(No longer in theaters)
Jan 18, 2008
As Daniel Plainview, the monomaniacal oilman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis wears a thick, curly mustache, and his face is freakishly long and straight, like a Balinese mask. His eyes are slits; they sparkle only when he trains them on his principal antagonist, a self-styled young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Plainview can’t believe this loon, who ostentatiously renounces worldly goods and whose voice rises to a girlish falsetto as he throws himself into exorcising the demons from his congregants. He also can’t believe he had to bargain hard with the boy-preacher to buy the Sunday family’s remote central California farm, under which there’s “an ocean of oil.” Plainview is a man of the earth, not the spirit—his gaze points down, not up. When he and the ninnyish Eli occupy the same space, you can almost smell the sulfur coming from his nostrils. He wants to beat the kid into the ground.
There Will Be Blood is a chamber drama on the scale of an Old Testament allegory, an epic Western, a parable of rapacious capitalism. It’s sublime—beautiful and ghastly at once. It wouldn’t work without an actor the size of Day-Lewis, who looms as large as the oil derricks that dominate the unruly landscape; he fills the screen and then some. He has preternatural stature from the start, in 1898—a bravura, virtually wordless opening in which he labors alone on his gold mine. At night, he chews his food by his campfire in a crouch, like a simian caveman out of 2001. When he drills his first successful oil well, he loses one of his workers to a plummeting shaft. The man leaves an infant behind (the mother appears to have died in childbirth—this is a movie about fathers, not mothers), and Plainview moistens the squalling baby’s bottle with whiskey. What would he do with a baby? We find out in the next sequence, a leap of years, when the small boy, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), serves as a prop in what Plainview now sells as a family business. The kid listens to his dad address the townspeople whose land he wants to lease with an enigmatic smile, drinking in the spiel, and that voice of Plainview’s is something to hear: cadenced, deep-toned, a plangent rasp. Day-Lewis sounds like John Huston, and his Plainview could be the up-and-coming Noah Cross from Chinatown. Except Plainview sublimates his dark sexual impulses. He sinks his drill into the virginal land.
Anderson was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! but quickly veers off in a personal direction. His Boogie Nights and Magnolia are delirious ensemble psychodramas that circle around the fraught relationships of fathers and children, of families real and surrogate, dysfunctional and semi-functional. There Will Be Blood is a family drama, too, except stark and cruel, with Plainview’s drive corroding every tie. Fathers do unfatherly things. Brothers aren’t brotherly. Every business triumph has a tragic personal corollary. Plainview isn’t inhuman. He’s devoted, in his way, to his son, and he begins to open up when Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), his “brother from another mother,” appears on his doorstep. But he’s a solitary, suspicious man whose success breeds even more paranoia, in the venerable tradition of American tycoons like Charles Foster Kane and even Michael Corleone. There is blood, and when it comes it’s shocking and absurd—more grotesque than the end of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, in which the corrupted businessman ends up squashed in the back of a garbage truck. It’s Punch-and-Judy time in a private bowling alley, an ignominious finish to an age-old struggle.
Reportedly, some preview audiences laughed derisively at the ending. I was agog. The movie doesn’t need a somber finale—it needs something go-for-broke batshit crazy as a counterpoint to the early, mythic images of tall, gushing wells. The astounding classical score, by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, is redolent of bad karma—ominous low strings, discordant buzzing like locusts from outer space. Maybe the gifted Paul Dano goes a little over the top at the end, but he’s opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, for crying out loud, and it’s no time to play it safe. Anderson’s fearless, bighearted filmmaking is an antidote to the toxic cloud of Manifest Destiny. He has made a mad American classic.