There Will Be Blood (2007) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds
“There Will Be Blood” is Paul Thomas Anderson at his most confident, cockiest and a little bit confounding. Six years after “Punch Drunk Love” PT returns with a departure from his previous films by delving into a novel (Upton Sinclair’s ‘Oil!’) and going back in time 80 years. Absent are the usual PT players (Luiz Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly et al). Filling their shoes admirably is the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis and Anderson are a force to be reckoned with and they deliver in spades an epic tale of greed, power, ego and oil.
PT sets the tone early by giving us an extended 15 mins sequence of then humble oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he painfully sweats blood to find oil in a desolate patch of desert land in Texas. Starting with a single pick axe we watch over time Daniel’s oil empire grow and grow and grow. We watch as Daniel and his young son H.W. Plainview swindle land owners from the true value of their land. One day a mysterious boy appears at Daniel’s door claiming to know where oil-rich land could be bought at a cheap price. Daniel and H.W. travel to this acreage and discover some of the most profitable untapped oil land in the U.S.
Daniel either buys or leases the land from all the nearby towns and becomes an oil baron. Daniel’s nemesis is the equally ambitious Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) – a god-fearing evangelical who sees the opportunity to make a name for himself on the back of the oil boom. As Daniel ages, his ego and need to crush his competitors seems to cloud his sharp judgment. And with so much wealth he becomes drowned in money he can’t spend. But is it money he desires or just the power?
PT Anderson must have seen “Gangs of New York” and said to himself, “there’s my next film.” Anderson gives us Bill the Butcher again, and puts him in virtually every frame of its two and a half hour running time. He allows Day-Lewis to go full force with the character and live and breathe Daniel Plainview. At times, Anderson lets him go too far, but for the most part he carries and elevates the film beyond what any other actor in the world could have done. Day-Lewis’ voice, mannerisms, walk and bushy moustache seem to turn him into a sadistic maniac. Much of Daniel Plainview is Bill the Butcher, and that’s o.k. because I could watch Day-Lewis washing dishes for hours and still be mesmerized.
Daniel Plainview is a fascinating man. It takes us a while before we start to get a sense of who he is. We know from the first scene he’s ambitious, especially when we watch him hike himself up a mine with a broken leg and crawl to the nearest shopkeeper miles away. We soon learn he’s a family man, or so he tells us. His relationship with his son is important to the story. At times he can be cruel – like feeding him hard liquor as a baby – and also respectful and educational – teaching him the ways of oil. Is Plainview just a swindler or does he endeavour to make a difference for the lives of the townspeople as he claims? The final act shows us who Plainview is. Two awesome dialogue scenes at the end reveal everything about the real Daniel Plainview and will have you shaking your head in awe.
Anderson’s proficient technical skills are on display again and he’s never one to hide his influences. Other than the casting of Day-Lewis Scorsese is absent here, instead, believe it or not, it’s Stanley Kubrick he’s channels. The opening shot and the opening 15mins is lifted right out of, believe it or not, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and much of the sound design and music score is Kubrick-esque as well.
The film looks fantastic of course. Anderson's frequent cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots the film with beautiful anamorphic wide angle lenses. He underlits most of the nightime and interior scenes. These scenes, some of which are difficult to see because it's so dim, creates a creepiness and sense of unease throughout the film. There's always something hidden in the dark, something about Plainview's morals, or motivations, or both. The exteriors are majestic - evoking the best work of the great landscape films which likely inspired Anderson ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller", "Once Upon a Time in the West", the Dawn of Time sequence in "2001: A Space Odyssey").
Much of the film is about texture, mood and tone. Anderson knows when to quicken up the pace and raise the stakes. He announces these moments with his unique ear for music. Instead of Jon Brion or Michael Penn he employs rock-God Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead) for the job. Greenwood delivers an accomplished classical score with hint of the new Radiohead “In Rainbows” progressive sound. It’s both fresh and familiar.
It’s frustrating because the film is a masterpeice, yet, as I write this, one scene continues to nag at me. As mentioned the finale enlightens us to the true character of Daniel Plainview. At the same time there’s tonal shift to a comic tone we hadn’t seen before in the previous 150mins. Though it got some laughter from the audience it didn’t quite work for me. PT Anderson needed to say ‘cut’ at one point. Instead he lets the camera roll too long and the scene turns into slapstick. I would have overlooked this if it didn’t come at the very end. Anderson is making a statement hear, and it’s the right message he’s sending, but he does it with the wrong tone. This nags at me because the film is so damned good it’s like that one nick in an otherwise flawless piece of art. Enjoy.