A monumental work of American gothic about greed, oil and murder, starring Daniel Day-Lewis
DIRECTED BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON
ST: DANIEL DAY LEWIS, PAUL DANO, KEVIN J O’CONNOR
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) taps an ocean of oil in Little Boston, California, in 1911. But his moment of glory is marred by a feud with an evangelical preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and an accident that deprives his adopted son HW of hearing. Daniel spurns the child, opening up to Henry (Kevin J O’Connor), his long lost brother instead…
Paul Thomas Anderson has been an audacious talent from the first. He’s one of those rare young American filmmakers not afraid to call himself an artist and claim the privileges bestowed by authorship: final cut, for instance… and the right to fall on your face if you have to. Anyone who values hubris and exuberance has to warm to PTA, but at the same time it’s obvious that he hasn’t always found a narrative framework to support his sprawling canvases; the profundity to match his precocity. That is, until now.
His first film since Punch Drunk Love in 2002, There Will Be Blood is a massive leap forward; a bone fide American epic that seems to have been carved out of the very earth. It’s built around a magnificent performance from Daniel Day Lewis – arguably the pinnacle of his career – as Daniel Plainview, a prospector turned oilman in the early days of the twentieth century, a pioneer capitalist and the quintessential self-made man.
Spanning the period from 1898 to 1928, but largely set in southern California before WWI, the movie is structured as a slow reveal, beginning with Daniel (in anything but plain view) toiling with a pickaxe in a mineshaft, and ending on an unforgettable image of a man spent, exhausted, empty and alone.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say things end badly: the ominous tone is set from the first notes of Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood‘s unsettling score, a discordant orchestral piece influenced by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music haunted The Exorcist and The Shining.
The violence promised in the title erupts from nature herself. Strikes and gushers lash out in accidents that smack of retribution, claiming several men before we’ve even heard a word spoken (the first quarter of an hour is entirely speechless). But violence is also bottled up deep in Plainview, a driven, obsessive entrepreneur who calculates his words for maximum profit and keeps a tally in his head.
What measure of man is this? Initially we may admire his acumen and zeal. He adopts the orphaned son of a colleague and brings him up as his own. Day-Lewis affects a shewd, eminently respectable demeanour. His voice rich and seasoned (and sounding echoes of John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown), Plainview pitches the common good, schools and churches. It’s true he seizes opportunity ruthlessly when it comes, but he brings prosperity in his wake.
It’s only when he takes the Almighty for an enemy (in the person of Paul Dano’s evangelical preacher Eli Sunday) that we begin to realise the extent to which he’s motivated by rancour and pride. “I have a competition in me,” he will admit in a fleeting moment of candor with his brother Henry (Kevin J O’Connor). “I want no one else to succeed… I hate most people.”
Money and religion: these are grand themes, twin pillars of civilization, and Anderson maps them with a surveyor’s meticulous patience and precision. Taking its cue from Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” (but soon going its own way), this is a film about the foundation of the American century, the oil boom that would propel the first among nations. Over the course of two and a half hours we learn much about the process by which this vast resource was reaped. Nor is it any coincidence that the climax is reserved for 1928, the very verge of the Crash – any more than it’s a coincidence this great, monumental movie should emerge now, as the fag-end of the Oil Age slouches onto the horizon.
The breadth of vision is impressive, but the lean, stark filmmaking more so: for all its turbulent, troubling undercurrents, this is also Anderson’s most classical movie, a work that seems pinned to a number of illustrious forebears: Giant, certainly, but Citizen Kane more importantly; Chinatown; Eureka and von Stroheim’s Greed. To these we might add two more John Huston films: The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Wise Blood.
And then there’s family, as there always is in Anderson’s films, even if blood relatives are regularly supplanted by surrogates. Not that these relationships are any more sustaining in the long run: fathers and father figures invariably fail their sons and daughters, just as children are doomed to disappoint their parents and mentors.
Rejection; alienation; anger – this is what fires Anderson, and never more ferociously than here. He unleashes scenes of madness and psychosis, such savage and extreme black comedy – Daniel’s baptism – that the movie finally teeters on the edge of disaster. (There must be something of Daniel Plainview in PTA, to be able to get under the skin of such a monster.) God and mammon get such a thorough thrashing, it’s practically sadistic.
And yet for all the sins we witness in There Will Be Blood – they include blasphemy, theft and murder – the most shocking incident is this one: when Daniel takes the young son who is not his flesh but who he has come to love – the boy loves him, at least – and abandons him to his fortune. It’s a wretched betrayal disguised as a kindness, and he acts more than anything out of embarrassment. Perhaps it’s at this moment that Daniel starts to hate himself. His fate is sealed.