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Arts & Culture

Film Review: 'There Will Be Blood'

Daniel Day Lewis (center) stars in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, "There Will Be Blood," based on an Upton Sinclair novel.
Daniel Day Lewis (center) stars in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, "There Will Be Blood," based on an Upton Sinclair novel.

Companion Viewing


"Winter Kills"


"Boogie Nights"

“There Will Be Blood” (opening January 11 at AMC Mission Valley and on January 18 at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Theaters) is not the film fans of Paul Thomas Anderson may be expecting but it's a film that should please them nonetheless. The filmmaker who gave us “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” and “Punch Drunk Love” now turns to an 80-year-old Upton Sinclair novel called “Oil!” as inspiration for his epic tale of greed and ambition.

Upton Sinclair was famed for his muckraking expose “The Jungle,” and for the socialist agenda he often put forth in his novels. In freely adapting “Oil!,” Anderson leaves the socialism and muckraking behind but holds on to Sinclair's theme of the corrupting power of money and capitalism. This also marks the first time Anderson has not penned an original screenplay from which to direct.

Because Anderson chose to only take a few elements from Sinclair's "Oil!!,"he felt it was wrong to use the books title for his film. So Anderson decided on the new title, "There Will Be Blood," which has a Biblical ring to it that turns out to be quite appropriate. For the film, Anderson focuses on Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis). When we first meet Plainview he's a solitary silver prospector. The first fifteen minutes of the film contain no dialogue as we watch the lone Plainview mine for the silver. At one point he falls down a shaft and must pull himself out and drag himself to town despite what appears to be a broken leg. At this point we have the first sense of the ferocious drive that will propel him in all his endeavors. We also get our first taste of Anderson's craft. As Plainview falls into the shaft, he covers the lens and the screen goes black and silent. Then Plainview wakes up with a gasp that makes the scene play out like a birth, Plainview is gasping for air like a newborn infant, and the scene grabs us.


Soon Plainview comes upon oil and Anderson shows us the primitive, early days of oil drilling. There's no high tech equipment here, just men jerry-rigging whatever they can to make things work. When the oil comes in, Plainview and his crew initially just pour it in a makeshift hole because they simply don't know what else to do with it. The work is also, as you could imagine, quite dangerous. When one of the workers gets killed in a drilling accident, Plainview adopts the man's infant son and treats him as his own. There's a fleeting moment of tenderness in one scene between Plainview and the baby, but after that we sense that Plainview sees the child as merely another tool he can use in advancing his oil business. The boy, whom he refers to as H.W. (Dillon Freasier), accompanies him as he pitches local communities about selling the oil rights to their land to him. The boy's presence allows him to present himself as a trustworthy family man, and that makes his sales pitch more appealing.

But Plainview is also good at what he does. His wells do come in and he begins to amass wealth. His people skills, however, leave something to be desired. So when he comes up against a young man named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) who is as driven as he is, a tense rivalry develops. Eli's family has property with oil potential and Eli wants to sell those rights for $10,000 so he can build a church. Of course Plainview doesn't want to pay that much. Eli, we are told, is a healer and he wants to start a congregation of his own.

Plainview confesses at one point that he has a competition in him that makes him hate seeing anyone else succeed. So when he comes up against the determined Eli, it's like a trigger goes off. Plainview reacts instinctively to Eli as a nemesis, and seeks to defeat him in any way possible. But he has to be careful not to offend Eli's faithful flock. Plainview's strong reaction may also be because Plainview sees some of himself in Eli, both men want to manipulate and control others, both are driven by greed and ambition. When Plainview attends a Sunday service, he exits by commenting to Eli that he puts on a good show. The remark reveals a mix of contempt and reluctant admiration for the young man.

Later when Eli requests permission to give a blessing to the oil well at a ceremony, Plainview lets him believe that will happen. But at the ceremony, Plainview delivers his own simple blessing and takes quiet delight in having cut Eli out of the ceremony. Their relationship is further antagonized by the fact that Plainview subscribes to no church, and Eli wants to have him join his congregation. This proves another battlefield and leads to a brilliant scene where Plainview agrees to come to Eli's church to accept Jesus Christ -- or at least pretend to. Eli slaps Plainview around as part of the ritual and probably as payback for a beating Plainview gave him. But Plainview seems willing to take any abuse if it leads to him getting the land rights he needs to drill his oil and build his pipeline. But you also sense that this public humiliation lays the groundwork for the blood that will be shed later. Anderson will make good on the ominous promise of the title.

