2007 // USA // Paul Thomas Anderson // January 23, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - There Will Be Blood's ambiguous, ominous title is a stroke of poetic genius. It sloshes around in your mind throughout the film's two-and-a-half-hour running time, tainting the images and sounds with biblical vastness and the promise of ruin. I see the title as a succinct statement of the protagonist's ethos, but many other readings are suggested, even demanded. The black magic in those words and the power of this film are undeniable. At different moments, different viewers will likely find themselves nodding in agreement with director Paul Thomas Anderson's declaration: Oh yes, there will be blood.
Anderson has made some very good films—Boogie Nights has long been my favorite—but as with fellow budding auteur David Fincher, 2007 has given us his first great film. There Will Be Blood is not a flawless work, but for the vast majority of its duration it's so goddamn excellent it grinds your teeth and goose-pimples your flesh. It is, in its way, a horror film. Its subject matter is the grotesqueries of American capitalism rather than bodily or psychological perils. But like all horror films it addresses its themes via a monster. Blood's monster is also its protagonist and its anti-hero: a self-made, ruthless, misanthropic oil driller named Daniel Plainview.
In a nearly wordless prologue, we observe Daniel as an independent gold prospector at the end of the nineteenth century. Following an accident that plagues him with a limp for the remainder of his life, Daniel's attention and his destiny are diverted to the grimy, booming world of petroleum drilling. Another accident delivers him an infant orphan, H.W., whom Daniel adopts as his son, although the oil man's motives are plainly mixed. The film then fast-forwards nine years to a more prosperous and savvy Daniel, who is selling his drilling expertise to dusty California hamlets awash in untapped oil. He is approached by a nervous, greasy young man, Paul Sunday, who offers to sell Daniel knowledge of an "ocean of oil" that lies beneath his family's failing ranch. Paul has a halting, gruel-thin way of speaking, but he exhibits canniness and ambition. Daniel doesn't seem to know what to make of him, yet he accepts the offer.
Daniel and H.W. travel to the Sunday ranch, where they encounter the family, including—perhaps unexpectedly—Paul's twin brother, Eli. Eli is a charismatic evangelical preacher, who veers between serene, unsettling platitudes and howling, spittle-flecked exorcisms. Eli seems to sense what Daniel is up to, but avarice is flickering in the young minister's eyes as well. He has ambitions for his church, and he has no intention of allowing Daniel to swindle his family out of their deserved riches.
Blood is essentially a three-act portrait, and the bulk of the film is comprised of the second act. Daniel buys up the town of Little Boston and raises oil derricks that tower over the scrublands. Eli shrewdly attempts to insert himself and his church into the burgeoning enterprise, but Daniel resists. There are triumphs and catastrophes: a gas explosion, the first gusher, the lurking presence of Standard Oil, and the appearance of a man claiming to be Daniel's prodigal half-brother.
If this all sounds a touch dry, I assure you it's not. Anderson goes straight for the thematic throat, and lets us know that he is not, in any way, fucking around. There Will Be Blood alerts us from its opening moments that horrible, traumatic things are going to happen—with its title, its first shots, and its first strains of music. It's a very risky move to employ such relentless cinematic semaphore, but Anderson's remarkable skill as a storyteller has grown with age. For reasons I'm not sure I completely grasp yet, he makes it work. Maybe it's his now-polished photographic artistry, or the oppressive Bernard Herrmann-inspired score from Johnny Greenwood, or the mesmerizing lead performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. As with many great films, it likely works because of how these elements and others come together.
Day-Lewis is, I believe, one of the greatest living English-language actors, partly because he has carved out a thespian niche that no one save him can fill. Indulgent dramatic performances are tiresome when they are created solely to entertain the audience, but Day-Lewis never seems to portray such sideshow oddities. The fame that he garnered from My Left Foot has allowed him to be fussy in choosing his roles. It's hard not to respect how this selectiveness and his private nature have influenced his art for the better. He is always Daniel Day-Lewis when he is on screen, but he is never less than engrossing, always willing to sunder open his characters and root around in their viscera for our enlightenment.
Is Day-Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood over the top? Of course. It's why he is in the film. There Will Be Blood is a portrait, and the countenance is an ugly one. Daniel Plainview is not particularly believable, but he's not meant to be. He is a self-made Übermensch, capitalism incarnate, the id and Platonic ideal of American business. The casting of the creepy, clay-faced Paul Dano as Eli Sunday is not without purpose. Eli is Daniel's foil, but in the end There Will Be Blood is a character study of one. Eli must remain unsympathetic, inscrutable, and alien, and he does so, right up to the bloody, despoiled conclusion.
Blood does more than tempt allegorical readings; it practically requires them. Although the film echoes Citizen Kane at its edges, especially during the lengthy epilogue, Daniel Plainview doesn't naturally evoke Kane so much as an Ayn Rand hero. Or, more accurately, a personification of capitalism itself. As such, the conflict between Daniel and Eli reflects the tension between two old and powerful currents in American culture. The capitalist and Christian atoms of America seem to find their avatars in Daniel and Eli: often warring, sometimes collaborating, never fully trusting one another.
Like Upton Sinclair, on whose novel Oil! the film is very loosely based, Anderson seems to view capitalism as an inherently repulsive impulse when its pretensions of civility and community are flayed away, as they are in Daniel. It's appropriate that Daniel is an oil driller, an enterprise that is both consumptive and extractive, and one that naturally carries with it an infernal stench. Similarly, the portrayal of Eli Sunday hints at Anderson's deeply cynical view of religion. We see Eli primarily through Daniel's own contemptuous perspective, but a private glimpse of the preacher reveals his greed, rage, and loathing. Anderson is offering America a disturbing self-portrait; the fact that Daniel is a successful maverick does nothing to alleviate its distastefulness. I should add that I quickly tumbled to a more contemporary and specific reading of Daniel and Eli's antagonism as well. Their alliance and tension will strike a strong note of familiarity with anyone who has been watching the evolution of the Republican Party for the past three decades.
Perhaps in different hands, a film such as There Will Be Blood might have been mediocre. It's difficult to envision anyone other than Day-Lewis filling Daniel Plainview's boots, but a different director, perhaps even a younger Anderson, would likely have delivered a perfectly forgettable period drama. As it is, There Will Be Blood is captivating filmmaking, and unquestionably Anderson's best work to date. It gets under your skin and wriggles around like a maggot. That's a recommendation, in case you were wondering.