“There Will Be Blood”, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk Love”) stars Daniel Day Lewis as oil prospector Daniel Plainview. While I know many people did not like “Magnolia”, “Blood” is about as different as could be from the director’s other works. And it stars Daniel Day Lewis, who, as far as I’m concerned has never turned in a bad performance.
Gee, Daniel Day Lewis creates a memorable screen persona, burning up the celluloid with another incendiary performance. At this point in the actor’s career, this statement is a cliché. He has never done anything less than command our attention when on screen. From his breakout performance in “My Beautiful Launderette” to his co-starring role in “The Gangs of New York” when he diverted our attention from Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz (Diaz was in “Gangs of New York”?), Lewis imbues his characters with such a believable force, so much life, it is impossible to tear our eyes away from him. Lewis also takes his time making films, choosing only a project every few years, making his fans wait in anticipation for his next work.
Daniel Plainview (Lewis) is digging a hole in California at the end of the 19th Century. He is looking for gold, or oil, we can’t be sure, because the first twenty minutes of the film is almost silent. Daniel is prospecting alone, so who would he talk to? We witness the hard work, the travails, the agony, he goes through, as he looks for an elusive fortune. He finds some gold and is able to invest the money in a larger operation. As he and an assistant are buried in muck, trying to drill even deeper, a piece of the apparatus above them breaks off and comes crashing down. Daniel is spared, but his assistant is dead, leaving behind a baby boy. Daniel adopts the boy, and introduces him as HW Plainview, whenever they meet with people. Flash forward ten years; Daniel and HW (Dillon Frasier) are very successful, beating out the big oil companies for some potentially big properties. One night, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, “Little Miss Sunshine”) arrives and wants money for the location of a well that he is sure will be profitable; the oil is seeping out of the ground. Daniel is reluctant, but he and HW travel to the Sunday ranch and meet Paul’s twin brother, Eli, a healer and the head of a local church. Daniel becomes convinced the land is rich with oil and tries to make a deal with Abel Sunday (David Willis), who defers most of the decision to his son; Eli wants money to help expand his church. As the deal goes forward, Daniel bristles at all of Eli’s interference. Just as the well is about to come in, an accident happens to HW, putting more and more strain on Daniel. Will he be able to handle all of the various demands on his life as he struggles with trying to get HW the help he needs and he struggles with the larger oil companies trying to squeeze him out of the equation?
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has created quite an eclectic body of work. I personally think “Magnolia” is a great film. But I know many people hate it, for various reasons. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between; either you love it or hate it. But “There Will Be Blood” is a very different film; in fact it is very different from anything the director has done before. “Blood”, based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, concentrates on three characters; Daniel is the primary character and the main driving force in the film, but the story is also about HW and Eli, focusing on their interactions with Daniel. There are, of course, other characters in the film, but they are nowhere near as important and take a backseat to anything and everything the other characters are doing. This is quite a switch from “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”, both of which featured large casts of characters interacting in strange environments. “Punch Drunk Love”, a smaller, intimate film, is similar to “There Will Be Blood” in that both deal with fewer people, but “Blood” is a very different film, an epic showing the struggles of one man and his son as they deal with many factors in turn of the century California.
If “Blood” does nothing else, you should come away from it with the realization that Anderson is capable of making different types of films. But when you leave the theater, you will hopefully realize you have just experienced an epic. From the first twenty minutes, which are largely silent, ambient noise and the occasional grunt are all that is heard, this film is all about Daniel Plainview’s journey. Because the film is long, t runs about two hours and forty-five minutes, we experience a lot with this character. The film’s length is actually a selling point, as it gives us a lot of insight into this character’s life. As we watch Lewis portray this determined oil prospector, we see all of the fight he has in him, the drive he has to become a rich, powerful man. During the first few minutes, Plainview suffers an accident and the end result is great testament to what he will endure to become rich and powerful. Over the course of the film, this is illustrated many other times, in different ways, with varying effects, giving the character a terrific, vibrant personality.
Lewis, wearing a thick moustache, is never anything less than mesmerizing on screen as Daniel Plainview. A very quiet man, he doesn’t speak a lot, but you always know he is in charge. As Daniel stares at you, if his eyes slant, you should beware. When he does speak, to address large groups of people, it is quite evident he is choosing every word very carefully; to make sure he gets the desired effect. Even when he has conversations with his son, or a colleague (Ciaran Hinds), you get the feeling he realizes he is doing the same thing and trying to tone it down a bit, to make him more approachable to the people he loves and works closely with.
But does Plainview love or care about anyone or anything but money and power? That is the real question behind this performance. I’m not sure. There are indications throughout that Plainview really cares about his son. But he makes a statement casting doubt on this. Did he say this because his son hurt him and he was trying to get back at him? There is a lot of ambiguity in this part of their relationship and this adds to Plainview’s character.
Plainview is never shown with a woman. He doesn’t have time for them. He is too busy working, trying to find oil wells, trying to convince people they should sign leases with him, trying to assuage their fears, while keeping as much money as possible in his pockets. He puts all of his efforts into the business, and a rivalry he develops with the people from Standard Oil. Everything else goes to his son. As Plainview attains more and more money and power, he naturally becomes obsessed with keeping both. He becomes a little paranoid. And his son’s condition doesn’t help.
The other force in “Blood” is Paul Dano. He plays twin brothers Eli and Paul Sunday. Despite a brief scene, Paul, the black sheep of the Sunday family disappears. Eli is the son who lives with the family and is a healer, the minister of his own church. When Plainview and his son show up, and make an offer to his dad, Eli’s father seems eager to jump at the sale. But he ultimately defers to his son, who wants Daniel to make a donation to his church, to help it expand. As their relationship continues, Eli becomes a thorn in Daniel’s side, preventing the prospector from getting everything he wants, immediately when he wants it. This makes him a problem for Daniel, a problem he needs to contend with.
The relationship between the two men is antagonistic, yet they never scream or shout at each other. This doesn’t rob the film of any fireworks. Before the first well on the Sunday Ranch is about to go into operation, Eli asks Daniel to let him bless it in front of his congregation. Daniel agrees and pretty much the entire town shows up to witness HW start the drill. Before his son does this, Daniel addresses the group and blesses the operation himself, leaving Eli in the audience to stare at the ceremony blankly. Daniel knows what he is doing and usurping the authority of the lone authority figure in the small community only serves to do one thing; make Daniel more powerful. But Eli isn’t about to let the issue drop. Later, an unforeseen circumstance allows Eli to get the upper hand, making Daniel all the more paranoid.
Dano is good, and manages to create an interesting character opposite the hurricane that is Daniel Day Lewis. Because he is a lesser-know actor, the expectations for him are lower and the fact that he can hold his own against Lewis says something for the up-and-comer. DiCaprio didn’t fare as well.
“There Will Be Blood” is a very good film. But after spending the bulk of the time with Daniel and HW at a specific time, the film jumps forward a number of years, to 1927, for an epilogue set at Daniel’s huge mansion. The epilogue is interesting, and powerful, but because it skips so many years, it seems a bit tacked on. Did Anderson cut something from the story to get to this point? Probably. The epilogue is not quite as seamless with the rest of the film and because this is the last thing we see, we leave with mixed emotions. To spend so much time, with such a forceful personality, we would expect the epilogue to continue delivering the power of the rest of the film. When it doesn’t, it is a bit of a letdown.
That said, “There Will Be Blood” is still an extremely good, very powerful film, featuring one of the best performances you are ever likely to see on film.