“THERE Will Be Blood,” the joint venture between actor Daniel Day-Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson, might be the most incendiary combination since the Molotov cocktail. Though it can be over the top and excessive, this morality play set in the early days of California’s oil boom also creates considerable heat and light and does some serious aesthetic damage.
Aside from exceptional talent and triple-decker names, Day-Lewis and Anderson share a ferocity of approach to their work, investing so much intensity in the projects they choose that they don’t choose very many: “Blood” is the actor’s fourth film in the last decade and the director’s second in the last eight years.
Anderson, a modern cinematic visionary, is always happiest when he is out on the aesthetic edge, determined to involve audiences in disturbing, difficult narratives, from the suburban pornographers of “Boogie Nights” to “Magnolia’s” raining frogs.
As for Day-Lewis, he has become justifiably celebrated for disappearing into his characters with a completeness that is both terrifying and an ideal match for Anderson’s filmmaking approach. “People don’t know how Daniel can do this job the way that he does it,” the director has tellingly said, “and my feeling is, I just can’t understand how anyone could do it any other way.”
The story that has intrigued these two men started with a venerable source, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1927 novel “Oil!” The book, however, has a really minimal, almost “suggested by” relationship to what’s on the screen, which turns out to be a distinctly timely and modern tale, albeit one with problematic aspects, that involves the unholy trinity of oil, money and religion.
For Anderson, who has reveled in multi-strand stories, this has been a chance to venture into, in his own words, “100% straightforward old-fashioned storytelling.” With this filmmaker, however, nothing is ever really old-fashioned or straightforward, and there is enough savagery, extremism and grotesque violence in the way “Blood” unfolds to unsettle most folk.
Making “Blood’s” story even more disturbing is the troubling score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, powerful, brooding new music that is critical to the film’s impact, creating pervasive uneasiness and letting us know that, appearances to the contrary, we’re not watching a conventional story.
It helps, of course, to have someone of Day-Lewis’ trademark fierceness and implacability as protagonist Daniel Plainview, whom we follow from his turn-of-the-20th-century beginnings as a silver miner to a finale nearly 30 years later.
Day-Lewis works at such a high-wire level that many of the film’s supporting cast members simply fade away. Only the self-possessed newcomer Dillon Freasier as his young son H.W. and the gifted Paul Dano of “Little Miss Sunshine” as his nemesis have the ability to hold the screen against him.
Marvelously photographed by Anderson veteran Robert Elswit largely around Marfa, Texas (where “Giant” was shot), “There Will Be Blood” is western to its core, presenting a vast, uncaring environment that dwarfs the grasping men who are determined to wrest hidden wealth from the earth. Anderson has said that “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” John Huston’s treatise on madness and greed, was a touchstone movie for him in shooting, and it’s easy to see why.
After preliminary, almost wordless sequences convincingly establishing the world of turn-of-the-last-century oil prospecting, “Blood” begins in earnest with Day-Lewis’ Plainview persuasively addressing a group of citizens whose oil he wants to drill for.
He’s an oilman, he says in an almost melodic voice, not a speculator, and, grandly introducing the 10-year-old H.D. as “my son and my partner,” he also claims to offer “the bond of family.” Convincing and compelling as all this is, there are hints of other traits in Plainview, intimations of a frighteningly indomitable man you trifle with at your own peril.
With the original Upton Sinclair “Oil!” said to be based on the Signal Hill oil strike outside of Long Beach, the largest part of “There Will Be Blood” takes place around a similar huge strike near the fictional California town of Little Boston. Plainview goes there on a tip, and the film shows what transpires as he attempts to consolidate control over the vast oil fields he discovers. It is not a pretty picture.
For as he works to gain power, Plainview turns into God’s wrath, or the devil’s. He engages in ferocious battles with all comers, even his son, but his most bitter fight is with young Eli Sunday (the smoothly effective Dano), a charismatic preacher and faith healer and founder of Little Boston’s Church of the Third Revelation. On a personal level, Sunday is no more godly than Plainview, and their psychological and even physical combat is savagery itself.
Though he starts out almost likable, as Plainview stores up hatreds and animosities over the years, his coldness and arrogance become more visible and his indifference to and contempt for humanity grows exponentially. This, “There Will Be Blood” is in part saying, is what we do to ourselves when, as either business or religious leaders, we deny the humanity in us and overvalue wealth and power.
This study of rapacious, uncaring capitalism points up the uncertain philosophical legacy of the original novel, for where “Blood” shows its limitations is in the realm of subtleties of character development.
It’s important to remember that Sinclair was as much a committed socialist as a novelist, someone who probably wrote for political purpose more than for dramatic effect. So while Day-Lewis’ gorgeous acting largely disguises it, the people in “Blood” tend to be schematic and the film as a whole has a weakness for the didactic. In its willingness to push everything, even personality, to extremes, this is a film with the defects of its virtues, so it’s fortunate that those virtues are very great indeed.
“There Will Be Blood.” MPAA rating: R for some violence. Running time: 2 hours, 39 minutes. At the ArcLight Hollywood.