The lifeblood of ‘There Will Be Blood’

Jonny Greenwood’s score for the film There Will Be Blood deserves every bit of the attention it’s getting. This terrific piece by Alex Ross in The New Yorker really gets at the core of Greenwood’s achievement:

The movie opens with a shot of dry, bare Western hills. Then we see a man prospecting for silver at the bottom of a shaft. He blasts the hole deeper with dynamite, falls and breaks his leg, and, with a titanic struggle, draws himself back up. Finally, we see him lying on the floor of an assay office, his leg in a splint, signing for the earnings that will enable him to drill for oil. The sequence is almost entirely wordless, but it is framed by music, much of it dense and dissonant. At the very beginning, you hear a chord of twelve notes played by a smoldering mass of string instruments. After seven measures, the strings begin sliding along various trajectories toward the note F-sharp. This music comes from a Greenwood piece called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” and, although it wasn’t composed for the film, it supplies a precise metaphor for the central character. The coalescence of a wide range of notes into a monomaniacal unison may tell us most of what we need to know about the crushed soul of the future tycoon Daniel Plainview.

As Plainview signs his name, another monster chord blossoms, in the violins and violas. This one is superimposed on C-major harmony in the bass, resulting in a less abrasive, more dreamlike atmosphere. The cellos play staggered glissandos—crying, sighing downward slides. Disembodied major triads rise through the harmonic haze, like mirages on the barren terrain outside Plainview’s shaft. The music is at once terrifying and enrapturing, alien and intimate.

As the movie goes on, Greenwood writes rugged open-interval motifs, which evoke the vastness of the land; mechanically churning Bartókian ostinatos, announcing the arrival of Plainview’s crew; primitivist drumming to propel an apocalyptic scene in which a derrick catches fire; and long-limbed, sadly ecstatic, Messiaen-like melodies to suggest the emotional isolation of Plainview’s ill-fated son. It’s hard to think of a recent Hollywood production in which music plays such an active role. (Unfortunately, Greenwood was judged ineligible for an Academy Award nomination, because the soundtrack contains too much preëxisting music.) When, in the closing scenes, Plainview evolves into an obscenely wealthy ghoul, Greenwood’s score retreats toward silence. In its stead, after a bloody final shot, the robust finale of Brahms’s Violin Concerto ironically fills the air: it sounds more like a radio blaring in an empty house than like music played for human beings.

As the lead guitarist for Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood belongs to that interesting subset of composers who have jumped into film soundtracks from the domain of pop music. Plenty of classical composers have dabbled in film — Sergei Prokofiev, John Corigliano, Toru Takemitsu — to good effect, but travelers from the other side make for a pretty small club. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo does good work. Danny Elfman made his bones with Oingo Boingo before he became Tim Burton’s right-hand man with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Howard Shore started with a jazz-rock band called Lighthouse before Saturday Night Live and Hollywood beckoned. Are there any others?

As for the film itself, well . . . I say god damn. It’s been a long time since an American movie gave me the sense of a wild artistic talent cutting loose and heeding nothing else around it, and I walked out of There Will Be Blood feeling a little bit dazed. As much as I liked Paul Thomas Anderson’s first three movies — Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia — I thought he’d hit a creative dead end with Punch-Drunk Love. I gather than Anderson reached the same conclusion, because everything in There Will Be Blood gives the impression of a filmmaker tearing up his old rule book and lighting out for unknown territory. All he saves from his earlier work is the willingness to follow the lead of his actors: there’s a flavor of wild improvisation to many of Daniel Day-Lewis’ scenes, as there is with Paul Dano’s brilliant turns as a bogus charismatic preacher.

Many reviewers have compared There Will Be Blood with Citizen Kane. Anderson cites Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! as his inspiration, but aside from being set in the early days of the Southern California oil boom, there is very little connection. Sinclair’s novel is told from the viewpoint of an oil tycoon’s son, and the book is a kind of running dialogue between father and son about capitalism and greed. There is dialogue in There Will Be Blood, but no dialogue. Daniel Plainview’s seething anger and lust for money leave no room for outside views, and when the natural world finally yields up the wealth he has been seeking, Plainview turns his aggression and competitiveness on everyone around him.

Jorge Luis Borges called Citizen Kane “a labyrinth without a center,” but There Will Be Blood is a labyrinth with a center devoid of light and warmth — just ravening appetite and a drive to dominate everything and everyone in sight. I’m still not sure if There Will Be Blood is a good movie, much less a great one, but it seizes the mind and shakes it like nothing else I’ve seen in years.

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