Monday 2 May 2016

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood (2007)

An epic oilman drama, There Will Be Blood is an engrossing character study with an astonishing subject matter. The fictional story of Daniel Plainview delves into the psyche of men brilliant enough and mad enough to independently create new industries out of nothing.

The film starts in 1898, with Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) mining a single hole in the New Mexico desert, looking for any precious mineral. By 1902, with a few men now working with him, he discovers oil in California. One of his men is a single dad and dies in a work accident. Daniel adopts the infant, known only as D.W., as his own. By 1911 Daniel is travelling the state and expanding his burgeoning oil business by persuading farmers to sell their land. Daniel uses D.W. to portray a wholesome family-man image.

Acting on a tip Daniel sets his sights on the rugged, rocky and remote property owned by the Sunday family near Little Boston. He reaches a deal with the patriarch Abel, but finds his son Eli (Paul Dano) quite a handful. Eli wants proceeds from the land sale to start his own church, and gets his way. Daniel ties up all the land around the Sunday property and is soon running a major drilling operation, looking for the elusive first oil strike.

Eli gets his church up and running as well. The two men don't get along, but both are eventually successful. Daniel does suffer several tragedies, and Eli attributes the mishaps to Daniel's refusal to respect Eli's church. With the oil business booming, Daniel remains fiercely independent, and his stubbornness will both help and hinder his prospects of getting his enormous oil supplies to market.

Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson as an adaptation of the Upton Sinclair book Oil!, There Will Be Blood is an audacious story of crooked business and suspect religion, nation building by deceit and soul seduction by chicanery, two sides of the same coin inspiring the transformation of rural America.

The film clocks in at 158 minutes, and its a continuously enthralling viewing experience. Anderson moves through the years quickly, and punctuates the film with powerful landmark events, including frequent, sudden work site mishaps as the rudimentary oil industry gets off the ground. An innovative Jonny Greenwood soundtrack contributes to the mood of civilization evolving into the industrial age where hitherto unimaginable riches are possible, and souls are now in need of more impassioned cleansing to wipe away the creeping greed.

The film uses an economy of words and the majesty of image, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit, to create an astounding aesthetic. There Will Be Blood is about wide open spaces ready to be subjugated by men with grand ambition and the ability to sweet talk others out of land, money and the future. Anderson allows Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday to represent themselves with no added commentary, and in the process avoids passing judgement. Neither the obsession with oil as a new business nor the creeping influence of pseudo religion as a vehicle for controlling the impressionable are presented as good or bad.

Plainview's traits include steely determination, a deep reservoir of stubbornness, and a talent for sweet-talking. He is a force of nature unleashed on the landscape, and neither the people nor the natural resources will be the same once Plainview and his ilk roll through. Anderson allows Eli Sunday fewer scenes to make his mark, but these are enough. Eli gets into his groove with passionate sermons complete with wide-eyed theatrics to represent devil banishment and fake healing, and his congregation eats up his babble as quickly and easily as they follow Plainview to the dream of riches.

Daniel Day-Lewis devours the film in one of his outstanding performances. His aura is dominant and overpowering, and Day-Lewis ensures that what Plainview doesn't gain by persuasion he obtains through intimidation. Remarkably, Day-Lewis is matched by Paul Dano, who was a late replacement for the role of Eli Sunday. Dano creates a low-key, surreptitious presence, erupting into life in his sermons but otherwise claiming the fake moral high ground in Eli's own pursuit of building wealth through worship.

There Will Be Blood ends with a confrontation for the ages, a scene of magnificent score settling and retribution, two ruthless men locking horns and representing the ultimate battle between the brain and the heart. Both happen to be corrupted beyond salvation, but that will not stop plenty of blood from being spilled.


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