In Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview is a Southern oilman whose insatiable greed and unyielding disdain for his peers leave him wealthy beyond his dreams and alone with his demons. His journey is set in the dirty, barren plains of New Mexico at the turn of the last century, when there was money to be made for the reckless and the adventurous. Plainview is both. The film is a meditation on the allure of success, the twisted ethics required to attain it and the moral poverty required to keep it, delivered through a complex character study.
The film opens with Daniel (played with Method-rich relish by Daniel Day-Lewis) toiling with a pick in a hole. He finds a small deposit of silver ore, and in the effort to remove it, falls and breaks his ankle. He then drags himself across the desert, with a sample tucked under his vest, back to the prospector’s office. This superhuman determination is both Daniel’s greatest strength and weakness. He swindles a farming family out of their oil-soaked land and is tormented for the remainder of the film by the family’s son, Eli Sunday, (Paul Dano of Little Miss Sunshine fame) and the fiery flavor of Christianity he represents. Oil and religion fight for supremacy throughout the film’s plodding two hours and 38 minutes.
Day-Lewis delivers a performance full of tics–his tongue massaging his ruddy cheeks, the veins in his forehead pulsing–but it comes off as angling too hard for a Best Actor nod (which he got). A few more failed epics and Day-Lewis could find himself in the discount bin of overextended Great Thespians with Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro: once great, now grating. Dano finds the fun in his fundamentalist Eli, and although his menace falls flat, he and Day-Lewis share a terrific baptism scene halfway through the film. Rounding out the competent cast are Dillon Freasier as 7-year-old HW Plainview and Sydney McAllister as his best friend, young Mary Sunday.
Jonny Greenwood provides dissonant strings on the soundtrack with mixed results. At times, the bass and cello combination hints at Daniel’s dark, tormented loneliness, but elsewhere it feels out of place. Anderson’s script (he wrote and directed) could have used more of what the industry gently calls polish, but amounts to the studio getting another scribe to toss out the bad parts. Subplots appear for the sake of getting the audience through the second act, and Daniel’s deterioration into a paranoid hermit is neither adequately explained nor explored. One wonders if the good people at Miramax picked up the project because of its eerie parallels to America’s current foreign fixation on oil and the domestic disturbance of fundamentalist Christianity.
All told, There Will Be Blood feels like one of Daniel’s oil derricks: lots of potential under the surface, but ultimately a great, big, sloppy mess.
There Will Be Blood
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
With Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano.
158 minutes. Drama.