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CLASSICS: There Will Be Blood (2007)

September 24, 2012

(the following review was originally written on February 2, 2008)


written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair)

produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson & Scott Rudin

directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

rated R (for some violence)

158 min.

U.S. release date: December 26, 2007 (limited) & January 25, 2008 (wide)

DVD release date: April 8, 2008

Blu-ray release date: June 3, 2008

“There Will Be Blood” is yet another film from last year that has remained with me long after first viewing, which is why it made my Top Ten Films of 2007 list. The draw for me was Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who mesmerizes with each role. This film is no different and fully supports that notion while elevating it to a new level. The man has an amazing presence here and his performance makes viewing the film quite a captivating experience. It’s a film that reiterates the fact that oil and religion are a bad mix – a bad pairing that doesn’t work – not today and certainly not in the desolate Northern California landscape of the late 1800’s. It’s a story about oil and greed and religion and deception. It’s a dirty movie (in many ways) where viewers will feel the grime and dust seal their pores and feel the heat generated on screen as they sit in their seat.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson opens the film with about twenty minutes of silence. No one utters a single word, yet what we see still manages to speak volumes. We’re shown a barren desert landscape (thanks to superb cinematography by Robert Elswit) as orchestral strings swell accompanied by the sharp bite of a tool striking the earth. The man wielding the tool is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and he is indeed meticulously chipping away at a wall deep within a man-made well. He is searching for his fortune, mining only silver. He is an independent man with no need of assistance, let alone words. When calamity strikes, he has no one to turn to and yet he has the will to overcome any hardship in order to stake his claim.

This beginning may be an unprecedented move for Anderson, but it definitely earns our attention. Working with composer Johnny Greenwood (guitarist of Radiohead), Anderson utilizes music to accompany the sounds of a birthing industry. It forces viewers to think differently, readjusting their senses perhaps, and has them determining whether or not they can commit to something they may not be used to. I was immediately hooked and sat there riveted; as I’m sure others were in the silent theater. I felt more invited than I did forced into this unique atmosphere, making my cinematic investment an easy sell.

We soon see that Plainview is not your average turn-of-the-century entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. No, this is a man consumed with himself. A man surrounded with those who believe in him. Yet, we see right through the charismatic salesman. Plainview doesn’t care about anyone. He even flat-out says later on that he often finds himself despising other people. Based on his actions, it’s a statement that’s easy to believe.

Years later, Plainview has his hands in multiple wells which has provided him with great wealth.  He travels around speaking to the townsfolk who live in prospective lands with a prop at his side: an adopted a son named H.W. (first-timer Dillion Fraser ), who was orphaned as a baby when a collapsed rig killed his father.  That may seem like a compassionate act by Plainview but like anything else, we find he has his ulterior motives. H.W. is unaware that Plainview isn’t his biological father, and Plainview exploits his mini-me so he can call his enterprise a family business. This behavior is dealt with eventually, along with Plainview’s other unrepentant ways. We’re reminded over the course of the film that a man cannot truly repent until he actually sees the need to.

The film is epic in scope and yet plays like a work of classic literature come to life. Like any such work, there is an antagonist here and what’s interesting is that a reader (or viewer) is usually already rooting for a respectable protagonist, something that is yet to be found in this film. Plainview may not be worthy of respect, but his determination and mysterious aura demands our attention.

One night, a mysterious young man named Paul (Paul Dano) appears and tells Plainview he knows where there are untapped oil reserves. He tells Plainview that for $500, he will disclose the location of his family’s ranch. Of course, Plainview is soon on the scene and trying to cheat the old farmer (David Willis) out of his property under the guise of wanting a quiet place to hunt quail. The farmer’s other son, Eli Sunday (also played by Dano) suspects the real motivation for the purchase, and so their clash of wills gets underway. Depending on your point of view, we have a classic protagonist in Sunday, a Pentecostal preacher from the small local church.  He wants to make sure his congregation and their spiritual leader are taken care of, but he too is a charlatan with ulterior motives.

So you have two charismatic people at odds with each other who are more alike than they’d ever admit. It’s ironic that this is essentially a war between oil and religion….sound familiar? As much as these two are continuously at odds with each other, the commonality is that money and salvation can change a person. There are continuous clashes throughout this film involving the material and the spiritual. I won’t get into the specifics of either, but both of these characters take action that cause serious repercussions to those around them. And all of it is gripping and powerful, as Anderson shows us two men consumed with their own agenda and the miserable fallout from it.

The story comes from Upton Sinclair’s eighty year-old novel Oil!, about an oil baron who engages in a mental battle with a revival type preacher who holds the key to a plot of land with oceans of crude bubbling underneath the surface. Both want control of the gusher, because both are looking to line their coffers. Anderson uses that set up and runs with it, creating an ominous title change that does indeed provide that valuable human life source which can also refer to oil, the blood that gushes from the earth. Oil is the fuel for everything in “There Will Be Blood”. It’s an instigator that powers cars, invigorates communities, and compels men to trade their souls for its reward.

A protagonist like Plainview can make or break a film. He’s a powerful literary character that you can’t take your eyes off of. It’s easy to be both horrified and amused by him and at no point do you root for him? What I found mysterious is the way he sees himself. Why does he think so highly of himself? Maybe he doesn’t, maybe he has his own demons, but he sure comes across like a guy who really believes what he’s doing is right. Aren’t those the best characters?

A strong, multi-talented actor is needed for this role and I can’t see anyone other than Day-Lewis as Plainview. It would simply be a different film without him. The entire cast is fantastic too, including Ciaran Hines as Plainview’s right-hand man and Kevin O’ Connor  as a shady grifter Plainview has to contend with. Dano falters a little in trying to play a convincing older version of himself, but as the awkward and often sinister preacher, he’s able to sell the man as both a righteous lunatic and a scheming con artist.

But “There Will Be Blood” is Day-Lewis’ film through and through. That’s who you’ll remember for weeks and years to come. He may border cartoonish territory with his John Huston-inspired characterization, but it’s just that and his total immersion that is the attraction. He first gained my attention with his Oscar-winning role as Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” and since then has built quite a filmography. He plays Plainview in multiple stages of life, from a determined young man to the over-confidence of middle age and on into old age, where he is broken and alone with his ego. Though Plainview has the gift of gab when it comes time to pitch his sale, he is most often a man of few, carefully chosen, often biting words. Some viewers and critics see his performance as grand standing and entirely over-the-top (the same can be said for Dano). None of that matters since Day-Lewis is so compelling that one can’t help but become absorbed by him.  

There’s also much talk about how the movie ends. While I would never spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet, I can’t see it ending any other way. This topic isn’t unusual though, I heard much discussion regarding the conclusion in “No Country for Old Men” as well. I understand the complaints but I respect both endings, simply because they remain true to the characters and the situation (as weird or oblique as it is) they are in. However a story ends, that’s what should matter. Like the Coen brothers film, Anderson delivers a film that will haunt you for some time. I saw it three weeks ago and there’s still images swirling in my head, ripe for dissection with others. Not many films can do that today.


RATING: ****



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