Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” is quite possibly the most enthralling, unique and masterful film of 2007. But, in achieving this, it also happens to be one of the most pretentious, frustrating and unusual films. This is filmmaking at its most relentlessly bombastic.
Concerning itself with oil, big business, crackpot religion and our national anger, this is a big, sprawling slice of Americana. Daniel Plainview is the name, and drilling oil is his game. He is the whole film. Complicated, expansive and cerebral, yet immediate, relentless and brutal, “Blood” is whatever you make of it. But it’s not without its flaws, which are all the more apparent in an ambitious case such as this.
Plainview (a red hot Daniel Day-Lewis, “Gangs of New York”) is an oil man. Hands and face constantly caked in oil, Plainview is a slick and marketable figure. He’s a wannabe Hearst in the making. Plainview turns his eyes to the burgeoning market in Eastern California because there’s money to be had and people to be “beaten and broken.”
Little Boston – a Podunk town with oil leaking up from the ground – is brought to Plainview’s attention. He wants it not for oil prices, but cheap, dumb farmer prices. But as the unscrupulous Plainview starts to alter the landscape for his own desires, struggles that are physical, logical and personal arise.
The town develops and people change. We witness Plainview descend into megalomania. Young Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, “Little Miss Sunshine”), the preacher at the local Church of the Third Revelation, is a constant thorn in Plainview’s side. A man claiming to be Daniel’s brother appears in hopes of latching onto the man’s ever-burgeoning empire. Along the way, we get brilliant exercises in style and performance while being shown the moral problems of self and society.
So what’s all the hubbub about anyways? Surely a film that nabs eight Oscar nominations must be doing something right.
Simply put, it does. Anderson, often called unoriginal, uses his deep knowledge of classic film to give nods to other great filmmakers like Huston, Kubrick, Altman and countless others, while synthesizing his own masculine aesthetic. When looking at the inception of one of America’s biggest businesses, it’s important to see its leaders start out insignificant and hungry. Think “Citizen Kane.”
Everything in this production is near perfect. Robert Elswit’s camera keeps everything in focus amid all the blood, dirt and oil. Production designer Jack Fisk’s jaunty shacks and huts allude to the simple emotional states of its leads amid the barren landscapes. And Paul Dano is a scary little shit of a man-boy: manipulative, wiry and pubescent-sounding when angry, the young actor shows great promise. It all works together to create a blisteringly surreal story that never lets go.
In a beautiful yet tragic scene, Plainview’s well has burst, sending his son H.W. flying through the air. Meanwhile, the well has caught fire, and Plainview must stop the burning. We see his madness and glee as the camera hovers closely around his eyes, excited that he has found a great deal of money in the ground. But we also see how his mind is warped because of the lack of care for his son and co-workers. It’s breathtaking and perfectly executed.
Anderson almost eliminates all his self-serving tendencies (the esoteric “Boogie Nights”), to create a film that may actually be for the masses. “Blood” doesn’t feel like an NYU student bragging about his homework accomplishments, but a man who’s finally discovering his talents.
But that’s just the problem. When a film as ambitious as this comes around, it’s only natural that the flaws seem all the greater. Day-Lewis, for all his sound and fury, becomes almost self-parodying by the end. He’s great, but like Leonidis in “300,” Daniel Plainview becomes more about the barking madness and hatred than the character, which is underdeveloped to say the least. And Jonny Greenwood’s ethereal scoring is haunting, but at times laughable. You know, like when a single piano key is hit hard. That happens a couple times.
Add some fairly inconsistent atmosphere, a lack of female presence and an unfortunately poor and unnecessary finale, and you have just a few of the many problems with “Blood.” But maybe that’s just what makes this film so great. You will feel compelled to argue about it for days on end. See it with people. Many will find this to be a perfect examination of the harshness of human nature. Others will see an air of pretentiousness that never stops lingering. Either way, this film will affect you, and it’s not like anything we’ve seen recently. Between everything this film has going for it, “There Will Be Blood” should not be missed, whether you end up liking it or not.
There Will Be Blood
A the State, Showcase and Quality 16
Paramount Vantage and Miramax
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars