There Will Be Blood is Paul Thomas Anderson‘s oilman epic starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who simply dominates the film as Daniel Plainview. Much like he did with Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis creates an unrelenting, monomaniacal man obsessed with advancing himself and his ideals. Ironically, it takes a British actor to capture these two monuments to the American character.
The film is a character study set against the desolate background of the turn-of-the-century West. The barren land, dotted with derricks, ranches, and near ghost towns lets the film focus on Plainview and those with whom he interacts, removing all but what Anderson wants the viewer to see. When all that was known about the film was the people involved and that it was based on an Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, I expected a more complex film involving the Teapot Dome Scandal and the politics of the oil fields: something resembling Boogie Nights or Magnolia in the sense that it would weave together a diverse group of characters and their story lines. Instead, the film is more in line with Punch-drunk Love, decidedly smaller and more personal. As PDL was my favorite Anderson film until this one, I was surprised but pleased by the similarities.
While the easiest comparison to Plainview is Bill the Butcher, I also saw in him shades of Patrick Bateman, but drawn without irony for a satire. Here is a man who only sees others as impediments to his success; business, and his life, are zero-sum games in which only he can prosper. For this reason, he thrives on his hatred for people. The only person he loves is his adopted son HW, whom he immediately casts aside when he no longer fills a convenient niche. And when a grown HW attempts to stake out on his own, entering Daniel’s sphere of business, Daniel renounces him, re-imagining his parentage as a business maneuver of great foresight.
The central conflict of the film is between Daniel and evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Daniel views Eli and his faith with great contempt, especially as his control of the town through the church rivals Daniel’s control through the oil. Daniel spurns Eli at every point – refusing to pay him a promised amount, beating him up, and even undercutting him by blessing the well himself. Dano is definitely skilled and keeps up with Day-Lewis as well as he can, and Eli is a challenging character. However, he cannot outlast the fierceness of his rival, and is ultimately consumed by the worldly pursuit of wealth that leaves Plainview a tragic, drunken waste.
Watching There Will Be Blood you cannot help but feel that you’re watching something important, and not just another pretentious independent film that strives for past greatness by making vague, symbolic gestures. Not to overstate this film’s importance or significance, but I couldn’t help but think of Citizen Kane at many points, especially as we see how far Daniel has fallen in his Xanadu-esque mansion. Anderson’s script is sharp (and gets a few nervous laughs) and his directing is masterful, the performances are deep and expressive, and Jonny Greenwood‘s score is vibrant, exciting, and new. The contrast between the expansive setting and the narrow focus of the film lets every piece of work together, drilling home some cinematic Oil.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Milkshakes (I drink it up!)