There Will Be Blood (2007) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 158 min.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciaran Hinds
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel, "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair)
Review published February 24, 2008
Loosely inspired by the Upton Sinclair novel, "Oil!", in addition to the life and times of oil tycoon Edward Doheny, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia) returns with another masterwork of sorts with There Will Be Blood, another of his seemingly slapdash films that still packs more moments of interest and themes to grapple with than just about anything else out there. Bolstered by a another sensational performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, The Boxer), the nearly three-hour length is easily forgiven as the sense of atmosphere, intrigue and dramatic tension escalates, leaving us wishing we could know even more about these characters and their stories beyond the time the credits roll.
Day-Lewis stars as oil prospector Daniel Plainview, who starts off humble on a derrick in Texas and sees his oil empire grow immeasurably when he is visited by a farm boy named Paul Sunday (Dano, Little Miss Sunshine), who for a small fee relates about the oil in abundance on and underneath his family's California land. Plainview travels out with his young adopted son H.W. (Freasier) to scope out the place, finding what they are looking for, and begin to buy and lease as much of the land around those parts as they can to start a drilling process that makes him a wealthy and powerful force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Paul's brother Eli (also played by Dano), with whom Plainview had to strike a deal to allow for the building of a church on the land, has been a constant thorn in his side, wanting to preach to his men and conduct blessings that one wonders whether are for noble ends, or merely the aggrandizement of Eli himself. As the business grows, so does Plainview's greed and ego, in addition to his misanthropy, where everyone and everything becomes his enemy, mere obstacles that merit removing to get to drain the Earth of all of the resources that he feels should be rightfully his.
Credit is due to Anderson for the inspiration for the film, as there are not many who would look at Sinclair's novel and think that it would make for stimulating, thought-provoking fare that would dazzle today's audiences. Anderson's reputation as a filmmaker proved enough to secure Day-Lewis, but given the length and scope of the production, and also given Anderson's lack of a huge financial hit, getting a studio to back it with enough resources must have been quite a daunting task. Although Day-Lewis has more than a number of fans for his acting skills, that doesn't necessarily translate into box office receipts, and without any recognizable names in the supporting cast, only a truly great movie and Oscar-nominations would catapult the production to success. And so it has transpired.
Day-Lewis has been widely reported as having studied the inflections and intonations of voices as recorded from media culled from that era, in addition to watching the cinematic classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for inspiration for the dastardly amoral portrayal of his character, who is consumed by greed and envy similar to that of John Huston's film. As for the supporting characters, they are cast well, though the use of Dano in what must ostensibly be twin brothers (one could argue a split personality, which would be interesting, but Anderson has stated in interviews of another actor originally cast as Eli before settling on Dano playing twins). Freasier, who plays young H.W., was selected based on a recommendation and is not a professional actor, and does a nice job as the kid with the angelic face to seal Daniel's deals.
One thing I should warn viewers about is an expectation, given the accolades, of a fully-realized, finely-honed film. Anderson has never been a director who likes to have everything complete by the time he starts work on a movie, preferring to let his actors work in dialogue that they think will fit best, while reimagining on the spot just how things will go. In this way, he is very similar to the great filmmaker Robert Altman (to whom the film is dedicated) in his approach to movie making, having a core theme with which to wrap the film around, but the approach is left pending, letting things naturally progress rather than trying to force ill-suited facets into the original script. This does allow for great moments to emerge, but as a whole, the story isn't as tightly-wound, and it comes across as mostly a series of vignettes around common characters and their exploits rather than a story with a beginning, climax, and end that ties everything together. I guarantee that a large percentage of the viewing audience will emerge befuddled as to what the movie is trying to say as the credits roll, but at the same time, the film itself is absorbing and full of such insights that multiple viewings will likely be in order. The themes are there, just buried like oil in the desert, waiting for us to draw them up for our own uses, connecting our own dots along the way.
Even if the film doesn't resolve everything neatly for the audience, the moments of brilliance are evident throughout, including a nearly Kubrick-esque 15-minute opening with no dialogue that shows the beauty of the marriage between a great director and a great actor in being able to convey a story through images and gestures. It foreshadows later scenes where Plainview's son loses his hearing, having to view the world, and especially his father, through actions. Plainview was a man who sweet-talked when he needed to and made many false friends in order to get to what he really wanted, but absent of his words, his actions could be deemed as truly detestable. One wonders throughout whether or not his son is one person he might truly love, but his love for oil and the money and power it gives him trumps his affection for the lad to the point where it seems the two cannot exist together. When one has an all-consuming passion, it is impossible to find time to pursue other feats of fancy, as indeed, Plainview is never shown engaging in the pursuit of a woman or any particular pastimes.
There Will Be Blood is a mesmerizing work, and perhaps a bit of a flawed masterpiece in its ability to transcend above and beyond the story at hand to cause us to reflect deeply on the history of the country, our thirst for oil, our religious zealotry, and the dark and disturbing nature of humanity itself. It calls into question the worth of wealth and power, when the acquisition of such things greatly amplifies the flaws of the person who has amassed them, as the paranoia, fear, and avarice consume the person to the point where he must exploit others in order to feed an ever-growing hunger for more. While perhaps some will see the film as somewhat unsatisfying, it is very unsettling and unnerving in a way that is too palpable to dismiss, speaking to the very core of all of us in a way that fascinates by giving us so much of what we don't expect, and frustrates by not quite giving us enough what we want. While one day Anderson may actually decide to develop a tight screenplay before filming and make a truly universally compelling film, until then, I'll gladly settle for the rambling, unfocused bits of brilliance he churns out every few years, while being equally inspired and confounded by them at the same time.
©2008 Vince Leo