By Don Simpson | March 2, 2009
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer(s): Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay) Upton Sinclair (novel)
Staring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Martin Stringer, Matthew Braden Stringer
The year is 1898. Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) life in the oil industry begins in solitary darkness at the bottom of a long tunnel (a womb? Dante’s Maleboge?). Lit only by the sparks flying from his pick axe as it clashes against the stone walls at the bottom of a deep ditch, the thick-bearded Daniel is covered from head to toe in grime as he digs for the silver and gold that he requires to finance his future in oil. This endeavor is not without tragedy; (oh yes, there will be blood) as Daniel falls and severely cripples his leg, yet somehow still manages to get into town to cash in his nuggets – which he collects while supine on the dusty floor of the bank.
There is yet another ditch…and yet more digging. This time around Daniel is after good ole Texas Tea – oil, that is! This search is also not without tragedy (and yes, there will be more blood), as one of his nameless minions finds himself at the wrong end of a large free-falling blunt object which kills him instantly. In many ways, that one man’s death is the impetus of Daniel’s future success. The deceased man leaves a “bastard in a basket” for Daniel to adopt – a random act of kindness by Daniel? Nope. Daniel plainly views the wee tyke as a pawn for his success. A mean, solitary, cutthroat of a man is instantly transformed into a trustworthy family man when a young child is by his side (especially when you toss in a talltale about the baby’s mother dying while giving birth). Just as politicians use their families (and the babies they kiss) as proof of their values and ethics, the baby (whom Daniel deems as H.W.) is a merely prop to confuse his prey and catapult Daniel to his riches.
Despite the relentless tragedies that seem intertwined with his incessant greed, it seems success has been pre-destined for Daniel. An entire region of Southern California (Little Boston, what we know as the “Country music capital of the world” – Bakersfield, CA), with so much oil that it seeps onto the ground’s surface, falls into his lap by way of Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) – a wayward son looking for a quick buck to escape (and punish) his poor family.
By the time he arrives in Little Boston with the ever-so adorable 12-year old H.W. (Dillon Freasier) faithfullly by his side, Daniel has mastered his cunningness. He is able to quickly and “plainly” talk the Sunday family and their neighbors into letting him drill by making a few empty promises on his part. The most empty of the promises is a donation of $5,000 to Eli Sunday’s (Paul’s twin brother) evangelical church. Daniel finds the population of Little Boston to be easy pickings, as they are predominantly naïve, poor and godfearing people. The barren and useless land on which they live is only good for one thing – oil – and they didn’t have the knowhow or resources (financial or material) to do anything about it. Daniel could come in and use them all he wants – it could only make things better for Little Boston (how could things get worse?).
To say Daniel worked his way up from the lowest point imaginable is no understatement. Honey, he worked hard for his money. Until his arrival in Little Boston (by which time he was well on his way to becoming a bona fied oil man), Daniel worked in the trenches, pitchfork in tow, putting blood and sweat (yet, nary a tear) into his work. He made money the old-fashioned way – he earned it…to a certain point. Daniel’s sole goal in life was to earn enough money so he can get away from people; which he achieves – by 1927 – in truly eccentric Charles Foster Kane-like isolation.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson squeezes just enough blood from the proverbial stone of socialist muckraker, Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! to consider this an adaptation; while more referential credit belongs to the cinematic epics of D.W. Griffith, John Ford, Orson Welles and, much more recently, Terrence Malick.
Robert Elswit’s (cinematographer of Anderson’s previous features as well as Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck) masterfully subtle cinematography is absolutely stunning. The camera work is more akin to the classic masters, than anything made (at least on these shores) in the last 25 years. The pacing, dramatically calculated and slow; the focus, deep and penetrating; the colors and hues are absolutely radiant. Utilizing the stark and barren landscape of Marfa, Texas (where two other greed-centric films, No Country for Old Men and Giant, were lensed) Elswit is able to capture the primordial landscape of Southern California; the landscape itself playing a significant and signifying role in There Will Be Blood, providing the hell on earth where the evils of capitalism can flourish.
The amazing avant-garde symphonic score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is worthy of comparison to György Ligeti’s compositions used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the locale and cinematography, the soundtrack plays a breathtaking role through the film – especially during the long sequences with little or no dialogue (for instance the initial 15 minutes). Greenwood’s music (like the film as a whole) is a throwback to the integral way films used to be scored; co-habitating with, commenting on and complimenting the image.
Enough cannot be said about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. A truly talented actor, he envelopes his character, making it his own. The unique diction and sing-song delivery he chooses for Daniel’s speech alone is worthy of linguistic analysis. Daniel Plainview is a truly iconic role. Few modern actors would have handled it with such grace and stature. There Will Be Blood is practically a one-man show for Day-Lewis, but Paul Dano proves that he is worthy to share the screen with Day-Lewis. They obviously approach acting differently but, for the most part, the fireworks between the two are spectacular.
There Will Be Blood contemplates the effects of capitalism; more specifically, the way it advances certain aspects of society while simultaneously destroying the future of the earth (pollution, development, depletion of natural resources, etc.). The oil boom in the U.S. represented a brief yet substantial heyday of a payday for a select group of people. Like the gold rushes, oil provided a class buoyancy that allowed anyone (even the poor – such as the Clampett family of The Beverly Hillbillies) to suddenly become rich; throwing any pre-existence resemblance of class-structure totally out of whack. Daniel, himself, personifies the evils proliferated by capitalism. He is distrustful, overly competitive, relentless, powerful and commanding. Daniel’s innate capitalist skill of doublespeak (by which he pretends to speak plainly, only to catch his prey off-guard) is not a far cry from President Bush’s own political strategy.
There Will Be Blood explicates that even in its infancy oil was quite a dastardly commodity as it overflows with unlikable characters, from evangelicals to oil men to the poor and uneducated people that are unnoticeable speed bumps along the highway to the greater success of Christianity and capitalism. There Will Be Blood also exemplifies how evangelicals and oil entrepreneurs parasitically thrived off of each other as oil wells and churches spread side-by-side across Southern California (and West Texas) like wildfire; a cancer of churches and oil wells furthering the image of the Wild West as a vanishing frontier. So, oil was evil even before it became the impetus for war in the Middle East.
Clocking in at 158 minutes, with significantly less dialogue and slower pacing than a typical Hollywood film, There Will Be Blood is destined to be a darling of critics yet elusive and frustrating to action hungry mainstream audiences. It is also worth noting that Anderson’s four prior features (Hard Eight , Boogie Nights , Magnolia  and Punch-Drunk Love ) bare absolutely no resemblance to the maturity and magnitude of There Will Be Blood. Anderson has taken one giant leap forward, by studying the masters of cinema’s past.