"There Will Be Blood" (***1/2)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” might be one of the most fascinating films ever crafted. It is operatic and sinister, all at once beautiful and magnetic in its depiction of a deplorable human being through and through. But there is a deeply buried empathetic virtue to the character of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) that suggests some twisted personal connection on the filmmaker’s part.
There is plenty to be said and speculated upon regarding Anderson’s dicey relationship with his father, and portions of that may have played into the creation of this film, which is based on the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair. Whatever the case, “There Will Be Blood” is a stark narrative that counts among the best films of the year for its sheer artistic brilliance and, indeed, defiance.
Taking his lead from Sinclair’s portrait of turn-of-the-century oil men, Anderson’s effort has already drawn comparisons to Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” Such comparisons may be exaggerated, but it isn’t out of the question to consider Daniel Plainview in the same wheel house as Charles Foster Kane. I would wager that the character is a weird combination of Kane and Howard Hughes, with dashes of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man or some other movie monster thrown in, because “There Will Be Blood” is just that – a monster movie. It twists the viewer’s sense of expectation into knots and then casually releases the tension, only to wrench them back up again. It’s an imperfect film that terrorizes the mind nontheless, and I loved every second of it.
The film opens on Plainview in the desert of the Southwest in 1898, the latter days of westward expansion and yet the beginnings of American capitalism in the West. Drilling in the dry, powdered rock of the region, a lone man on a search for the beginnings of a new, lucrative life, Plainview inhabits the entire first reel of the film (15 or 20 minutes) largely by himself with not a line of dialogue in sight. An eerie, locust-like score rises and falls, drones throughout and recalls the scratching of nails on a chalkboard, much like the early portions of “The Exorcist.” Indeed, composer Jonny Greenwood’s work throughout the film is wonderful in its ambition and ignorance of convention.
A few years trickle by as Plainview adds onto his enterprise until finally, oil. A black-tarred hand reaches to the sky and suddenly you sense the influence of Stanley Kubrick on the film. Like the apes who discovered weaponry in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Plainview has come upon the object that will dictate America’s destiny for the next century and more.
Yet more years pass and Plainview has established himself, along with an adopted son he claims as his own, in the business world of oil. New opportunities arise in various communities where Plainview can take full advantage, and finally, Day-Lewis speaks. It’s the beginnings of one of the year’s most dynamic performances, an absolute terror of a turn from one of the screen’s most gifted actors.
Anderson’s film moves forward, dabbles insistently in religion (Paul Dano’s work as Eli Sunday, an evangelical preacher taking advantage in his own way, illuminates a lot of the film’s interior) and soon enough moves quickly, forcibly toward a conclusion, and indeed, a final line that will go down as one of the cinema’s greatest. I can’t conceivably ruin the ride for you here, as “There Will Be Blood” MUST be experienced personally and without much in the way of preparation.
Daniel Day-Lewis has spit out a tour de force performance like it was on the agenda before breakfast. He makes it look so easy that one must think he has oil in his veins. As mentioned, Anderson has buried empathy so deep within him that it’s almost unnoticeable (and surely will be to passing viewers…i.e., the AMPAS). But it’s there. Plainview is a man willful in his ignorance of the saviors of religion, love and family. At the first spark of potential fraternal camaraderie, we see it in Day-Lewis’ eyes. He wants to feel that warmth, but he detests it all the same. Indeed, he might be the epitome, the embodiment of hate. For some, it will be impossible to look away from the performance. For others, the closest exit won’t be close enough.
Paul Dano is somewhat capable in a role that seems to be a bit out of his artistic reach for the most part, but who could keep up with Day-Lewis in a film like this? Still, Sunday is a maniac in his own right, a terribly interesting foil to Plainview that leads to a battle of souls if nothing else.
And in that final sequence, even though Dano comes off a touch awkward, even though Day-Lewis flies so far off the handle it’s as if he is chewing through the concrete of the set, it all feels appropriate. The tone, the ultimate chill left in the viewer’s stomach, the entire scenario seems skillfully plotted by Anderson, deliberately constructed and exactly as it was going to be.
So it goes that Paul Thomas Anderson remains one of the cinema’s greatest living treasures. Shrewd in his decision to move to unoriginal material, perhaps wary of the pitfalls of the writer/director mold, perhaps not, he has taken yet another leap within a cinematic resume that keeps getting better and better, more and more impressive. “There Will Be Blood” is a horrific work of mastery that I don’t imagine any other filmmaker would have ever been capable of accomplishing. Take Stanley Kubrick, breed him with Terrence Malick and wallow the result in the world of Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and you might come close. You might.
Thoughts on Oscar-potential up at the Blog, with reaction to misguided public opinion of last week's Variety item.