There Will Be Blood

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 12/26/07 22:00:00

"It gives new meaning to the term ‘dirty business.’"
5 stars (Awesome)

Daniel Plainview, the mesmerizingly amoral protagonist of ‘There Will Be Blood,’ will do just about anything to acquire oil and the income it generates. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (‘Magnolia’), likewise, is willing to track him to depths of depravity that might seem less than human. If you’re not turned off by how low Plainview can sink or how diligently Anderson covers his descent, ‘There Will Be Blood’ winds up revealing a warts-and-all beauty that no skin medicine should ever be allowed to remedy.

As played by a towering Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York”), Plainview is an eternally lonely man who can glad hand effortlessly while he claims to be speaking plainly. If he did speak plainly, the listeners would certainly not like the misanthropic sentiments they’d hear. He gleefully talks to everyone but confides only to people he considers family, like his lost brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). And even these folks should watch their backs.

In adapting Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, Anderson and Day-Lewis depict Plainview with a surprisingly effective balance of horror and affection. In the early portions of the film, viewers see how hard Plainview and his accomplices toiled to pull petroleum from the earth.

Plainview nearly dies prospecting in the late 19th century and later adopts his subordinate’s son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) when the lad’s father dies in an accident.

A few years later H.W. becomes his partner in crime, helping his father swindle residents out of the value of their land. To be fair, Plainview has trouble gaining the true value for his product as well. The major companies like Standard Oil and the railroads are happy to eat up much of the oil revenue through distribution costs.

He also has to contend with a charismatic preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, “Little Miss Sunshine”) who occasionally gets between Plainview and the pipeline he wants to build in order to take his product directly to his customers. Eli’s cherubic face and dynamic sermons leave Plainview envious of his technique and popularity. It also gradually becomes clear that neither man is all that virtuous.

On paper, Plainview’s rise from prospector to oil baron is simple, but Anderson makes it compelling by immersing the viewer in Plainview’s world. As rigs go up, it’s rather shocking to think that folks used to make oil wells out of flammable wood. It makes the path that gasoline took to get in your tank seem not so smooth.

You get a sense that Plainview might not have survived, much less thrived, if he hadn’t have been duplicitous. That doesn’t make his outrages any less disturbing. Day-Lewis plays Plainview as a man whose heart is pitch black but still beats. Even though he’s eager to one-up his competitors, he can still feel pain when he’s betrayed.

There’s an astonishing scene where Plainview wordlessly bonds with an infant H.W. Anderson manages to capture the sequence in a long, wide take. If you’ve even tried to get a toddler to sit still, you can appreciate how difficult this scene might have been to film.

Like Plainview, Anderson is eager to tell his story his own way. Like his hero Robert Altman, he puts up obstacles that will frustrate any viewer who isn’t willing to play close attention. For the first several minutes, not a single word is uttered. The first ten years of the tale go by through a series of sequences that indicate how hazardous the oil trade was in the early days of the 20th century.

As the film progresses, the Anderson’s technical bravado seems self-consciousness and more natural and fitting. The droning, dissonant score by Radiohead veteran Jonny Greenwood is off-putting at first, but it fits cinematographer Robert Elswit’s gritty images perfectly.

Upton Sinclair wrote Oil! as a critique of capitalism in the wake of the Teapot Dome Oil scandal. “There Will Be Blood,” however, is not simply an attack on corporate greed and worker exploitation. Plainview is intriguing because of the way he claws to stay alive, but his transgressions are no less heinous. While Day-Lewis plays him with a galvanizing larger-than-life swagger, his foibles are still human and may sadly be universal.

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