Best of the Decade #10

by robbiefreeling
December 21, 2009 7:55 AM
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At the time of its release in December 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood received a wave of critical kudos, praising its formal control, bravura central performance, and idiosyncratic take on the Upton Sinclair novel from which it is loosely based. Among the multiple lines of critical and cultural discourse surrounding the film, however, one particularly stands out: the notion of There Will Be Blood—with its central conflict between cutthroat oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and zealous small-town preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in 1911 California— as a kind of demonic origin tale for the state of contemporary American political culture, with narrow-minded religious fervor and bald-faced capitalistic excesses forming two sides of the same tarnished coin. There’s validity to the amount of ink spilled on this issue. Certainly There Will Be Blood’s historical setting and employment of easily definable archetypes—the minister, the oilman—invite us to consider the social forces these characters represent and the influence these forces had, and continue to have, within American culture.

Still, I think that the amount of critical discussion about this idea stemmed as much from its historical moment as from the content of the film itself. There Will Be Blood hit theaters during the twilight of the Bush administration, when many film critics felt particularly free to pepper their cinematic commentary with (mostly left-wing) political critique. It should come as little surprise, then, that reviewers drew direct lines between the film’s withering view of runaway capitalism and Christian dogmatism and the rapidly imploding GOP coalition of laissez-faire businessmen and religious fundamentalists that, in their eyes, so royally screwed up the country for the better part of the decade. See what the past hath wrought! Never mind that, as an allegory for the contemporary conservative movement, There Will Be Blood leaves something to be desired. (What to make, for example, of the fact that the representative of religion ends up bludgeoned to death by the avatar of capitalism?) Such a reading felt more like an expedient bid for cultural relevancy than reflective of the film’s true modus operandi. Read Matt Connolly on There Will Be Blood.

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