and frustration as the eternally youthful preacher Eli Sunday. And the movie’s unflinching commitment to the slow unraveling of the American dream reveals itself only gradually.
The deliberate pacing largely eschews action and traditional suspense, aside from the accident on the oil rig that renders Plainview’s helpless son H.W. deaf. At times, the movie seems uninterested in making a coherent statement, content to fester in the warm yet foreboding early 20th-century California landscapes. Plainview initially comes across as a stern, hardworking, single-mindedly professional man with a keen eye for fortune and public relations, but his machinations appear sinister before long. Eli Sunday (a rather on-the-nose for a preacher) is the movie’s most aware character, immediately seeing through Plainview’s ruse, but the townspeople refuse to deny the power of Plainview’s proposal. The grandeur of Plainview & Co.’s creations, with their towering wooden structures and romantic oil geysers, obscures the selfishness and greed that motivates their construction.
The bulk of the praise for Day-Lewis likely surrounds the movie’s riveting epilogue, in which a much-older and much-drunker Daniel Plainview eviscerates his son and murders the preacher in a drunken rampage that tracks across the oil emperor’s absurdly lavish mansion. Glancing at the review capsules, I saw comparisons to Orson Welles, and this movie’s connections to Citizen Kane, another tale of curdled American optimism, are hard to ignore. More superficially, I was reminded of Breaking Bad, and of the larger tradition of male antiheroes who earn the audience’s sympathies in spite of their unconscionable flaws. But the true achievement in the creation of this character comes earlier, I think. Day-Lewis’ performance isn’t significantly less threatening in the movie’s first two hours, except that Plainview is doing a better job of masking his goals under a layer of charisma. The true horror of movies about corrupted men is not that the men went wrong somewhere. It’s that the corruption is lurking inside of them the whole time, and nothing – not religion, not spirituality, not kindness, not decency, not even the prospect of nurturing a young boy – can suppress it.
On a technical level, There Will Be Blood is immaculate. Jonny Greenwood’s percussive score, Robert Elswit’s burnished cinematography, Jack Fisk’s precise production design and Mark Bridges’ authentic costuming successfully puncture the gilded aesthetic of the post-Gold Rush era. Thematically, the movie is troubling but evocative. Even its most obtuse scenes feel layered with subtext. I’ll be thinking about There Will Be Blood for a long time – especially the next time I order a milkshake.