There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson takes a look at two competing interests in America with his epic new film.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Traveling across the scrubby settlements of the American West at the turn of the century, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) seeks to gain the trust of the townspeople like a politician. Only in Paul Thomas Anderson’s instant classic There Will Be Blood, he’s no politician – he’s a conniving, duplicitous oil prospector, not above using his adopted son H.W., who stands beside him as quiet as a ventriloquist’s dummy, to help gain the crowd’s trust as a fellow family man. He has a finely honed pitch with folksy “good old-fashioned plain speakin’ ” that comes on like a polished stump speech. When asked at one point what church he attends, Plainview gives the diplomatic reply of “I enjoy all faiths.”
But Plainview is nothing like the folks he is trying to swindle out of land pocketed with gooey, thick reserves of oil. Rather, Plainview, whose blackened fingers resemble charred sausages, is the sort of individual who does not feel tethered at all to the rest of humanity – and his sole obsession is to drain the west of oil with his needle-like oil derricks. At one point later in the film, Plainview reveals some of himself to a man who claims to be a long lost half brother. “When I look at people, I see nothing worth liking,” he says.
Plainview eventually finds himself in the California desert town of Little Boston. There, he promises a young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) money to build a church if he discovers oil in the surrounding ground. When Plainview does find a substantial amount of the substance, derricks start to dot the land like skeletal steeples and Sunday starts to realize that Plainview has no intention of building him a new place of worship.
The tense scenes with Plainview and Sunday trying to one up each other are among the best sections of the almost-three-hour-long film. Like his Oscar nominated turn in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis sinks his teeth into the role like a hungry prospector finally getting his hands on a good cut of meat. When Day-Lewis is fixing a hateful stare on the rest of mankind or in throwaway moments when he looks at Sunday’s wild sermons with an amused expression, it’s truly hard to see anyone else taking home the Oscar for Best Actor this year. Meanwhile, Dano, who is best known for his turn as the teenager who took a vow of silence in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, effectively conveys Sunday as a true performer, a soft-spoken man who erupts with quivering power when he’s behind the pulpit.
While the rising tension between Plainview and Sunday forms the dramatic backbone of There Will Be Blood, there are many more conflicts that color the film. A great deal of the early part of the movie deals with the horrific accidents Plainview and his fellow oilmen must endure while drilling for oil with primitive tools. The oil is also an unpredictable force in There Will Be Blood, sometimes placid and amber and at other times volcanic and pitch black.
Throughout, Anderson, the ambitious auteur behind Boogie Nights and Magnolia, uses stylistic flourishes while telling the story. An early scene finds oil splattering over the camera lens like blood in a slasher film, while later on, his wide shots of the stark desert landscape around Little Boston effectively convey the wide-open feeling people had – and still have – about the American West.
Meanwhile, other elements coalesce to create a fuller, more striking sense of place and also of impending doom. The former is conveyed by the set design of Little Boston, which recalls Robert Altman’s town of South Presbyterian in McCabe and Mrs. Miller for its authentic lived-in look and feel. The latter is aided by the score of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, which is frequently dissonant and unnerving.
While watching There Will Be Blood, it doesn’t take much of a jump to infer that Plainview and Sunday are stand-ins for big business and religion in this country. And by the end of this masterpiece, it’s easy to determine which one Anderson believes yields more power.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD ( 4 ) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano and Kevin J. O’Connor • R, 158 min • At the Osio Cinemas.