Paul Thomas Anderson
Kevin J. O'Connor
Paul F. Tompkins
2 Hrs., 38 Mins.
There Will Be Blood July 21, 2018
redefined himself as a recluse whose best friend is his bottomless bank account. When we see him last, he is crumpled on the floor of his private bowling alley, which sits in the basement of his well-decorated mansion.
Plainview, handsome but iniquitous, is portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, the greatest actor of his generation. The movie, among the most acclaimed features of 2007, is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in the style of an old Hollywood epic, reminiscent of the silents of D.W Griffith and the oversized melodramas of George Stevens.
There Will Be Blood seeks to be an important film — a definitive rise-and-fall saga just as interested in deconstructing the moral impurities of its subject as it is in working as a verbose commentary on the perils of capitalism and the greed which reliably comes with it. The unsaid, perhaps subconscious, aspiration to be “great” is, fortunately, an ambition that bears weight.
In 2007, the movie was widely considered a reinvention. After conquering his cinematic whims like an Olympic skier confidently skirting around slaloms in previous years, it turned out that Anderson, who’d then directed four extraordinary — albeit down-to-earth — films, was not only an artistic chameleon but an artiste more capable than ever to prompt audiences to throw out the complimentary “awe-inspiring” descriptor.
Such a reaction has become passé as of 2018: Anderson has since furthered his status as a master of the epic. But There Will Be Blood was something of a surprise a decade ago. Anderson’s previous endeavors, like the kaleidoscopic Boogie Nights (1997) and the tessellated Magnolia (1999), had been big. But they were big in the way Robert Altman’s movies of the 1970s were: expansive, but still sobered. There Will Be Blood, retrophilic and elephantine, was a step forward for a filmmaker who’d at that point mostly worked on a smaller scale, physically and thematically.
There Will Be Blood begins at the end of the 19th century and concludes at the beginning of the 20th, and serves as an at-once exciting and terrifying fictionalized annal of progress. It is most concerned with its anti-hero, who starts off a nobody pining to be an oil baron who makes it happen by progressively purchasing ripened land from ignorant owners at bargained prices.
He ends up an untouchable success, but his affluence comes to leave him empty — a hardened misanthrope who cannot love anything unless it both doesn’t question him and acts as a mechanism to further his financial faculty. A major part of the story, eventually, is a rivalry with a young preacher named Eli (a magnificent Paul Dano), who proves himself a similarly slick foil.
The mogul, Plainview, embarks on an arc that looks like something of an inversion of the American dream. He makes for an embodiment of the rags-to-riches story, but he compromises standard ethical guidelines to make it a reality. He is an inherent beast whose evil is unleashed – and never pent up again — once entrepreneurial power makes him feel immortal.
As Plainview, Day-Lewis, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, cements his standing as the paragon of the Method-style embodiment. He, speaking in a hypnotic semi-singsong, convincingly conveys Plainview’s almost-virulent need for domination, as well as the destructive nature of his behemoth of an ego. What I like best about the performance is the way it so dependably dupes us into feeling compassion for Plainview on many an occasion. Even that is an extension of the intrinsic truth that Plainview is such a good con artist. Moments of apparent clemency are just part of a charade.
This is exemplified by Plainview’s relationship with his adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). H.W. is the child of a man killed during one of Plainview’s early excursions. The latter, able to almost telepathically envision his rise, decides to take him in. He will be used as a pawn. (Whenever Plainview barges into a new town, declaring his developmental desires, he uses H.W. as a way to humanize himself.)
In specific moments, H.W. seems to be the only thing Plainview loves. When the boy is deafened in the aftermath of one of his adoptive father’s exploits, for instance, Plainview becomes more sensitive and protective than he’s ever been. Or so we think. In a harrowing sequence to come soon after the incident, Plainview abandons the child on a train, apparently seeing him as a distraction. It is here that Plainview’s ruthlessness is most blatant. He is so greedy, even a defenseless boy can look like a threat.
The film wouldn’t work if Anderson empathized with Plainview; it is so compelling, in part, because Anderson is fascinated by his evils rather than understanding of them. There Will Be Blood is based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, a 1926 novel satirizing the foibles and corruptions of big businesses, and the character is reminiscent of the fictional mogul Charles Foster Kane, the real-life baron John D. Rockefeller, and others.
Plainview is so engrossing, I think, because the sorts of individuals on which he's based are so common. It is only natural to be interested in a cinematic depiction of this type of man. Like Patricia Highsmith did when fleshing out the criminal protagonist of The Talented Mr. Ripley, her acclaimed novel from 1955, Anderson makes it clear that what we’re in store for is an unembellished study of a monster, not a sympathetic portrayal of one.
In contrast to its fundamental ugliness, There Will Be Blood is a visually beautiful movie. While watching it, I was reminded of the early films of Terrence Malick, which often used extreme long shots and too-close-for-comfort close-ups as a way to make everything look respectively painterly and intimate. Akin to movies like Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), There Will Be Blood bears photography — helmed by the cinematographer Robert Elswit — that is texturally and colorfully rich, somehow both natural-looking and otherworldly.
Yet a sense of claustrophobia is maintained, too. By so prominently spotlighting the surroundings, a sense of inescapability comes about, in spite of there being so much area. In terms of Anderson’s filmography, the film is perhaps only rivaled (visually, I mean) by last year’s Phantom Thread, which is so palpable and lush that we can almost taste the bitter in the air. (The movie’s immense aesthetic power is additionally informed by Jonny Greenwood’s screeching score, which brings permanence to the dread we feel early on.)
It is not a perfect film, however. I find its ending, which I presume is supposed to be cathartic, abrupt and devoid of meaning — almost sloppy in a movie so meticulous. And though Plainview is a gripping creation, I nevertheless found it difficult to comprehensively understand him. Such was a problem I also encountered in Phantom Thread, whose protagonist, the Day-Lewis-portrayed couturier Reynolds Woodcock, also felt ever-so-slightly at an arm’s length. Still, There Will Be Blood is a wonder of the imagination — an elaborate, holistically enthralling account of an American dream both realized and warped. A
aniel Plainview, the antagonistic protagonist of There Will Be Blood, knows what it’s like to be knocked down. He also knows what it’s like to get back up immediately, to smooth out your clothes as if nothing ever happened. When the film opens, in 1898, Plainview is a lowly prospector in New Mexico who falls down a pit mine hole in search of ore. He breaks his leg in the process, but he shakes off the injury as if it were the equivalent of a stubbed toe. When the film ends, in 1927, Plainview has become a wildly successful oil magnate. But in lieu of his prosperity, he’s miserable. He’s taken to the bottle, and has