Close Reading *There Will Be Blood* (2008), or: I’ll have a Western with an extra serving of nihilism, please.

Hey, everyone! I hope you all have had a nicely productive week! Last week, I got some interesting feedback on my Stardust article concerning whether Neil Gaiman or Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman were creditable with the narrative decisions of the film, which is certainly an important question to think about as a writer, especially if you are considering writing with a movie deal in mind. Personally, I view adapting a story from one medium to another as important work, but not original work (just like I don’t consider fanfiction to be original work), so I am inclined to give the storytelling credit for Stardust, the movie, to Gaiman regardless of any changes made to it by Vaughn and Goldman.

Keep in mind that I consider fanfiction to be fiction using the same defining characters, settings, world rules, etc. of an existing creative work, and moving around those parts like shadow puppets (if the author hasn’t told you everything about a character, do you really know enough about them to truly write their stories?). Now, I don’t dislike the existence of fanfiction or adaptation or creative interpretation (I even encouraged it in my previous article “Writing Exercises”), but I heavily believe that credit should be given to the person who wrote the original where the original is easily definable (i.e. not like old fairy and folk tales that didn’t originate from a single author). However, deciding where you fall on this issue is up to you, as it is more internet pedantry than important analytic consideration for the purpose of close reading.

Speaking of, I should probably get to what this article is supposed to be: a close reading of a movie. Since I haven’t gotten any suggestions for what movie to do a reading of, and I don’t want to just watch a bunch of movies I’ve already seen, I decided to see what was available on Amazon Prime and rolled a die to pick what film to read. The die picked There Will Be Blood, which I’ll be watching cold (I’ve never seen it, have no idea what it is about, and don’t have trailers to influence my viewing). So, we’ll see how this goes. Let’s do it!

Starting with the first scene, beginning and ending with the same shot of three bluffs, we are treated to a well done example of how to show, instead of tell, that life for the on-screen character is difficult (a staple in Westerns). Instead of having him in a bar telling his city-slicker relative how hard things are out west, we open with him alone in a dark mine. Without knowing much about mining or the mineral rushes of the United States frontier, anyone who sees this movie will know the desolation and danger of this character’s life, because he is completely alone (dangerous for a species that evolved socially, without useful things like size, sharp teeth, venom, or claws) in a hole in the ground (a wild place without safety, as opposed to a house) in the dark (which can hide dangerous animals and other unknown lurkers). The rest of the scene compounds this sense of difficulty, danger, and foreboding when the man loses his equipment in the dynamite blast, followed by falling into the mine and breaking his ankle. The trick for the rest of the film will be to make each of these things important later if it is pertinent to the story. For example, I’m guessing his broken ankle is going to prevent him from getting away from a fight later on.

At twelve minutes into the movie, we have another poetic example of how to show a story when a group of men strike oil. First, we see that the main character’s situation has improved since selling the silver from his previous mine, because his beard has been groomed into a mustache and he appears to be in charge of the men milling about in the background. After the grueling work of hand-cranking a cable tool bit up out of the drill hole, the man’s assistant loses his footing which causes him to let go of the rope suspending the bit. Another man is sent into the hole to get the bit out. When it has been released and raised, our main character wipes his hand on the bit, then holds his crude-covered palm up in victory. In the resulting excitement of finding oil, the man holding a baby while dumping oil into a reservoir stops in the process to anoint the child with crude. Thus, we see what this event means to the main character and the baby’s father (I assume). For the main character, this discovery is a meaningful victory that will gain him more money. For the father, though, this means a somewhat divine blessing for his child (since anointing is a religious ritual thing) and, subsequently, a bright future. (The anointing also takes another meaning when the child’s father dies: oil will dictate the child’s life from that point on.) Immediately, we know who cares about what without anyone saying a word.

Since the father of the child has been killed in an accident and we are beginning to see more of the main character, I’d like you to take a moment and list why you like and dislike him. Make sure to put at least one thing in each column, and keep adding to it as the story progresses. As of this moment, I like the main character because he is clearly hard-working, he takes responsibility for the fatherless child, he is a fair leader (he was in the well when the boy’s father was killed), and doesn’t try to do business in a town that clearly doesn’t want him there (“I wouldn’t take the lease if you gave it to me as a gift.”). I don’t like him because he lied about the boy being his real son, he uses his “fatherhood” to get people to sell oil rights to him, and he uses intimidation tactics to get the information from the California goat farmer boy. This is a prime example of having a main character that isn’t just a likable charmer or a love-to-hate villain. Being hard to figure out and categorize is what makes him interesting to me. What about you?

For the rest of the film, there isn’t much more that sharply stands out that isn’t similar to what I’ve already said. The showing instead of telling continues to a similar degree, and the likability of the main character wobbles back and forth, sometimes drastically. (Side note: check the list of why you like or dislike the main character. Are some of the reasons only that there was a worse person?) So, that leaves us with the two questions we must ask ourselves as writers: What techniques of storytelling used in this film would I like to emulate in my own writing? What techniques of storytelling used in this film would I like to avoid using in my own writing?

For this one, I will start with the second question, because the answer is shorter. In my own work, I will avoid the overall ambiguity used in the film. While I do like realism and a certain degree of grit, it is exhausting and grinds away at my inherent desire for poetic justice in the world. In other words, I want my stories to be a rewarding escape from the shortcomings of reality, not a means by which my readers can stare into the abyss. I’m not saying that such stories shouldn’t be told or can’t be told well, just that it is a style I don’t intend to use.

There are two techniques that I will take from this film, though:

1. The use of positive and negative narrative space (a story is just as much about what is omitted as what is included).

By that I mean all of the moments — that could have easily been filled with chatter — left silent. We didn’t get pleasantries between the main character and the men smelting the silver he sold in the beginning. We didn’t get any interaction between him and other people at the bar with the man posing as his brother. Several plot points and behaviors were displaced from the scenes we’d expect them in, especially as we got further along in the story (which paralleled the main character going crazy). For example, he threatened the man offering to buy his oil wells, but not the man posing to be his brother. Another example was his assertion that he was a family man, followed by no interactions with his biological family until much later. Finally, the main character was not at the wedding of his adopted son, so the son revealing his plans to set off on his own was displaced to the following scene.

2. The abruptness of both tragedy and windfall.

When anything happened, there were no hints it was coming. For example, the second man to die in a well was arguably foreshadowed by the scene of the child’s father coming to a similar fate, but there was nothing to suggest it was about to happen. No one called the safety of the work into question. He didn’t even have a goodbye scene with a loved one. We are just told that he died, then shown how it happened. The same technique also made the fist fights and murders sharper. In addition to the abruptness of violence, the main character’s success was also abrupt; he went from lone silver prospector to oil tycoon with very little work shown in between. While the events tell us that the main character became successful through his own hard work, our lack of evidence leaves room for us to eventually question that (especially after he tells his adopted son that he’s an orphan).

Now that that is out of the way, I’m off to bury myself in cute pictures of baby animals. Seriously, my cheerfulness is a bit out of order now. Happy writing!

What did you think of this week’s movie? Did you find a new technique for storytelling in it? Do you have questions for me? Is there a movie you would like me to write about? Let me know in the comments! I look forward to hearing from you! I post new articles on Wednesdays. Please remember to upvote, like, subscribe, and/or follow me on other social media if you find these articles useful and want to see more!