May 2008 -- There Will Be Blood. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Martin Stringer, Kevin J. O’Connor, Jacob Stringer, Matthew Braden Stringer, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Joseph Mussey, Barry Del Sherman, Russell Harvard, Harrison Taylor, Stockton Taylor, Colleen Foy , Paul F. Tompkins, and Kevin Breznahan. Original music by Jonny Greenwood. Cinematography by Robert Elswit, A.S.C. Production design by Jack Fisk. Costume design by Mark Bridges. Edited by Dylan Tichenor, A.C.E. Based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. (Paramount Vantage/Miramax Films, 2007, color, 158 minutes. MPAA rating: R.)
You could tell when Richard Nixon was lying. Sweat would bead on his quivering upper lip, as Hunter S. Thompson used to note.
Oil magnate Daniel Plainview doesn’t have that problem. As he methodically cons backwater rubes out of their land by promising a foursquare deal and a share-the-wealth scheme in exchange for drilling rights, his bushy brown mustache conceals that part of his anatomy. It wouldn’t matter anyways: Plainview’s poker face, topped by his furrowed brow and piercing green eyes, reveals nothing to tip off prospects to his ulterior motives. That’s because he’s a man utterly devoid of conscience.
In an intensely focused performance, actor Daniel Day-Lewis earned his second best-actor Oscar trophy for one of the grimmest protagonists ever to burst onto the big screen. His portrayal of robber baron Plainview is a character study of an “unbridled individualist” whose greed for extracting oil from the ground is surpassed only by his shocking misanthropy. He regards with suspicion all of humanity. “I have a competition in me,” he confesses to a drifter who has become his confidant. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”
Plainview well knows the meaning of an honest day’s pay for a hard day’s work during the turn of the twentieth century. The movie opens to find him in a literal hole, swinging a pickax to bust out silver ore from a rocky ledge. After breaking his leg in a mishap, he splints it and drags himself away from the mine. Cut to the assayer’s office: Plainview apparently has dragged himself across miles of craggy badlands to cash in his meager claim. This is one tough bastard, all grit, nothing soft or weak about him.
Cut again. A decade later, Plainview is now a wealthy man. He carries himself with an absolute air of authority akin to an immutable force of nature, which intimidates people into acquiescing to his will. He speaks in forthright but measured tones, in a gentle brogue that sounds like Sean Connery imitating John Huston. Knowing that he can count on the greed of penniless ranchers and small-time merchants who’ve suddenly found oil seeping up from their otherwise worthless land, he makes his case for paying pennies on the dollar sound like the height of sound and prudent economics. And all the while, Plainview’s young adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), stands silently by his side as evidence that he’s also a family man and therefore of solid moral character.
Although he’s meant to be a symbol of avarice, Plainview is hardly ostentatious. He’s well-dressed, but the dried salt on his hatband gives silent witness to his assertion of being “just an oilman” who still works with his hands alongside his crew. He sleeps on a hardwood floor without a pillow, even once he’s settled into a plush mansion. His whole raison d’être is wrapped up in his tireless ambition. Daniel Plainview isn’t so much a prince of capitalist plunder as he is capitalism’s ascetic monk.
One evening, a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) appears in Plainview’s office, offering to sell his family’s tract of land outside the California town of Little Boston. In their dealings, we begin to see the veneer peel away to reveal Plainview’s underhanded methods. He induces Paul to divulge the location of his father’s goat ranch for $500, then he high-tails it out to the ranch.
Once there, Plainview introduces himself to Paul’s father as a sportsman bringing his boy along for a father-son quail hunt. Plainview then tries to con the Sundays into selling their land, under the guise of setting up a hunting camp. But Paul’s twin brother Eli, a young preacher (also played by Dano), senses something off, remarking that the presence of oil makes their land eminently valuable. However, father Abel (David Willis), a simple, pious man, agrees to sell the land for $5,000 cash and the promise of another five grand to build a church for Eli.
