It could be argued that the two most corrupting influences on humanity today are oil companies and organized religion, and as “There Will Be Blood” demonstrates, ’twas ever so — or at least since the turn of the 20th century.
Loosely adapting Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!”, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson jettisons much of the book’s plot and characters. That exclamation point, however, remains very present, as Anderson has made an epic film that is both visceral and packed with ideas, not to mention simultaneously bleak and exhilarating.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Daniel Plainview, a man bound and determined to dig his wealth out of the ground at any cost. (The film’s first 20 minutes or so are virtually silent, as we see Plainview injure himself and others digging a series of wells.) Once he scores his first strike, Plainview goes from town to town, convincing the locals to give him the rights to search for oil on their land. Helping to make the thoroughly cold-hearted Plainview seem more like a stand-up fella is the fact that he travels with his fresh-faced young “son,” who is in reality the offspring of a fellow worker who died at a previous well site.
Acting on a tip, Plainview and the boy travel to a Godforsaken patch of dust called Little Boston, where they quickly ingratiate themselves and set up a major drilling operation. The one fly in the ointment is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a charismatic preacher who resents Plainview’s presence and enters into an ongoing volley for power that will escalate over the decades. Both talk a good game about taking care of their families and the people around them, but it’s wealth, not love, they’re after.
It’s hard to capture the greatness of “There Will Be Blood” by merely recounting the plot, and it would do the film a disservice to give away its delicious twists and surprises. Suffice it to say, then, that the film triumphs as a character study, as a stunning visual recreation of a bygone era, and as one of the most devastating attacks on greed and capitalism to come out of Hollywood since 1948’s “Force of Evil.”
Also providing a welcome surprise is Anderson himself — nothing in his still-young career (“Blood” is only his fifth feature film) gave any indication that he could handle a film with such sweep and such depth. And while Day-Lewis has long been an acclaimed actor, I’ve found him to be frightfully overrated in everything he’s done post-“My Beautiful Laundrette.” But in this new film, we don’t see Day-Lewis’ legendary research and hard work written all over his performance. It just comes out of him, and the result is a feral, fearsome creation. Dano matches his co-star’s intensity, and the interplay between the two makes for some of this year’s most gripping cinema.
“There Will Be Blood” is the kind of film that divides audiences, but it’s one that stays with you long after you’ve seen it. Whether or not it appeals to such infamously middle-of-the-road entities as the Golden Globes and the Oscars, it’s a movie that people who love movies will discuss, argue over, and rewatch for years to come.