Two film icons that we haven’t heard much from in the past half decade, actor Daniel Day-Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson, form a cusp to make There Will Be Blood. The former delivers more than the latter unfortunately. In need of a tighter script and an alternate ending, There Will Be Blood just misses on being one of the year’s best. There Will Be Blood follows the same pattern as Magnolia. The first hour and a half reaches the maximum potential one would expect out of a film made by one of the very best actors around and one of the most visionary directors. The remainder of the picture stumbles its way into a bizarre ending that blind-sides you with an unexpected wallop. The viewer is left frustrated after witnessing the tragedy of a masterpiece work its way into a missed opportunity but at the same time they can’t help but like the film for everything it did beforehand.
The tone of the There Will Be Blood is set with the opening eerie and haunting crescendo by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. It’s a caveat from Anderson: you may like Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) at the beginning, but don’t trust him. He may appear to be a generally caring man on the surface, but underneath is a duplicitous, supercilious, vitriolic, vying oil man filled with greed. It’s really not until halfway into the picture, where we get lines like “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” and “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed,” that we start seeing these characteristics flourish.
We get an overview in the beginning of how Plainview rose to his echelon of the oil industry in turn-of-the-century California before tumbling into a rabbit hole of a character study. Plainview hears about an oil-rich town called Little Boston. When he visits the town with his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), on a hunting trip, he discovers that rumor is completely authentic. The property he wants to drill on is owned by the Sunday family, the youngest son of which, Eli (Paul Dano), is an evangelistic preacher. Eli’s offer is that if Plainview will agree to support his church, he will allow him to build a well to start drilling out of. Complications arise, bonds of trust are broken, feuds are ignited, and greed consumes Plainview.
The film’s title is specious and is more of a trope that is not meant to be taken literally. The picture doesn’t live up to it until its denouement. It’s almost as if Anderson realized that he’d better throw in some actual blood, which would be the only reasonable explanation that I can think of for why the unwanted, histrionic conclusion even exists. I personally think Anderson gets too carried away sometimes, granted that the man is audacious.
Anderson’s forte is how he meticulously places his hidden themes and messages into the film so that the viewer feels their presence, but they don’t rise above the story or the characters. Where the themes of regret were present in Magnolia, the idiosyncrasy of There Will Be Blood is greed and in that term, the film shows both how much and how little the oil business has changed 100 years later. Also, one of the more interesting aspects of the film (and at times the most over-the-top) is this feud between Plainview’s oil business and Eli Sunday’s church. Furthermore, it is only after Plainview denies Eli the opportunity to bless the well that it’s destruction, a tragic death of a worker, and a freak accident involving H.W. ensues.
There are two subplots that need to be discussed; one of them merges into the film beautifully, the other crashes and burns and can virtually be excised without any negative effect. The subplot that works, which results in the conclusion being simultaneously the film’s highest and lowest point, involves that aforementioned freak accident in which H.W. loses his hearing after a pressure gage in the oil well blows up in front of him and terminally damages his ear drums. This is a wonderful side-story that the audience has the pleasure of visiting frequently. The superfluous subplot involves Plainview meeting his supposed long lost brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor, 1999’s The Mummy). This is something one would expect to find on a director’s cut version of the picture and it seems to have little to no effect on the main narrative. The bottom line is: there’s no reason the film should be 158 minutes long as there are quite a few scenes that could have be left out.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, towering and nonpareil to anything seen in 2007, is as sterling as the oil his character is pumping from the soil. Personifying every head honcho in our Capitalist system and symbolizing in a nutshell that the greedy are winning the battle over the impotent, the viewer wonders if D-Day had to sell his soul to the devil to achieve such an astounding performance with such feasibility. His ferventness is constantly on display but he never once oversells or overplays the role. Let’s revisit that freak accident scene. The well is engulfed in a conflagration, his son is wounded, and yet all Plainview can think about is how much oil is lying beneath him. The film gravitates toward this commanding turn by an actor who already has an extensive resume. Daniel Plainview may be looked back on a couple of decades from now as D-Day’s oeuvre.
The only downside to this performance is that the supporting players are automatically relegated, but if you can stop thinking about D-Day, you may realize that Paul Dano is extremely impressive. Along with his The Girl Next Door co-star Emile Hirsch, 2007 could be his breakthrough year, although many people probably already know him from 2006’s indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine. Kevin J. O’Connor does his best with an interesting but ultimately unnecessary character in Henry. It is interesting, at least at first, to see a sibling so different from his brother. Probably the most surprising supporting turn comes from Dillon Freasier, who is marvelous as H.W. Plainview, especially when his character is completely deaf.
On the technical side of things, the film is stellar; rivaling other impressive pictures from 2007 such as No Country For Old Men, Atonement, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Into the Wild. The cinematography by Robert Elswit is opulent, the editing by Dylan Tichenor is solid and the period detail by production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Mark Bridges is exquisite. All of this is flamboyantly put on display in that stunning scene mentioned earlier with Plainview’s oil well going up in flames.
There Will Be Blood has all the makings of a masterpiece but it fails a little on execution. It’s not perfect and the blame for that rest squarely on Paul Thomas Anderson’s shoulders. Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, gives it his all and puts every last ounce of intensity that he has into his role. Is this one of the great films of all-time? No, not even close. Is this one of the great performances of any actor in cinematic history? That might just be a topic worth discussion.