Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds, David Willis
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Paul Thomas Anderson
"I am a false prophet! God is a superstition!"
In Little Boston, the oil-struck world created by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia," "Boogie Nights") in "There Will Be Blood," it becomes abundantly clear that the foundation of America wasn't so much founded upon an idealistic belief in freedom or equality as it was an equally destructive blend of God and Godlessness.
In this small California town seemingly ruled by a false prophet and the relentless search for profits, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) stands tall above all others in his maniacal obsession with not only winning but also ensuring that everyone else loses.
Loosely based upon Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil," "There Will Be Blood" is the sort of hypnotic cinematic experience that envelopes one's senses with the sights and sounds of an American West that has lacked civility far longer than we would like to believe.
We first meet Plainview in the late 1890's as he prospects alone and digs away searching for the one gold strike that will turn his fortunes. The film's opening moments follow Plainview, terminally alone and driven to endure unfathomable conditions, isolation and risks. It is from these very moments that Day-Lewis devours the screen with a manic intensity that is uncomfortable and mesmerizing and beautiful and haunting. As we listen to his labored breathing, even in silence it becomes abundantly clear that Daniel Plainview is a man whom we may not admire but we cannot ignore.
As we fast forward to 1811, Plainview has begun to strike it rich and is now joined by his young "son," H.W. (newcomer Dillon Freasier) as he has reinvented himself as an "oil man" making whatever promise it takes to further his grasp on the land of unsuspecting farmers, ranchers and innocents.
The scene is set for an epic struggle when the soft-spoken Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, "Little Miss Sunshine") walks into Plainview's office one day offering his knowledge of the perfect land for oil if his price is met. Plainview, never one to pass up an easy buck, heads off to California and onto the Sunday ranch and in quick fashion wrestles control of the land away from Abel (David Willis, "The Good German") despite the suspicions of his prophetic preacher son Eli (Paul Dano, in a slightly confusing dual role). Eli eventually relents once Plainview agrees to support his Church of the Third Revelation with a $5,000 donation. When Plainview finally, and violently, reneges on the deal so begins a 30-year war of wills between the outwardly different yet equally driven men.
As much as Anderson has staged "There Will Be Blood" like an enormous, sprawling historical epic, "There Will Be Blood" is just as much an intimate, character-driven exercise in intimate storytelling. While Sinclair's novel was arguably guided by his known socialist tendencies, Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" comes down equally in questioning society's reliance on absolute faith and/or absolute commerce.
The two men, Daniel and Eli, recognize themselves in each other, a recognition that leads to equal parts hatred and humiliation. Each seems to revel in the opportunity to humiliate the other and, while Plainview is clearly the more violent of the two, Eli is almost hypnotically disturbing as he downward spirals into the very same world in which Plainview lives.
Much has been made of the way Day-Lewis has embodied Plainview with a seemingly impenetrable psyche that devolves into hatred for virtually all of humanity. While this is certainly true, the brilliance of Day-Lewis's performance is the way in which he mimics the humanity around him in order to gain entrance into the world. At times, he seems to truly care for his son while during others it seems as if even H.W. is nothing more than a prop that allows him to achieve his goals.
While it is Day-Lewis's performance that owns the screen and has commanded much of the awards attention thus far, Paul Dano offers a stellar counterbalance to the external maniacal mechanics of Plainview with a more subtle, patient and vulnerable madness that is disturbing in its own right. From the theatrics of his preaching to his gentle demeanor to the subtle ventings of his blind rage in scenes with his own father and in a baptism scene involving PLainview, Dano creates in Eli Sunday a man who seems weaker but who may actually be more dangerous.
"There Will Be Blood" is, most certainly, not a film for everyone. Having viewed it with a sell-out audience here in Indianapolis, it's clear that the film's early wide acclaim, awards recognition and positive word-of-mouth have combined to create a mini-groundswell of interest on the film's arthouse circuit run. As is fairly true of any Anderson film, one almost expects "There Will Be Blood" to have its haters...At 158 minutes, "There Will Be Blood" is a big, bold, sprawling and full sensory experience that virtually defies contemporary filmmaking with its devotion to the fundamentals of filmmaking over the all too familiar CGI blitz, cliche'd storylines and market-friendly happy endings and spoon-fed plot devices.
As shot by his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, "There Will Be Blood" is dark and penetrating while the original score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood pierces through the darkness with an almost blinding fury of intense instrumentals.
The film's entire ensemble cast is stellar and while the film is clearly a tour-de-force for Day-Lewis,
Anderson has long had a knack for assembling the perfect ensemble cast, and the same is true for the ensemble for "There Will Be Blood." While the film is clearly guided by the performances of Day-Lewis and Dano, the young Freasier offers a remarkably self-assured and controlled performance as the young H.W., while Ciaran Hinds and David Willis shine in supporting roles. As a young girl who befriends H.W., Sydney McCallister sparkles as the young Mary Sunday.
The closing scene for "There Will Be Blood" is destined to be as debated, argued, questioned and lamented as the film itself. While nowhere near as outwardly absurd as Anderson's infamous frog scene from "Magnolia," it is yet another unexpected choice in a film that has defiantly resisted virtually all the rules and traditions of contemporary filmmaking.
Whether he's dropping frogs from the sky or digging oil from the bowels of the earth, Paul Thomas Anderson has become more than just one of America's best young directors. Anderson's unique vision and fresh voice are combining to redefine what it means to be an American filmmaker and, in so doing, shaping the future of American cinema for years to come.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic