There Will Be Blood (rated R for violence) qualified for likely Oscar nominations by opening in a few theaters late last month. It has its nationwide rollout next week. If you're a moviegoer who trusts the many reviewers who have already declared it magnificent, you'll race to the box office. Here's one piece of advice: Don't go.
The plot is simple enough: A determined oil man in the early 1900s gets rich by lying to farmers and buying their land cheap. An evangelist becomes powerful in other malignant ways. They're both hypocrites, mirror images of corruption who increasingly show their hatred for all, including family members and each other.
The movie has moments that transcend its 3E clichéd assumption that Entrepreneurs and Evangelists are all Evil. Its visually stunning opening and several other scenes display director Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic talent. Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the businessman who becomes more overtly evil, is the early Best Actor favorite.
And yet, the clichés make the 158-minute movie a tiresome and predictable kiss-up to secular liberal ideology-and many reviewers, sadly, know so little they see the stock characters of fiction and media as historically typical. Newsweek called the film "an acute portrayal of unfettered capitalism." The New Yorker termed it "an allegory of American development in which two overwhelming forces-entrepreneurial capitalism and evangelism-both operate on the border of fraudulence."
I read two dozen reviews from New York and Los Angeles publications, wondering whether anyone would protest the same old same old malevolence toward Christianity and business. Only the Los Angeles Times noted that "the film as a whole has a weakness for the didactic." New York magazine cynically but accurately described the "Oscar strategy" of the movie: "Be relevant. It's about the intersection of single-minded capitalism and fundamentalism-sound familiar?"
The use of familiar plots does not necessarily produce mediocrity: Shakespeare turned England's golden oldies into high drama. But just as some Christians make assumptions about secularists and then resort to mechanical presentation of the gospel, so many screenwriters and directors assume that Christianity is a racket and business is soulless-in that case, why waste time in character development and explanation as to why a pastor goes bad or a businessman disintegrates?
The one newspaper reviewer I ran across who panned the film writes not for a New York or Los Angeles publication but for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Christopher Kelly noted that There Will Be Blood doesn't show "real people or real places" but exists in a "stylized cinematic universe. . . . The conflicts here are banal, the emotions muted, and the central allegory half-baked."
The typical critic's lack of critical thinking reminded me of Walter Lippmann's dictum concerning reporters' claims of "objectivity." Lippmann, the most influential American newspaper columnist of the 20th century, argued that "for the most part we do not see first, then define; we define first and then see." Lippmann viewed most reporters as akin to the traveler who likes trains and thinks it proper to give tips to porters: "His Odyssey will be replete with . . . train escapades and voracious demands for money."
Lynn Vincent's cover story about Hollywood and abortion shows a welcome movement away from pro-abort clichés, but many film Odysseys still sport only evil entrepreneurs and evangelists. A film with unexamined 3E assumptions is like a pig with lipstick.