There Will Be Blood has been the holy grail of the 2007 holiday season for a number of reasons. First and foremost among these reasons being that it is the return of Paul Thomas Anderson, a director who often seems like a unique example of a director with no real failures on his record. It had been five years since his last film, Punch Drunk Love, but even longer since his sprawling epic Magnolia. Added to this anticipated return, was the inclusion of Daniel Day-Lewis, a great actor who rarely takes parts that aren’t special. Also intriguing were the themes of oil and religion, two important topics today. But also intriguing was the fact that no one was really sure exactly what the film’s plot was. The cherry on top of all this intrigue may have been the film’s title, the film promises blood, but that blood mostly isn’t on screen, rather it flows through the veins of this major, important film.
The film centers on Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an oilman in turn of the century California. As the film begins Plainview has struck oil and established an empire, but his partner is soon killed in a drilling accident. Plainview chooses to adopt the orphan son of his fellow prospector, and raise him as his own. About ten years later Plainview is wealthy, but not yet a millionaire. Plainview soon learns from a man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) of a promising oil prospect in a rural region of California. Plainview investigates this barren stretch of land and finds it to be more than a little promising. There is an ocean of oil under that land, and once Plainview begins drilling there, nothing will be the same.
What probably makes There Will Be Blood work so well is that it is completely unformulaic. So many movies today are so predictable that the viewers have a good feeling how the movie is going to end after twenty minutes. This is largely the result of screenwriters who make the mistake of listening to people like Robert McKee that teach people to put common elements into every film like a clear motivation on the part of the main protagonist. Robert Plainview has no clear motivation other than to make money, and his actions are rarly motivated by this. I made the pleasant discovery half way through There Will Be Blood that I had no idea where it was going, but that I desperately wanted to.
Primarily, the film is a character study. Plainview is a larger than life figure, a Nietzian great man if ever there was one. The man is a complete misanthrope; to him other people are like ants scurrying around him. The people who live in this California desert are an obstacle to him, one gets the sense that he’d happily kill them all and only doesn’t because buying them out is the path of least resistance. Plainview’s unique world view (which completely contradicts his name) does help him in creating an empire, but it ultimately proves to be a rather dangerous lifestyle. I would never give away what happens later in the film, but it becomes exceedingly clear that the direction that Plainview takes is not healthy.
Daniel Plainview is an almost Shakespearian character, it’s not a role that many people would be able to play. Luckily Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the few people in the world capable of tackling this material, and delivers yet another transcendent Day-Lewis performance. I thought that Day-Lewis reached his peak when he played Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, but I was mistaken. Day-Lewis is able to create this larger than life character but also make sure he remains a living breathing human. The way that Day-Lewis’ delivers almost every line is interesting, and he can deliver a speech like nobody’s business. Most of the rest of the ensemble is forced to sweat bullets in order to catch up with Day-Lewis, and some of them, like that of Paul Dano can seem a bit weak in comparison.
The filmmaking here is top notch. Paul Thomas Anderson has long been accused of stealing other director’s styles (Scorsese in Boogie Nights, Altman in Magnolia), but those days are gone and I’m now fully confident that he is one of the great directors of our time. Cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots beautifully, especially in the harsh California sunlight. I did however have a problem with the cinematography during the darker scenes, I felt the film lacked some of the deeper blacks it should have had, although this may have been unique to my screening. The score, by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, is amazing. It was not just the type of grandiose music a conventional composer would create, but rather its great exciting music that takes the material onscreen and makes it even more exciting. This music really stands out, much like the rest of the film.
The film is being described as a story about oil and religion, in fact its thematically more about American capitalism. It was capitalism that gave Plainview power, and it was power that made him a god, and being a god drove him mad.
**** out of four