There Should Be Blood: Oil deserves better

I finally got round to watching There Will Be Blood and I was terribly disappointed. While Upton Sinclair's Oil! painted a subtle picture of human motives and morals set against a detailed picture of the oil industry, the story told in this film just didn't make sense, at least to me.

It's not that I was expecting a true-to-the-book movie, or even the same basic story as the novel--we are given fair warning that the book merely inspired the film; but what I did expect was a coherent tale full of insights into the oil business.

Instead we get this incredibly intense character, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) driven by heaven-knows-what motives. We wait all movie to learn why he is so angry and bitter and violent. I never found out. It's like a Coen brothers' movie without the humor. Indeed, I would probably have been happier if the film had been introduced as a Coen brothers production set in the early years of the California oil boom and World War I (after all, they made O Brother Where Art Thou? about the Depression in Missippi).

What I don't understand is the need to hook the film to the novel. Elements are shared, like an oil developer with a son in tow and a quail hunt that finds oil and a charismatic preacher whose family sells its land to the oil man. But that's about where the similarities end.

The differences are even more telling. While we see some of the workings of the oil business in There Will Be Blood the film passes up a lot of opportunities to educate, which was part of Sinclair's genius. The difference between leasing land to drill and buying it outright was not made clear--something that a lot of people in today's gas-boom states like Pennsylvania and New York could stand to learn more about.

Also unaddressed were the conflicting emotions experienced by the boy, used by Sinclair to address the age-old conundrum of how well-intentioned acts can produce bad outcomes. Sinclair's oil man is seemingly well-intentioned. He was a simple shop-keeper whose wife left him. He happened into the oil business at 40, got lucky, and wanted to pass along his knowledge and wealth to his son. He is not cynical in his exploitation of resources and people, he believes he is doing the right thing and being fair. The film totally omits the unions, The War, Bolsheviks, and the rise of communism and this misses a great opportunity to highlight major parallels with the world today, and underline how easy it is for well-intentioned men who think they are fair to really screw up the world, politically, economically, and environmentally.

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