There's a Biblical scale to the events, and it's of an Old Testament kind. There are brothers turning against brothers, rifts between fathers and sons, and a sense of retribution that reveals the old eye for an eye mentality. The film also seems to offer us a tale about the wages of sin with the pay off being the damnation of a life lived in isolation and without love or human compassion. Adding to this is the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis seems to channel the voice of John Huston, the man who directed "The Bible" and provided the voice of Noah, God and the narrator. But while Huston's voice invokes memories of the Bible, it also reminds us of such virally corrupt characters as Noah Cross in "Chinatown," and Pa Kegan in "Winter Kills." So the mere choice of vocal intonations by Day-Lewis endows his character with complexity: it gives him both a god-like authority that is not to be challenged and it summons up a sense of someone mad with power.


And while I'm talking about Daniel Day-Lewis... let me say that there are good performances, and great performances, and then there are performances that sear themselves onto the screen with such primal force that you can't look away. Brando gave that kind of performance in "A Streetcar Named Desire," and Robert DeNiro in "Taxi Driver." Now Day-Lewis gives one as Daniel Plainview. It's a towering performance and Anderson gives him an epic backdrop to play against so that the scale of his acting never seems over the top. It's a performance of amazing complexity because it's so carefully rendered and calibrated. There are times when Day-Lewis employs an economy of movement and gestures, where just a raised eyebrow says everything you need to know. When he prevents Eli from giving the blessing at the well, there's a fleeting smile at the corner of his mouth that seems to say F*ck you, you little punk, you're not getting the better of me. But in other scenes he can explode with violence, of either a physical and emotional nature. Day-Lewis manages to rivet us with a character that grows so hateful of humanity that he isolates himself in a mansion and cuts himself off from the rest of the world (it's a mansion not unlike the one at the end of "Citizen Kane"). There are also hints of his Bill the Butcher from "Gangs of New York," but Plainview is less prone to physical violence but more misanthropic in his dealings with the rest of the world.

As Plainview's arch nemesis, Paul Dano is also superb. The silent son from "Little Miss Sunshine" finds his voice here as Eli Sunday. He's as over-the-top and fiery as Tom Cruise's motivational speaker from Anderson's "Magnolia." Based on the time frame of the movie, he's probably meant to call to mind evangelists like Aimee Semple McPherson. In many ways he is just as scary as Plainview. When he casts out an evil spirit residing in one of his congregation, he begins with a whisper and then rages as he advances toward the camera, spitting out his words. In that moment he seems scarier than anything he might be casting out.

In both Eli and Plainview, Anderson turns to themes that both Sinclair and the Bible might favor. In these characters we see the danger of ego and greed. In these characters we have parallel tales of greed and ambition, Plainview coming from industry and Eli coming from religion. Money poisons them both, although Plainview seems to be more upfront about his corruption than Eli, and its that facade that Plainview has such contempt for and feels driven to tear down.

"There Will Be Blood" has an Old School as well as Old Testament feel about it. The acting style, the manner of the narrative, the language, the visual look -- all of these things feel like they come from a movie from decades past. Anderson's previous films all had a very contemporary feel and visual style. "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" also had a sprawling array of characters fanning out into multiple plots. But not "There Will Be Blood." It stays intently focused on Plainview. It also moves forward with the same brutish momentum and linear directness as the main character. There's something almost refreshing and bold in the linear nature of the storytelling, since most contemporary films thrive on a fragmented structure with the chronology of events jumbled. The film marks a major advance for Anderson who reveals increased maturity and artistic assurance with this film.

Anderson is well aided by a crack technical staff beginning with cinematographer Robert Elswit. Elswit captures the dark, deep shadows and blinding sunlight that reflect the contrasts of the film. His frame also captures the vast expanse of land and the man whos trying to tame and conquer it. Anderson and Elswit show the raw power of the oil wells coming in and even catching fire. These scenes are some of the most impressive in the film. Production designer Jack Fisk (whose work has also enhanced Terence Malick’s films) also helps make these scenes work impressively well. I also want to highlight the phenomenal music score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. With its discordant sounds and long sustained notes, it sometimes sounds like the score for a horror film as Anderson explores the darkest corners of the human soul. At other times Greenwood's music is so insistent and driving that it seems to be what's moving the film forward and building the almost unbearable tension.

"There Will Be Blood" (rated R for some violence) is as close to perfection as you will find in a movie. It's dark and bleak in its material yet uplifting in the beauty of its craftsmanship. Plainview and Eli may be unpleasant people but they are fascinating characters.