It occurred to me, as I stumbled somewhat exhausted out of last night’s screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic movie about oil, greed and murder, that both this film and The Assassination Of Jesse James seem to be a return to the kind of filmmaking not seen since Heaven’s Gate.
By which, of course, I don’t mean Jesse James and There Will Be Blood are likely to bankrupt their respective studios. But these are both lengthy, male-dominated, American art films, as anti-commercial as you can get. And, really, the kind of movies I wish I saw pretty much every time I went to a screening.
There Will Be Blood and Jesse James certainly share similarities beyond the Heaven’s Gate comparison. They’re both long and set at the start of the American Century, and both adopt the language of myth. They can also been seen as metaphors for our own time. If Jesse is a statement on the corrosive power of celebrity culture, There Will Be Blood is about how modern America is built on oil, rapacity and violence and, as far as Anderson is concerned, is damned as a result.
But if Jesse is a more approachable movie, There Will Be Blood wilfully confounds audiences at what feels like every opportunity. You go in expecting, as my guest did, “a Giant for the 21st century,” only to find something far stranger and disorientating. The editing, the soundtrack, the way Anderson’s camera lingers apparently at random on seemingly minor moments, all serve to undermine your assumptions and generate a lingering sense of disquiet.
The film’s opening 20 minutes, for instance, are almost completely without dialogue, driven by a jarring avant garde score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
We meet struggling prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) in 1898, chipping away in semi-darkness down a mineshaft in some remote South Californian desert. There’s an incident, and his leg is broken. He crawls some distance to the nearest town. This is clearly a man with an almost superhuman drive to succeed. As he switches from gold to oil, his business flourishes when he hits the strike of a lifetime. He sets out round California with a boy, HW, who he introduces as his “son and partner”, buying up land leases at bargain rates from ranchers and farmers who are living above oilfields. In one small community, Plainview encounters Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine), an unctuous, callow lad who believes he’s a healer, and whose Church of the Third Revelation is in the middle of oil-rich land. The relationship between the two men – and, by extension, the relationship between industry and religion that fired the American Century – provides something of the film’s focus.
Mostly, though, There Will Be Blood is a character study of Plainview, and provides Day Lewis with a typically meaty role, the kind of performance that inevitably wins awards and high praise from the critics. Fairview is part Charles Foster Kane, part Bill The Butcher, who at one point admits: “I hate most people. I want to earn enough money so I can get away from everyone.” It’s a brilliant deconstruction of the kind of role De Niro’s famous for: the larger-than-life sociopath. But by dispensing with any kind of heroic character to balance out Fairview’s unrelenting misanthropy, the film offers nothing in the way of redemption. There’s no chink of light anywhere. In the film’s third act, with the now-reclusive Plainview holed up in a Hollywood mansion in 1927, drunk, embittered, his mood increasingly murderous, Day Lewis unleashes the kind of performance that you either find completely over the top or simply all-consuming.
Anyway, all this is something of a departure for Anderson, whose last film, lest we forget, was an idiosyncratic art comedy with Adam Sandler. There Will Be Blood opens in the UK on February 8.
You can watch the trailer here.