For once, the hype proved correct. For a little while now you might have heard about this movie called There Will Be Blood from the director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love. It’s gotten some good press, some buzz, some awards consideration and a few wins. And unless you live near someplace with more than one or two theatres, you’ve been waiting an awful long time to see what all the fuss is about. But fortunately, as stated above, the wait was all worthwhile and the film itself is a tremendously powerful work about ambition, greed and power.
Based on the novel Oil by Upton Sinclair, the story takes place during the oil boom in the early years of the 20th century. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a prospector who’s found fortune from this new gold rush, despite an early accident that crippled him slightly. With his young son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Plainview arrives in the small town of New Boston, CA, which sits on a veritable sea of oil, directed there by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) in exchange for a finder’s fee. Plainview sets about securing his future and his future wealth, but runs afoul of the preacher at the local church: Paul’s brother Eli (also played by Dano). As his profits grow, so does Plainview’s isolation as he looks for advantage seekers around every corner.
Of course, this is another great, if not the greatest, performance by Day-Lewis as he summons all the misanthropic, disingenuous intensity he can and dumps it into Plainview. It’s a masterstroke of complex humanity with the paranoia, the seething anger and the blessed manner and tone of a textbook charlatan. The character changes are subtle as the story progresses; we know there’s a deep well of anger in Plainview, but he rarely drinks deep from it; only in the end does it come bursting out in a tide of time-delayed emotion.
The title is almost all about foreshadowing, and while there is death throughout the movie, it hardly fulfills the promise of the title until it gets to the fateful finale. Day-Lewis is the eye of this storm, the singularity in the centre of all the action; everyone else gets drawn to him.
At the same time it’d be irresponsible to say that the whole movie rests on the head of Day-Lewis alone, because equally exceptional in my mind is Paul Dano. At first we see Eli as he likes to be seen: quiet, pious, soft spoken, “a son of the hills” as he likes to be thought of. But as the story progresses, a darker shade begins to fall over Eli. We come to see him as opportunistic and exploitative; generally speaking his goals and methods are every bit as repugnant as those of Plainview, if not even more so because Eli cloaks himself in the cloth.
It’s one of those performances where you have to listen carefully most of the time because Dano uses very limited vocal inflections and body language. Also interesting is the way writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson makes it ambiguous about the connection between Paul and Eli. I found that even when I got the answer about whether or not they were really brothers or the same person, I was still left wondering.
Aside from acting, the movie is darn near perfection in other ways as well. The sparse score by Johnny Greenwood reflects the barrenness of the desert setting and the ever lurking danger of working underground. Greenwood’s music is minimalist, but its presence has eerie effect when it is implemented. Robert Elswit’s cinematography often plays in bright contrast with the movie’s themes enhancing the yellows of the California sunshine; it makes it more noticeable when the movie gets really dark. This is one of those instances where all the filmmaking elements came together and delivered at levels exceeding expectations.
I’ve been reading message boards online and for some strange reason there seems to be a bit of a backlash against There Will Be Blood for a variety of reasons: little character development, too long, too boring… The fact of the matter is that Blood requires an investment of your attention as well as your time and money; one cannot be a passive participant in this picture. With two excellent actors, an engaging story and a compelling narrative, that’s all I need to get my thumbs up.