Film Reviews

There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating - 10/10

The title rings out as a prophecy, or a warning. Does it refer to the film? To turn-of-the-century America’s future? To ours? Maybe all three. What Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted is an epic on the split in the country’s dark soul, between the greed that destroys as it creates and the religious fervor that attempts to atone for this paradox. From the beginning of this masterful film, there is no question which side has the upper hand. The thirst for power, for money, for MORE, cannot be overcome by the holy spirit simply because, for Anderson, it has the clear advantage of being real.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To lay out some preliminaries, this is the story of an oil man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he moves from a tiny silver mine in 1898 to a grand Shangri La mansion in 1927, built on gushers that have brought him everything he strove for as they took away the only things that mattered to him. Along the way, he is lured to the Southern California desert by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), a strangely confident young man who knows there is oil on his family’s farm and shrewdly demands payment to lead Plainview to it. When Plainview arrives, he finds the oil that will make him absurdly wealthy, but also Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Dano), a charismatic preacher who will prove to be a constant thorn in his side. It turns out that Eli is as savvy as his brother and enters into an inherent bargain with Plainview to deliver the souls of the local townsfolk to the new oil venture for cash to build his Church of the Third Revelation. Oddly, Paul and Eli are never seen together and we start to believe that perhaps they are one in the same person - a puzzle that is supposedly resolved at the end, though I’m not so sure. This establishes the epic struggle between rival hucksterisms that compete for the American soul. But the emotional heart of the film is Plainview’s relationship with his “son”, a boy orphaned in a drilling accident that he adopts and uses to establish himself as a family man among the townspeople he will ruthlessly underpay for their oil-rich land. Yet Plainview, who claims to see “not much worth liking” in people, clearly loves the boy, perhaps despite himself. Their relationship is cemented in a touching scene on a train as the infant plays with his new father’s mustache, as the older man looks lovingly down at him. For the viewer, his love for the boy humanizes Plainview, even as he uses him and abruptly abandons him when it suits his ends. The boy is replaced by what appears to be a long lost half brother who comes from nowhere and turns out to be one more huckster looking for a piece of the action.

That’s the story, but it’s all in the telling. We’ve seen epics of the American West before, and this one has its share of panoramic vistas filmed exquisitely by cinematographer, Robert Elswit. Every frame of the film is so meticulously framed and rendered that it’s hard to choose standouts, though one image that particularly sticks with me is shot at night with Plainview and his partner Fletcher (Ciaran Hinds), smeared with oil, lit only by a blazing well fire, looking on at what they have wrought. As a metaphor for a man made almost invisible by a surrounding darkness, it succeeds brilliantly. But as wonderful as this film looks, it is how it sounds that is shockingly new. Jonny Greenwood’s bracing score lives up to Orson Welles’ famous declaration that the music does 50% of the work. It begins with a remarkable dissonance of several tones that coalesces into one and then drifts away from that unity, letting us know that the prize can be attained, but not kept. Elsewhere, its primitive stick drumming mimics a pounding drill in the remarkable well fire sequence. The edgy soundtrack is completely appropriate, because something in Plainview can never rest. He is always striving for more and he will do almost anything to get it.

Which brings me finally to Day-Lewis’ performance. Without beating around the bush, I think this is probably the most bravura acting I’ve seen in an American film (albeit by an Irish actor) since Raging Bull. His Plainview plays his cards close to his vest, never giving anything away, relying on charm and guile, but capable of the most extraordinarily violent outbursts. I was enthralled by the sequence in which Plainview agrees to be baptized in Eli’s church in order to gain a piece of land needed for a pipeline. As Dano’s Eli works himself into a religious frenzy, striking Day-Lewis’ Plainview over and over again to cast out Satan, Plainview explodes in a seemingly confessional fury. Is he ridding himself of sin or is he simply apoplectic and amused at this necessary humiliation? We find out, as soon as he is washed with holy water and declares with satisfaction something like “I’ve got my pipeline”. The scene is reminiscent of DeNiro in the Deer Hunter’s Russian roulette sequence and is every bit as powerful.

Plainview is the ultimate American nihilist and he is at home in a perfectly nihilistic movie. When he forces Eli, who has come to the aging tycoon looking for a handout because of bad investments, to repeat the phrase “I am a false prophet, God is a superstition”, we see it as the reverse of the phony baptism, but with the crucial difference that the greedy Eli IS a false prophet and that God is nowhere to be found in this film. Even the son who finally breaks away from the father is left only with the catastrophic but reassuring knowledge that they were never related by blood. And so we come back to the bonds of Blood, which the probably impotent Plainview with the fake brother and the adopted son has long since forgotten. Anderson is telling us what the unbridled capitalist spirit takes away as it drives ever onward. He also shows us where it ends up; lonely, pathetic and raving in a bowling alley.

This is not only the best film of the year, it’s the best film in many years.