P.T. Anderson’s (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) latest film, There Will Be Blood, opened to mixed, though mainly positive, reviews. A fan of his earlier works, I highly anticipated this film, thanks in no small part to the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role as Daniel Plainview, an aspiring oil baron in 1800s western America. As expected, Day-Lewis gave yet another breath-taking performance. I was also intrigued by the other lead character, Eli sunday (a vocal Paul Dano as opposed to his mute role in last year’s wildly successful Little Miss Sunshine). I thought the interaction between Dano’s charismatic Pentecostal preacher, healer, seer and Day-Lewis’ brooding, gritty, foul-mouthed prospector would be the stuff of cinematic legend. There can be no mistaking the power of the scenes they share; however, where Anderson could have taken one more step in his portrayal of religion (taking Dano’s character seriously, perhaps), he seemed ot rest on these performances and not necessarily would they could have signified.
There Will Be Blood tells the story of Daniel Plainview, a tough-as-nails silver miner cum oil tycoon and his journey to both opulent wealth and spiritual/emotional/familial ruin. The film opens with a seven minute silent scene in which the only sounds are Plainview chipping away at a silver mine. Here, we see just how tough Plainview really is as he mines alone, falls down the shaft, and manages to climb back out with a broken leg. This is a man not to be toyed with. Several years pass by, and he, along with a few employees, have begun drilling for oil. Plainview exhibits not only the technical acumen for this work but an apparent sixth sense to detect the oil’s whereabouts. His reputation obviously precedes him as a young man from southern California, Paul Sunday (also played by Dano), enlists Plainview’s services to drill the oil at his parent’s ranch without their knowledge.
Plainview and his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier in a fantastic first performance), under the guise of a hunting trip, survey the land and prove Paul’s claims. Paul’s family, specifically his brother Eli, try in vain to hamper Plainview’s progress. Eli, the pastor of the Church of the Third Revelation, sees an opportunity for his church to benefit financially and strikes at it. Plainview, ever the self-serving autocrat will not be cowed so easily. As the film progresses, it is punctuated by Plainview and Sunday’s interactions. Time passes and Sunday leaves for a mission. Plainview’s wealth increases, and he settles into drunken old age on a newly built estate where he takes target practice on his possessions. Sunday returns, hat in hand, to beg for the money (with interest) that Plainview had once promised him. Bitter, drunk, and alone, Plainview will no longer tolerate what he believes to be Sunday’s schemes. In a film that feels like it loses its way on occasion, this ending grabs the viewer and refuses to let go in what is one of the most dramatic (if slightly burlesque) conclusions in recent cinema.
While Anderson gives us a visually beautiful film, we have seen some of this already in the Coen Brothers’ latest film, No Country For Old Men. There Will Be Blood is certainly more epic than this film; however, in reaching for a masterpiece, Anderson’s film becomes a little unwieldy. While Plainview is willing to abandon his only son in the pursuit of success, we do not need the presence of an imposter brother and his murder to prove that this oil man will not be thwarted. Like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Aviator (2004), There Will Be Blood proves once again that a quest for sole superiority in some field, accompanied with amassed wealth, without spiritual, emotional, or humanitarian drives are ruinous. But is this really anything new? Cue Eli Sunday.
Unfortunately, this evangelical minister does not differ greatly from his cinematic forebears either. The male, stationary version of a Florence Fallon (The Miracle Woman, 1931) or Sharon Falconer (Elmer Gantry, 1960) heals his burdened flock by casting out their illness-inducing demons with dramatic flair. However, we never reach solid footing with Sunday (and perhaps we are not supposed to). He reveals moments of deep contempt for and violence towards his father juxtaposed to gentle, sweet conversations with his flock. All of this seems to suggest an air of deceit for this type of minister, and given that Sunday is the only option in the film, perhaps all ministers. The conclusion which finds Sunday confessing to moral failures and financial trouble on the horizon only confirms what Anderson “forced” us to expect all along.
However, in the final, chaotic scene, as Plainview argues with Sunday, we might not hear Sunday plead with him, arguing that they are brothers…in fact the same person. Though Plainview may critique Sunday’s ways, he lives by no better moral, social, or ethical code, and in fact, lives according to a more harsh one…one that would have him abandon his son (temporarily and then ultimately) and murder an imposter brother who clearly poses no threat to him.
Anderson’s film is certainly amazing, due in most part to two Oscar-worthy performances; however, it tells us nothing new. This flaw aside, the films is certainly worth experiencing. As Mick LaSalle wrote, “Anyone who cares about the art of movies will eventually have to see, contend with and make a decision about “There Will Be Blood,” and that in itself constitutes a kind of recommendation.”
There Will Be Blood (158 mins) is rated R for violence and is in theaters everywhere.
Follow the link, Conquering the West and Getting His Hands Dirty in the Process, to Mick LaSalle’s review, perhaps one of the most sound critiques of the film.