Sunday, February 10, 2008

There Will Be Blood

“I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people … I’ve built up my hatreds over the years.”

– Daniel Plainview

There Will Be Blood features one of the year’s finest performances from one of the greatest living actors, Daniel Day Lewis, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is spot-on. However, the film provides just as much fun as its title suggests. This story is cold, merciless, shocking, and sad. Despite its masterful performances, virtuoso direction, and many other glimpses of greatness throughout, the finished product somehow comes up a bit short.

Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood follows the rise and fall of a self-made oil man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis). The story opens in 1898, as Daniel and his young son make their way across the country in search of oil. Daniel’s greatest find comes on a farm he purchases from a man named Abel Sunday. Abel’s son, Eli (Paul Dano), fears that the new oil empire will destroy God’s plans for his church, The Church of the Third Revelation. The epic story follows Daniel across three decades of loneliness, corruption, and despair.

At various times, I was reminded of George Stevens’ masterpiece, Giant (1956). It’s not really fair to compare the two, except that both films feature men who become completely dehumanized after striking oil. In fact, both films even have scenes where characters become covered in oil from head to toe, staring out from the darkness with wild, near deranged expressions. There Will Be Blood has strong religious themes, and when Daniel Plainview becomes literally drenched in oil, it seems very much like a reverse baptism, one that promises a new life of misery and madness. Early on, the camera even lingers on a shot of a father dabbing oil on his infant son’s forehead, just as some Christian traditions baptize infants.

As both a writer and a director, P.T. Anderson always makes thoughtful storytelling choices. When shots linger for long periods (as they often do in his films), they evoke certain emotional responses. The film’s title holds multiple meanings, one of which refers to oil as the lifeblood of the Earth, and many times the ground itself seems to bleed freely from Plainview’s violent, precise digging. Long stretches without dialogue help reinforce how Daniel Plainview has alienated himself from his staff, his business partners, and even his own son. When a long-lost relative of his shows up looking for work, Daniel has no idea how to treat him. He hates all people, including his own self.

Daniel despises no one more than Eli Sunday. We quickly sense that Eli has no true interest in God’s will, but seeks praise and glory only for himself. In this way, he’s as selfish and broken as Daniel. His Church of the Third Revelation consists of him performing every Sunday, screaming wildly as he casts out demons and heals various afflictions. While Eli never says as much, I gathered that he believes himself to be God’s “third revelation.” Daniel immediately sees Eli for what he is, but must continue to placate him to appease the townspeople.

Daniel Day Lewis gives a haunting, unforgettable performance as Daniel Plainview. From his voice, to his eyes, every part of him owns the role. He has several moments of unrestrained madness, but then plays quiet scenes with just as much intensity. P.T. Anderson’s direction enhances the performance, and some unusual music also adds to the anguish; unsettling chords and tense notes ensure that viewers are never at ease. Think of the final half hour of Citizen Kane, except less fun and lasting 160 minutes.

I wanted to wholeheartedly love this film, but as the credits rolled, something was holding me back. There’s nothing wrong with depictions of darkness. Many of my favorite films are dark, heavy dramas, including P.T. Anderson’s own Magnolia (1999). I suppose the difference comes in purpose. Magnolia has tremendous philosophical and spiritual significance, and I think There Will Be Blood could have used some more substance. Still, there’s plenty here worthy of praise. P.T. Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis both have well-deserved reputations as artists whose work will stay in your head. There Will Be Blood has stuck with me, despite my best efforts to shake it.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence.

There Will Be Blood has a few violent moments, but is not at all gratuitous. This film isn’t upsetting because of what you see, but because of its tone. The story is quite disturbing, and I advise caution to those who might have trouble shaking it. If you are still unsure, the trailer is fairly indicative of the overall experience.