A film review by Craig J. Koban
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
2007, R, 158 mins.
2007, R, 158 mins.
Daniel Day-Lewis / Eli Sunday:
Paul Dano / Henry: Kevin J. O'Connor / Fletcher: Ciaran
Hinds / H.W. Plainview: Dillon Freasier / Mary Sunday: Sydney
McCallister / Abel Sunday: David Willis / H.M. Tilford: David
Warshofsky / William Bandy: Colton Woodward / Adult Mary: Sunday
Colleen Foy / Adult H.W.: Russell Harvard
It has been said - by the director’s own admission - that Paul Thomas Anderson watched John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE every night before filming THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
That film was about the growing desperation of men consumed by raw and insatiable greed and how people, once consumed by their desires, grow to not only hate everyone around them, but themselves as well. All of this is clearly evident in Anderson’s film and is captured so effortlessly during one moment where the main character - an oil entrepreneur whose led a life of crude excess and sin - states, "I see the worst in people...I want to rule and never, ever explain myself. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years..."
THERE WILL BE BLOOD - a very, very loose of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel OIL! - is a stirring, hauntingly atmospheric, brilliantly acted, impeccably directed, forcefully downbeat, and ultimately uneven masterpiece. Those looking for a thoroughly encompassing appropriation of the source material need not apply; instead, Anderson takes the book’s plot - that of a rich and morally corrupt oil family - and distills it down to the perverted and self-absorbed tale of one man, Daniel Plainview, who becomes the film’s twisted epicenter. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is about the beginnings of the early days of the oil industry, but that element is only cursory, more of a background entity to the larger essence of the overall story: that of a man that is a perpetual loner, who has no friends, no loved ones, an adopted child he both resents and loves, but uses as a cute facade to further his business aims, and inevitably sees his life disintegrate into physical and emotional decay.
The mood and tone of the film certainly owes a lot to Huston’s film, and while watching it there are also echoes of another cinematic creation with similar ideals and goals, Charles Foster Kane. The parallels here are that both Kane and Plainview let their thirst for power and wealth completely erode their sense of decency and goodwill. By the time Kane was on his death bed, he was a hollow, enigmatic, and pathetic man who reached unattainable levels of wealth and excess but, in the end, had nothing. Plainview’s path is alike in the way he lets his unnerving ambition destroy any semblance of normality in his life. He grows affluent, but the burden of cost lies with his lack of meaningful personal relationships. He’s more of a vile creature than Kane; you always gained the sense that Kane longed for love and understanding, but with Plainview we feel that this man will never really love anyone, himself included.
On these thematic levels, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is thoroughly intoxicating and compelling, and Anderson is more than adept enough to make his way through this complex material. The film is a real paradox: At times, it creates an ethereal beauty and tranquility with its imagery and at other times it's dark, decrepit, and disturbing. The film is also unremorsefully dreary as we see the oil tycoon slowly let his humanity slip away. As a visual and dramatic experience, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is unforgettably transfixing.
I think the overall dilemma of the work is that Anderson lets the story meander a bit too aimlessly for its own good and seems to lose focus on specific character dynamics throughout. The film is long (over two and a half hours) and this is not a filmgoing experience for listless viewers; THERE WILL BE BLOOD is systematically patient and lets the story creep by slowly and methodically to good effect. Yet, as good as the film’s build up is, the overall narrative never gels efficiently, and its third act feels like a whole other film altogether.
If there were two saving graces of the film then it would be Anderson’s masterful direction and the actor under Plainview’s skin, the towering and mesmerizing Daniel Day-Lewis, who can now add his performance here alongside his work as Bill the Butcher in GANGS OF NEW YORK as two of the most ruthlessly ugly and vehemently charismatic performances of the current decade. Like Bill, Plainview is a monster, albeit a more subtle one, but there is not one moment where Lewis does not captivate attention. Whether it be during the film’s quieter moments of intrigue (where Lewis is at his best) or even during the film’s final sequence, where Plainview becomes a twisted, boisterously evil and cartoonishly vile man, watching Lewis is a textbook exercise in performance craft. Certainly, the performance is not consistent (he’s more effective being a soft spoken figure of menace earlier in the film that he is the eruptively chaotic and overtly theatrical lunatic later on), but you still sit there with a perplexing awe; Lewis gives 2007's most blistering and intense performance as his turn-of-the-century business vampire who hungers for wealth.
The film’s story - alongside its visual palette - is epic in scope. It starts in 1898 and we meet Plainview as a lowly silver prospector that accidentally discovers oil in one of his mine shafts in Texas. From this find he earns enough capital to build a small drilling company. During one fateful drill operation one of his workers is brutally killed in a freak accident. The worker had an infant child, now orphaned, but Plainview interestingly adopts the child, raises it as his own, and names the tyke H.W. Unfortunately for the baby, he becomes less a entity of love and companionship for Plainview as he does a victim of his monetary schemes.
The film then flash forwards to 1912 where Plainview’s oil enterprise has grown considerably and is looking to grow ever further. His infant son is now a boy (played by Dillon Freasier, whose creates a eerie level of inner pain and resentment) and Plainview uses him to project his own image as a kind hearted and affable family man, which helps with his oil business’ image. By this time he is one of the richest and most successful men in California.
One day changes Plainview forever: He is visited by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who tells him that he knows where a huge oil reserve can be found, but he will only tell him where for a hefty price. After some haggling, Plainview discovers that the oil is located on the Sunday family ranch and Plainview quickly visits the family and manages to very cheaply get the drilling rights Paul's father, much to the chagrin of the other son, Eli (also played by Dano). Eli thinks Plainview is taking his family for a ride, but what he really wants is some extra capital for his own Church of the Third Revelation that he runs as a fire and brimstone speaking faith-healer. Eli manages to convince Plainview to sign a contract that guarantees the Church $10,000 when he sells the land, but Plainview, being an unscrupulous lout, negates on the deal. This also leads to a snowball effect that sees Plainview’s oil rig beset with tragedy. At one point there is a major explosion that starts a huge oil fire that, as a result, costs H.W his hearing. As the film spirals out of control, this disaster will go on to greatly affect the lives of everyone involved.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD, much like another period film from 2007, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, is sumptuously beautiful and foreboding as a visual experience. Robert Elswit’s stunning and starkly intimidating cinematography creates such a vigorous realism to the proceedings. Also assisting this is the film’s unearthly and weirdly exhilarating musical score by Jonny Greenwood, which considerably adds to the film’s sense of ethereal and ominous grandeur. And then there is Anderson’s fine-tuned direction, which lacks much of the flashiness of his past films and instead shows how he can so smoothly create mood with modest camera set ups and shots. Just look at the way he uses master shots as establishing shots and then slowly pans in and out of the frame to seep the audience into the scenes, largely with unbroken takes. Other directors, whom annoyingly use that hyperactive and seizure-inducing MTV editing, should take notice here: Anderson shows how to create tension and pathos with a minimalist flair.
There are a handful of character moments that are small masterpieces in their own right. The instance where Plainview stares with feverous intensity at the scene of an oil well explosion - realizing the financial prosperity - is haunting. Other individual moments, like when he tries to reconnect with his deaf son, are heart-breaking and filled with torment. The first meeting between Plainview and the faith healer builds to a quiet level of intensity and pathos, which pays off greatly during one of the film’s most memorably moments where Plainview - as one of the conditions to securing lucrative oil piping rights - agrees to be baptized at Eli’s church (the ferocious energy both Dan and Lewis exude here is creepily effective). And finally, there’s a vengeful and inhuman moment when, late in the film, Plainview speaks with his now married son and maliciously reveals to him how he was less a real son and more an ends to a means for his then fledging business empire. The film is at its most dramatically savage here.
All of those moments are powerful, but as great as many of these individual scenes are there are distracted by the sum of the rest of the film’s inconsistent parts. Anderson’s screenplay is patchy and irregular at times. Character are introduced and then forgotten about (like Plainview’s right hand man, played by Ciaran Hinds, and Eli’s brother Paul mysteriously never re-appears after his fist encounter with Plainview, not to mention that Eli and Paul never share the screen with each other). The film also has a subplot involving Plainview’s alleged half-brother (played well by Kevin J. O’Connor) that never really attains a significance other than to show Plainview’s fragile emotional state wreathing out of control.
The film also seems to lose its way with some of the character dynamics. I never really came to appreciate what THERE WILL BE BLOOD was trying to hone in on: Is this a story about a father and adopted son, or about an oil man and a determined and ambitious preacher or about the oil man and his mysteriously revealed half brother? Two much screen time is shifted from all of these relationships and the film can never seem to find a cohesiveness among all of them. To me, the heart of THERE WILL BE BLOOD lies with the three way dynamic between Eli, Plainview, and H.W., but Anderson seems to awkwardly shift attention from it. By the time the film builds to an third act and a final, fateful meeting between Eli and Plainview (the former, for some peculiar reason, has not aged a day in over a decade), Anderson kind of supersedes the early scenes of low key potency and instead goes for overt-the-top theatrics that feel like deleted scenes from another film altogether.
No doubt, Paul Thomas Anderson has become a gifted and singular directorial voice in contemporary American cinema. He has only made five films: His first the very decent HARD EIGHT, followed by his greatest effort, BOOGIE NIGHTS, which was followed by the equally magnificent MAGNOLIA (both being two of the best films of the 90's) and finally - and most recently - made PUNCH DRUNK LOVE with Adam Sandler, which I hated.
After all of the odd chicanery of his last film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a fairly secure return to form for the eclectic and talented filmmaker. It works at its best as a mournfully loathsome look at Manifest Destiny gone berserk and it wisely dives into the inner madness of its main character, who lets his lust for monetary gain destroy him from the inside out. And Daniel Day-Lewis is an absolute marvel to behold here. Yet, the film is murky, muddled, and meandering too much of the time, which subverts its status as a sure-fire masterpiece. Clearly, there is a genius behind the camera here, and it shows often throughout THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but with a bit more story discipline behind it, the film could have been even more arresting and enthralling. Nevertheless, this is a major achievement from a limitlessly endowed director, despite its obvious rough edges.