❉ Vital, brutal, intensely focused, and ravishing to the eye, this is as bold as literary inspired film-making can get.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s blistering film There Will Be Blood defies critical review. I mean, it’s one of those things that’s not really up for debate. The sky is blue, fire is hot, snow is cold, and this film is an overwhelming and masterful piece of cinema. It’s a towering achievement with a force of nature lead performance at its center by the legendary Daniel Day Lewis.
As bold as literary inspired filmmaking can get, this is a uniquely American tale of greed, power, and the corruption of one’s soul. In short—I loved it. Every single moment of it. Especially the spiritually diseased final act with Plainview squirreled away in his mansion. Anderson, who only believes in making masterworks every single time he gets behind the camera, put together his most ambitious project to date with There Will Be Blood. With Orson Welles, John Ford, John Huston, and Terrence Malick on his mind, Anderson’s never ending technical bravado melds brilliantly with his instincts for story, character, and dialogue, resulting in a powerful drama spiked with moments of mordant, almost obscene humor.
Formally rigorous and in love with its very own being, this film is very loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!,” and stood as Anderson’s first attempt at adapting someone else’s work. Discussing There Will Be Blood without spoiling some of its best moments won’t be easy, as this is a film that grabs you from its startling opening frames and refuses to let you go until the lights have come up. To say that Anderson creates films that are immediately engrossing is an understatement; you get the sense when watching his work that it’s the product of a natural born filmmaker, someone who has been put on this planet to do one thing and one thing only.
Daniel Day Lewis, in a sensational and transfixing performance, is Daniel Plainview, a California oil man looking to suck the desert dry of black gold. Beginning with the film’s gripping, dialogue-free opening 20 minutes, the audience gets a sense of what’s in store for them. Lewis, whose Plainview is mining for silver and gold alone in a ditch in the middle of nowhere and sweating profusely, opens the film with such physical intensity that I almost forgot to breathe the first time I saw it at the Arclight in Hollywood with a sold-out, eerily quiet auditorium.
Combined with Johnny Greenwood’s otherworldly and wholly bizarre electronic musical score, the film transports the audience to a specific time and place, one that is familiar yet alien. Plainview wants nothing more than all the land he sets foot on, and travels the state convincing people to let him buy their land so that he can get at the oil beneath. He becomes a surrogate father to an infant boy after their father is killed in an oil derrick accident, and as the boy grows up, Plainview refers to him as his own son, and uses him as a prop when meeting with prospective townspeople while giving them his spiel about buying up their land and making everyone rich.
Plainview’s life is changed forever when Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, intense yet puny in comparison to Lewis) shows up on his doorstep, with news that his town is bubbling with oil. Paul asks Plainview for some money in exchange for the location of his town; Plainview pays the boy and sets off for his next conquest. When he gets to the town, he meets Paul’s family, which includes Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also played by Paul Dano). Eli is a preacher, with designs of his own church, and he realizes pretty quickly that if he plays his cards right, he might be able to get money out of Plainview to help build his house of worship. From there, the film predominantly centers on the strange, oddly synergistic, potentially deadly relationship between Plainview and Eli, and how the two men are similar creatures of passion and rage, yet totally different when you cut down to their bare essence as human beings.
There Will Be Blood is more interested in people, places, and psychological decisions than concrete plot developments and easy to define motivations. The film pivots on three or four big set-pieces, with an oil rig explosion and fire serving as one of the major highlights, and Anderson handles the physicality of the film with a heightened beauty that recalls magic-hour Malick on more than one occasion. During the oil fire sequence, Anderson, along with his virtuoso cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has shot all of the director’s films, stages a bravura tracking shot through all of the action that demands to be repeatedly studied. Anderson had never made an old-school period film before There Will Be Blood, and long had been considered one of our most modern of filmmakers, after crafting such distinctive LA portraits such as Sydney, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love. But after There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice, it’s almost impossible to pin him down, as he seems content to mix up eras and styles but still keeping his anarchic spirit in tact from picture to picture. In There Will Be Blood, Anderson, along with the help of master art director/production designer Jack Fisk (Days of Heaven, The New World), evokes an era of simple beauty and dark menace, with open exteriors framed in massive scope with little details filling the edges, and dimly lit and period-authentic interiors decorated in a way to suggest the insular suffocation of its tragic main character. There’s a moment about halfway through the film that shows Plainview admiring an oil fire for an extended period of time, allowing for more contemplation than is normally afforded to characters in any given film; it’s truly a picture worth a thousand words and a moment in the film where you realize that Anderson is a full-force artist.
And then there’s the ending of There Will Be Blood, which inspired divisive response from audiences right off the bat, but then took on something in the pop-culture lexicon, what with Milkshake Drinking humor becoming all the rage for a while, with the likes of SNL joining in on the fun. And when you look back at the year that There Will Be Blood was released (2007), it’s sort of miraculous to think that it came out in the same year as No Country for Old Men, as both films were controversial and dark explorations humanity at its bleakest, and both films likely irked audiences looking for more conventional answers with their cinema. It really is amazing that two genre busting films like these would come out in the same year, let alone from the same distributor (Paramount Vantage).
In There Will Be Blood, after setting up an epic story and taking it to the limit, both visually and thematically, Anderson gets intimate with Plainview and Eli during the final act, which yields electrifying results. There are moments of dark hilarity during the final stretches of There Will Be Blood that take turns horrifying and amusing the viewer, and when you combine those two elements at once, the tonal end result can be bracing and hard to pin down. I’ve seen this film at least 10 times now and I just can’t help but laugh more and more by what I’m watching (the same thing has happened to me with The Master, a film I initially didn’t fully enjoy or “get”, but have grown to love and become obsessed with).
I love how Anderson is constantly showing the audience how dark and twisted Plainview and Eli really are, and by the end, the two characters are simmering at each other’s throats, looking for some sort of emotional release. Some people will find the ending too stagy or theatrical. Others, myself included, will view it as a perfect and appropriately grim finale to one of the more uncompromising American epics made in the last 15 years.
There Will Be Blood isn’t an easy film. Its characters are flawed and even reprehensible at times. The musical score is purposefully intrusive yet somehow it works. It’s a quiet film with stretches of no dialogue (or limited dialogue) that force the viewer to work in a visual manner which can be annoying to some but immensely rewarding for others. The film’s outlook on the human condition is bleak and rough and will offer zero comfort to those looking for any sort of traditional or happy ending. It’s brilliant how Anderson crafted the Plainview character as a monster of a man and yet still asks the viewer to identify with him, or at least see stuff through his eyes, rather an easy, more overt sympathetic character who we immediately like and empathize with.
This is a challenging film that will turn off as many people as it delights, the sort of risk-it-all endeavor that comes around every so often and deserves to be celebrated. Vital, brutal, intensely focused, and ravishing to the eye, it’s yet another amazing piece of filmmaking from Paul Thomas Anderson, who has clearly cemented himself as the finest filmmaker of his generation.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.
❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.