The first time I saw this beautiful beast of a movie from director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson, I felt gut-punched. Some people winced during the first fifteen minutes of wordless darkness as Daniel Day-Lewis, deep in a mineshaft in the choking heat of New Mexico, painstakingly digs silver ore out of stubborn rock. Such is the relentless intensity of his character, Daniel Plainview. An ankle-snapping fall down the shaft leaves a lifelong limp but no change in his ramrod ambition, even as oil replaces silver as is unholy grail. As the film bores through the first three decades of the twentieth century, Plainview becomes a California oil tycoon of unparalleled ruthlessness. His enemies are man and God. And in the film’s final section, rush of scorching brutality, Plainview takes his revenge on both. His last words burst forth with biblical exultation: “I’m finished.”
That initial viewing damn near finished me. Day-Lewis, no ifs, ands or buts, gives one of the great elemental performances in modern cinema. Yet what kind of sympathy could we find for the devil he’s playing? And Anderson, after making a bruising mark with his first four films — Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love — is pushing in for the kill. Seeing There Will Be Blood is like going ten rounds with a raging bull. You feel so pummeled it’s hard to get your head clear.
Make the effort. What throws you at first glance emerges, after you put the film back together in your head, as a master plan. Anderson is an artful renegade who restores your faith in the harsh power of movies. This is his bloody and brilliant Citizen Kane. He hasn’t so much adapted Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil as cherry-picked it for a structure. Social history isn’t his concern. He’s out to show how violence of the flesh and the spirit is hard-wired into the American character. Like Charles Fosterane, Daniel Plainview is the dark underside of the American success story, or, if you want to extend the metaphor, of America itself. He rapes and pillages in the name of progress and winds up estranged from the human species he has long ago forgotten to call his own.
My advice to approaching There Will Be Blood is to sit back and let it engulf you. Day-Lewis’ resonant voice is a potent magnet. It evokes the deceptively dulcet tones of John Huston in Chinatown, charm slathered over wolfish perversity, the better to cheat you with, my dear. Plainview salivates for California land that sits on oceans of oil. Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) leads Plainview to his father’s goat farm, an easy mark until Paul’s younger brother, the preacher Eli Sunday (also Dano), puts religion directly in Plainview’s path. The ensuing battle between the ignorant armies of greed and bogus evangelism powers the film. All praise to the baby-faced DanoL.I.E., Little Miss Sunshine) for bringing sly cunning and unexpected ferocity to Plainview’s most formidable opponent.
Unlike Kane, Plainview has no Rosebud, a sentimental totem of his lost youth. But he does have H.W., an infant he adopts when the boy’s father dies in a well accident. The baby brings him as close as he ever comes to love. By the time H.W. is nine, and played by the extraordinary Dillon Freasier, Plainview is using him as a shill. Nothing like the illusion of family values to fool the suckers. But H.W.’s deafness (he sat too close to an exploding oil well) makes him a liability. Plainview ships him off to school until he finds a new way to exploit him. Amazingly, the connection between the two is never in doubt. Such is the skill of Day-Lewis and Freasier.
The look of the film is equally astonishing, with production designer Jackisk creating a makeshift world out of the shacks and derricks that dot the landscape. Shot in Marfa, Texas (home to Giant and No Country for Old Men),he film moves from the primitive to corrupt civilization in the style ofMcCabe and Mrs. Miller, a classic from Anderson’s mentor, the late Robert Altman. And if you want proof that cinematography can be an art form, behold the brute force of the images captured by Robert Elswit, a genius of camer and lighting who can make visual poetry out of black smoke and an oil well consumed by flame.
Sound is also crucial, even in its absence, to reflect H.W.’s silent world. And the score by Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood is revolutionary, a sonic explosion that reinvents what movie music can be. From the editing, by Dylan Tichenor, to the costumes, by Mark Bridges, There Will Be Blood raises the bar on putting technique at the service of character.
And it’s to the character of Plainview — always moody, often drunk and probably impotent — that we return in horrified fascination. He softens ait with the arrival of Henry (the superb Kevin J. O’Connor), who claims toe his half-brother. But Plainview is no fan of mankind: “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” After a bracing swim in the Pacific, Plainview turns on Henry for a purported lie and unleashes his fury.
Still, for getting under Daniel’s skin, no one beats Eli. Each has humiliated the other in public — Plainview slapping Eli for being a fake healer, and Eli returning the blows later as Plainview, who views God as a superstition, agrees to a baptism to gain land. When the two confront each other for the last time in the film’s harrowing climax — the false prophetome to blackmail the hermit misanthrope in the mansion greed built — all bloody hell breaks loose. Some insist this sequence, set in a bowling alley in Plainview’s basement, is the moment the film jumps the shark and leaves the plot choking on excess and illogic. For me, it’s the blunt instrument that completes the puzzle and raises the specters of oil and fanaticism that till fuel our headlines. Let the arguments begin.
here can be no debate about Day-Lewis. “Gargantuan” is a puny word to describe his landmark performance. Try “electrifying” or “volcanic” or anything else that sounds dangerous if you get too close. His triumph is in taking us see ourselves in Plainview, no matter how much we want to turn away. Day-Lewis and Anderson — a huge talent with an uncompromising gift for language and composition — are out to batter every cliché Hollywood holds near. There Will Be Blood hits with hurricane force. Lovers of formula and sugarcoating will hate it. Screw them. In terms of excitement, imagination and rule-busting experimentation, it’s a gusher.