The title to Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood, sets up some expectations of what is to come. That being said, there is blood, but there’s also much, much more.
Anderson has taken his sweet time on his new film, his first since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love which turned Adam Sandler into a compelling actor.* Blood is an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s epic novel Oil! and plays like Citizen Kane in a well. The family-less Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) strikes it big when he and his team of diggers discover an oil reserve in the early Twentieth Century. When a co-worker loses his life on the job, Daniel takes ownership of the man’s son, whom he names H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and begins his own “family business.” The man and the boy travel “half the state” to seek oil-rich towns. They set up shop and put in oil wells and reap the benefits. They do this at little expense to the town and make enough to get by, but not enough to satisfy Daniel’s thirst. His goal is to make enough money so that he can get away from people and live a life of seclusion. When Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to visit Daniel, telling of a town called Little Boston (which I believe is in Southern California) where oil seeps through the ground, he begins to believe that his wish of solitude may come true. However, the townspeople of Little Boston, specifically Paul’s twin brother Eli,** a faith-healer, begin to show signs of resistance towards Daniel’s greedy ways.
Now, that was probably the longest plot summary I’ve ever given in a review and I don’t even know how accurate it is. Much of There Will Be Blood is shrouded in mystery. We don’t get a back-story for Daniel Plainview and he fervently denies requests to talk about his life before oil. We don’t get much information about Eli, the film’s (supposed) antagonist and we begin to see that this information is not just absent but unnecessary. This is a story about greed, religion, violence, and the importance of family (and I don’t mean importance in a “Full House” sense, but more of a sales pitch). There are no simple relationships in this movie and Anderson effectively shows that even though people are communicating verbally and physically, they may not be connecting. He explored this in his 1999 film Magnolia, but while that film was mainly about regret and redemption, There Will Be Blood is fixed on revenge. It’s a captivating film. Blood is dark and atmospheric and it may be the finest entry to Anderson’s eclectic and stellar repertoire.
The look of the film is magnificent. DOP and long-time Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit lingers on the darkness and strained light. There are a few shots in the film that showcase the best in what cinematography can offer. Specifically, a sequence where the Little Boston well erupts and eventually catches fire may be one of the most beautifully filmed sequences ever put to screen. There is a shot of Plainview, covered in oil and having just witnessed a near-tragic event, staring at the fire. It’s simply mesmerizing. Another worthy addition to the film is composer Johnny Greenwood (also of Radiohead fame) who gives the film great depth with his use of strings. It’s not over-the-top at all and helps place the film into its early 1900’s setting.
That being said, all this would be moot without Daniel Day Lewis. As Daniel Plainview, the finest actor of the last 20 years has given what may go down as his crowning achievement. Anderson does well to focus on Lewis’ face for much of the run-time. There are only a few brief scenes not featuring the actor and rarely a shot where his face is not in it. Every expression Lewis makes is perfect and within character. Every movement is calculated and even the way he holds his posture is notable. I don’t really know what to say about it, other than what Daniel Day Lewis has done in There Will Be Blood makes Bill the Butcher look like Betty Boop. He is menacing, charming, and unpredictable. He is eccentric, collected, and unflinching. His performance is brilliant and his dedication unquestionable. He IS Daniel Plainview and his presence on-screen is larger than life. Not since Orson Welles portrayed Charles Foster Kane has there been a protagonist so unnerving, towering, and unrelenting, yet still vulnerable. Not only do we root for this man who is essentially a villain, we become as nihilistic as he is because every decision he makes in the film only serves to better his business.
Lewis’ supporting cast is made up of some fine performances. Dano holds his own against Lewis in several scenes and one of the greater joys of the film is watching these two go back and forth with each other. Kevin J. O’Connor (The Mummy) is also quite good as Daniel’s half-brother who comes out of nowhere.
Some critics have been bashing the final 20 minutes of the film, but I believe that the ending is necessary. Blood could’ve strayed into No Country for Old Men vague-storytelling territory and still been a fine movie, but the ending is what makes this film notable and quintessentially Anderson-esque. Where most of the film seems to be inspired by a love for legendary director John Huston, the ending seems to call up Stanley Kubrick. Putting the two together and making it work is what makes Paul Thomas Anderson a great director.
*He then opted to take that momentum and make sh*t like Click and drivel like Reign Over Me.
**There is question pertaining to Paul and Eli arguing that they may or may not be the same person. Personally I don’t believe that they are different people.