Although Eli objects at first, wanting his share up-front, he gives in when Plainview promises that he will be given the honor of blessing the oil well that’s soon to change everybody’s lives. But Plainview reneges on the pledge. The animosity between the two men escalates to a violent feud that haunts both to its bitter, sanguinary end.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is larger-than-life in the broadest sense of the term, reminding us, through the sheer forcefulness of his ability to project obsessive mania, that the one thing immutably larger-than-life is death. Paul Dano gives an equally impressive performance as Eli, a fundamentalist preacher as venal as Plainview is vicious. A master manipulator, Eli is a physical weakling who channels his aggression through his passive station in life, flaunting his piety before his flock. But his talents never reach beyond the dolts in his tiny ranching hamlet. He is irrevocably small-time, which is the source of his resentment of Plainview. For his part, the oilman sees in Eli a weaker version of himself.
In this morality play, Eli was meant to represent cynical religious zealotry as the other side of the capitalist coin. The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame Upton Sinclair—the agitator and muckraking author of the 1927 novel Oil!—for the film’s thinly veiled socialism. That would be a partial mistake. While Sinclair was an uncompromising socialist, by the late 1920s Moscow regarded him as an apologist for capitalism. Though the novel’s J. Arnold Ross (based on real-life Teapot Dome–scandal figure Edward Doheny) is hardly a paragon of integrity, neither is he the devil incarnate that director Paul Thomas Anderson puts onscreen. Sinclair actually portrayed his protagonist rather sympathetically, as a compromiser who (however deluded) justified his actions to himself and his son as serving the greater good.
By contrast, Anderson doesn’t just hit you over the head with the film’s political message; he bashes you in the teeth with it. With nary a political word uttered, his script is nonetheless crafted to lead the viewer to the inexorable conclusion that this is America. That individualism is a dangerous force society needs to keep in check. That an industrialist’s success is society’s demise. There Will Be Blood isn’t so much based on Sinclair’s novel as it is distilled from it.
The result is the exact opposite of dramatic catharsis. Instead of purging me of discomforting emotions, it filled me with wrath, fear, and disgust. I felt as though I needed a bath when the screening was over.
But although I left the theater shuddering, I had been riveted to my seat during the entire movie. As repugnant as his product is, Anderson’s mastery of his craft is intoxicatingly compelling. Watching There Will Be Blood, I could identify with Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, as he sits in an adult movie house, both repulsed and fascinated by the lurid images he watches between open fingers of the hand covering his eyes.
What makes There Will Be Blood so devastatingly effective is that it’s a revolt against all the slick clichés of today’s cinema. It reestablishes the lost art of epic moviemaking without being self-consciously “artsy.” For a motion picture almost three hours long, Anderson makes the most of the slight material that comprises the movie’s plot. The script is simplicity defined; there are no overlapping and interwoven subplots. Although Anderson’s gloomy palette paints his nasty, petty characters in black, they are projected clearly and with range.
Though it’s been compared to Citizen Kane and George Stevens’s Giant, There Will Be Blood is more reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s operatic Once Upon a Time in the West, another sprawling tale that takes its time. Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s camera cuts a swath across the plains and rocky terrain with uncomplicated shots that showcase the movie’s wide-open locales. Neither are there are gratuitous special effects. As the final credits rolled, I was stunned to learn the visual climax of the flaming oil derrick against the deep blue twilight sky was a CGI digital composite; it looked like a Technicolor version of the oil rig fire from the film-noir classic The Wages of Fear.
The rich imagery onscreen is undergirded by a soundtrack from alternative musician Jonny Greenwood, guitarist of Radiohead. Written mostly for strings, Greenwood’s symphonic composition is full of portamento and pizzicati. It’s the perfect aural complement, employing a brisk, matter-of-fact tempo and discordant themes that underscore Plainview’s efficient energy and unsettling pathology. Greenwood’s score easily belongs in the same company as the best from Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Herrmann.
Like its Social Darwinist anti-hero, There Will Be Blood packs one hell of a wallop. And yet, it fell somewhat short of being a true masterwork. Still, aside from its absurd, anti-climactic ending, it’s a stunningly made work of art used to drive home the stale, nihilistic theme that the American Dream is at base really a nightmare.
There Will Be Blood gets away with its epic Romanticism by wallowing in the Gothic muck of depravity and corruption. But although it’s a giant step forward in reclaiming the silver screen from the hacks and charlatans who’ve turned moviemaking into a spin-off of the video-game genre, the sum of its parts is greater than its whole.