Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson US, 2007. 158mins
There Will Be Blood is a vivid, sprawling parable about greed and moral corrosion. Set in the majestic American Southwest circa 1900, Paul Thomas Anderson's film will ride to the box-office largely on Daniel Day Lewis's volcanic performance as Daniel Plainview, the monstrous rags-to-riches oil-man. The film's title foretells a trail of bodies and damaged souls in the revaged landscape, quoting the Bible and referencing the history of epic cinema
Expect a chorus of critics calling for an Oscar nomination to bring in the audience, even though Day-Lewis is not a box office perennial, and certainly no star for the public under thirty. As an anti-western that shuns Hollywood romance in its drama and landscape, There Will Be Blood should play well in Europe and Japan, given its many unstated parallels to today's political and moral dilemmas.
Anderson's film joins a long line of moral dramas about the allure of riches and the corruptibility of Americans in the stampede to accumulate wealth. Based loosely on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel, Oil!, it evokes the race for gold in John Huston's 1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It also calls the mind the exploitation of the desert in Giant (1956) and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951), and, like Citizen Kane (1941), it culminates in the wretched gilded loneliness of a friendless tycoon.
You won't find nostalgia in this period film. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's dirge of a score stifles any sentimentality Robert Elswit's camera chafes uncomfortably against the rocks, mud, and constant danger of jerry-built drilling rigs that kill far more people than Indians or gunslingers in this western. The fatal accidents, one of which disables the Plainview's young son, are as frightening as anything in a horror movie.
Elswit's wide shots, which borrow from period photographs, remind you that these romanticized frontier settlements were grimy huddles of shacks The production design by Jack Fisk captures the austerity and fragility of that life, which made dirt-poor evangelical farmers all the more susceptible to the shameless pitch of a salesman like Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Lewis's creation of this predatory entrepeneur is a tactile reality check on the gilded age of the robber barons. Lewis also takes the role beyond reality, with a groaning voice that can charm frontier innocents and, like an Old Testament prophet, batter a crowd into submission. He draws on John Huston's monstrous example as the tyrannical patriarch in Chinatown (1974), a parable about a murderous struggle to control water and build a legacy in burgeoning Los Angeles.
Lewis's low roar borders on the quirky, as a similar vocal effect did in Gangs of New York (2002). It's an odd attribute, like the foppish hair of the cold-blooded killer played by Javier Bardem in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (shot in similar terrain across the New Mexico border from Marfa, Texas, where Anderson filmed.)
To Anderson's credit, neither the characters nor the performances aim for likeability. Among the few who defy Daniel Plainview is Eli Sunday (played with chilling authority by Paul Dano), a zealous boy preacher who bargains with the wild-catter to bankroll a church atop the oil patch, where Eli conducts raging exorcisms. Eli proves to be as calaculating, greedy and merciless as the prospector, and ultimately corruptible. Close you eyes, and you hear the voice of America's Christian Right - probably no coincidence.
The closest thing to a sympathetic character is Plainview's young son, H.W. (newcomer Dillon Freasier). Raised to be a partner, he is deafened by a rig explosion and eventually rejects the business, thwarting his father's goal to create a dynasty beyond the grave.
The fatalistic implications of fights and uncontrollable fires in the desert (a parallel to Iraq') and the sacrifice of one's first-born for oil won't be missed by the audience that reads about wars in oil-rich regions today.
Sinclair's novel about the oil boom of the early 1900's was published in 1927, just two years before Wall Street would crumble under the weight of frenzied speculation. There Will Be Blood is another warning that greed and the arrogant use of power have their consequences.
The acting in the film is so gestural that sub-titles are barely necessary, which should help in foreign markets.
Ghoulardi Film Co
Scott Rudin Productions
Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair
Director of photography
Tatiana S. Riegel
Kevin J. O'Connor