04 December, 2008
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Black gold, black hearts, bloody masterpiece
At the risk of being unbearably smug, reviewing films for a living can be an absolutely wonderful occupation. Paul Thomas Anderson, who previously gave the world Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Magnolia (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997), has outdone himself with his adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! and, in Daniel Day-Lewis as the morally ambiguous, Machiavellian early US oil baron, Daniel Plainview, the medium itself has been elevated.
It’s that simple. You could count on one hand the performances from more than a hundred years of cinema that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Day-Lewis’s astounding take - Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), John Huston in Chinatown (1974), De Niro in Raging Bull (1980) - he’s just that good. Thank heavens that ‘Dan the Man’ lifted the Oscar statuette this year, among the many other awards that P.T. Anderson's film won.
Still with me at the back? We were talking about There Will Be Blood, weren’t we? This epic, reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) in its sweep and audacity, opens in 1898, with Daniel Plainview working his unforgiving silver mine in the New Mexico wilderness. When he breaks his leg after finally finding some silver ore, he drags himself to town and hires a crew, including a man caring for an infant son. By chance, Plainview discovers oil in the same mine, but the boy’s father dies in a drilling accident. Renaming him H.W, Planview adopts the young boy as his own. Nine years later: Plainview is a charismatic and modestly successful oil man with several productive wells around New Mexico and, with H.W. (Dillon Freasier), travelling the state, buying drilling rights. But his life is about to change forever - a visit from young Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) leads Plainview to the town of Little Boston, California, and ‘an ocean of oil’. But there’s a caveat - Paul’s twin brother Eli (also played by Dano) is a constant irritant to Plainview; he’s the preacher/’faith healer’ who tends to the flock at the Church of the Third Revelation. The $10,000 that the oil man agrees to pay for drilling rights is to go towards a new building for the congregation - in this pact, a blood tie has been forged between Daniel and Eli…they just don’t know it yet.
From the moment Day-Lewis opens his mouth (which takes a while - Anderson is courageous enough not to have any dialogue, save a rasping 'There she is', for nearly 20 minutes), you just know you’re in for a joy. Nailing the silken tones of a turn-of-the-century American gentleman without the hint of a brogue, the actor goes on to reveal, with no mis-step whatsoever, a man with a mask that covers his misanthropy. It’s slipping more and more as his success grows (’I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little…I can’t keep doing this on my own with these…people’) yet Day-Lewis’s characterization nevertheless retains viewer sympathy because of the ‘moral’ (if you can call it that) battle that he conducts with the venal, utterly corrupt ‘man of faith’, Eli - a terrific counterpoint turn from Dano.
And it is in this confrontation, between two men who know themselves to be damned, that the film draws its supreme power, culminating in a denouement that is easily among the finest finishes ever committed to celluloid. Day-Lewis doesn’t merely chew the scenery - he swallows it whole. ‘Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you, Eli? I AM THE THIRD REVELATION! I AM WHO THE LORD HAS CHOSEN!’
Oh yes, there will be blood. You better believe it - and your life will be poorer if you don’t see this incredible dance of death.
Awards: Way too many to cite here. Click for more details.