There are good films. There are great films. And then there are films that come along, once in a decade, if we’re lucky, that are so different that they seem to reinvent the medium. These films are received in different ways. Sometimes they’re heralded as the second coming, and sometimes they are even lambasted by critics and it’s years before they’re properly appreciated. What defines these films for me, is their affect on me. How much I’ll be thinking of them after I see them. Rarely has a film perplexed me and astounded me as Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
Adapted from the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, first published in 1927, There Will Be Blood is a tale of greed versus religion and a clash between two forces who are relentlessly ambitious but have vastly different goals. The novel Oil! was a very political novel with Sinclair even sending it to members of congress. In his adaptation, Anderson changed the protagonist and stripped the novel down to the story of Daniel Plainview. Plainview is a silver prospector who stumbles across oil in his silver mine. He drills for oil and hits paydirt, but in the process, one of his workers is killed, leaving his son an orphan. Plainview takes the baby on as his own. Years pass and Plainview has made a name for himself in the oil business when he is approached by a young man who claims his home town is rich in untapped oil. He sells the location of the town to Plainview, who takes his son H.W. and seeks out the town. When he finds that it is indeed rich with oil, he sets about selling himself to the town to take their oil. But the brother of the young man who approached Plainview, Eli Sunday has his own plans. He’s a shrewd preacher who wants Plainview’s money to build his church. They have vastly different goals which cannot be achieved without great confrontation.
By now, you’ll have read or heard quite a bit about There Will Be Blood. Not only about the incredible performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, but also about the film itself. But to be honest, it’s extremely difficult to do the film justice here. In fact, just one viewing of the film doesn’t do it justice. It’s so packed with detail that the nuances of the actors’ performances, every minute detail of the production design and direction cannot be taken in first time. Central to this wonderful dilemma is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Daniel Plainview. There are very few scenes in the film where Day-Lewis isn’t on screen. And when he is, it is next to impossible to take your eyes off him.
Plainview is an incredibly complex character. At the very heart of him, he is the embodiment of ambition. Ruthless ambition. But aside from that, there are so many levels to his character. He’s charismatic, yet hates people with a passion. He’s gentle in some moments, and explodes with rage in others. He’s greedy, yet generous if it helps him achieve his goals. Yet the depiction of this character isn’t just of an evil man. Throughout the course of the film we see the disintegration of Plainview into a twisted, bitter old man. By the third act, Plainview is consumed by the worse parts of his character, and in some ways becomes a more typical movie villain. But this isn’t a flaw. This is, after all, a character study film, and this part of it is warranted after what has preceded.
Day-Lewis’ performance is as detailed as the character he is playing. Every gesticulation, every twitch in his face is essential to the performance and is fascinating to watch. While I’d heard great things about the performance before heading into the film, I was fascinated at how Day-Lewis just seems bigger than the screen size. He seems to transcend the film, and at points overshadows the plot. In some cases, this might be a problem, but the tension built in the film prevents this from happening. There are moments of such palpable tension that the film becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. This is what filmmaking can do when it’s executed perfectly. Some have criticised Day-Lewis for channelling John Huston in Chinatown, which is where he drew inspiration for his accent in the film. But if doing this was a problem, it would be a problem I would like to see more in films these days. While I’m trying desperately to avoid hyperbole, it’s no exaggeration to say that Day-Lewis’ performance will be remembered as one of the screens’ greatest. It’s up there with DeNiro playing Travis Bickle and Brando playing Terry Malloy.
Playing opposite Day-Lewis is Paul Dano as both Paul and Eli Sunday. It’s an unenviable task. How do you possibly try to make your presence felt in the face of such overpowering acting? Yet Dano does an excellent job as Eli. Eli is similar to Plainview in only one way- ambition. And Dano carries this across quite well. He’s playing a fire and brimstone preacher, and delivers the scripture spouting venom you’d expect from the role. But it’s when he’s playing off Day-Lewis when he’s at his best. It’s a shame Dano wasn’t recognised more at awards time. Despite being overshadowed by Day-Lewis in the entire film, he does hold his own when opposite him.
But the film isn’t only about the actors. It’s a film not only about ambition, but also made with ambition. A hell of a lot of it. The scope of the film is enormous. It attempts to chart the beginnings of the oil industry through one story. And in a way, it does achieve this. We get a sense of how prospectors and oil companies moved into an area, staked their claim and basically took over. Business took precedence over people, and money was the ultimate goal. This is clear. But at the same time, it’s a microcosm of this, told through the eyes of two men. And it’s this that stops the film from being overshadowed by the acting. It’s through Anderson’s superb writing and direction that the film is such a fascinating watch. There are a number of scenes in the film that are just perfect. The cinematography, by Robert Elswit is incredible. The Californian desert blisters the screen. Jets of flaming oil burn beautifully in the dark. The music, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is very different to what you’d expect from a film as epic as There Will Be Blood. It’s stripped down and doesn’t rely on themes. Yet this compliments the film more than a full orchestral score would. In one of the many perfect scenes, an oil well explodes. Plainview similarly explodes into action. The screen erupts with the image of a towering flame, and the score bursts into percussion. All elements fall into place perfectly.
At this stage, I could write another ten pages about There Will Be Blood, and I’d still not do the film the justice it deserves. It’s difficult to refrain from hyperbole when a film just hits you so hard that you feel it days afterward. With this film, Anderson has elevated himself to the level that few directors achieve. If his career continues as it has begun, we may have a new Stanley Kubrick on our hands. Indeed, it seems fitting that for one particular scene, Anderson wanted to invoke A Clockwork Orange. I do believe that this film is the first classic of the twenty first century. A film that will define this era. The forties had Citizen Kane. The seventies had Taxi Driver. The noughties have There Will Be Blood.