There Will Be Blood

Centering on one man's greedy entrepreneurship, played with aplomb, panache, and immense intensity by the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood,” a uniquely American sprawling epic of oil and power, family, faith and religion at the turn of the century, is Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth and most ambitious film to date.

It's almost tempting to say that it was worth waiting for five years for the gifted Anderson to make another feature, for new work not only signals a new direction but also shows signs of reenergized invigoration after Anderson's last feature, the minor conceptual comedy “Punch-Drunk Love,” which in hindsight feels like a footnote in his growing body of work. Accomplished on every level, this is Anderson's most resonant work since “Boogie Nights,” his undisputed masterpiece of ten years ago.

Richly dense with references to American literary and cinematic history, “There Will Be Blood” is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 epic novel “Oil!” but it also recalls the work of the other Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, specifically “Elmer Gantry” (a critique of revivalist evangelist religion), which also was published in 1927, the time frame in which the last segment of Anderson's story takes place.

In terms of intertextuality (to use a film studies concept), “There Will Be Blood” will inevitably be compared to the Coen brothers masterpiece, the modernist Western “No Country for Old Men,” and to George Stevens' “Giant,” and not just because all three are epic tales shot in the same geographical region, in Marfa, Texas. Like the Coens, who also did first adaptation of a prestigious literary source, Anderson digs deep into the sources of one of American society's recurrent problems, capitalism and free enterprise at their nastiest and greediest form, and like Stevens' “Giant,” the new film is a sprawling saga spanning generations (from 1898 to 1927 to be exact) and dealing with the oil industry as a major force that forever changed the institutional fabric of America's economy and politics.

However, as a study of a uniquely American character, a monstrous, merciless, egomaniac man, seeking riches, power and fame at all expense, “There Will Be Blood” is Anderson's take on Orson Welles' “Citizen Kane,” and more particularly John Huston's “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a chronicle of greed, malice, and violence centering on gold rather than oil (black gold). John Huston and his father, actor Walter Huston (who won an Oscar for “Sierra Madre”), are also relevant in dissecting the acting, voice, accent, and tone of Daniel Day- Lewis's interpretation of his challenging role, his most demanding and most fully realized since “My Left Foot,” in 1989, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. At this point, Day-Lewis is a frontrunner for this year's male lead Oscar in a role that literally carries and defines the entire yarn, calling for him to be in almost every scene of a saga boasting a running time of 159-minutes!

However, with all my enthusiasm, three things prevent “There Will Be Blood” from fully realizing its potential as an unqualified masterpiece. First, thematically, the saga is narrowly-focused, essentially a father-son drama, albeit a thorough one. It is under-populated in terms of secondary characters, which amount to two or three, all brief one.

I don't think it's a problem that the story lacks any women, save one girl, but some critics and viewers may mind. By comparison, “No Country for Old Men” has two femmes, “Sierra Madre” one, and “Giant,” a family melodrama, is dominated by four women, Liz Taylor, Mercedes McCambridge, Carroll Baker, and Jane Withers.

Second, unlike “Citizen Kane,” “Sierra Madre,” “Giant,” and “No Country for Old Men,” the broader socio-economic context, against which the story unfolds, remains just that, background. Occasionally, there are allusions to some “external” historical or political events, but no explicit references are made to the state of the American economy and politics circa 1911, the crucial pre-WWI era, in which most of the yarn takes place.

Third, “There Will Be Blood” lacks dramatic momentum or genuine narrative pull, a recurrent problem in the work of Anderson, a story-teller who loves his characters but is not interested in–or doesn't know how to–emotionally engaging his audience in a more fluent manner. Anderson has always been a great director of individual set-pieces, such as the opening club scene or fireworks sequence in “Boogie Nights,” or the biblical frogs shower in “Magnolia.”

On the other hand, the above faults may be the reason why Daniel Day-Lewis is allowed and encouraged to create a full-bodied character and for us viewers to get to know him inside out, with all his ups and downs and warts, sins and guilt, transformations and redemption. In this respect, “There Will Be Blood,” is a truly character-oriented rather than plot-driven, a trait that marks all of Anderson's pictures, hailing back to “Hard Eight,” his debut.

As conceived and penned, the saga is divided into three time frames: a prologue set in 1898, lasting about one reel; the story's main section in 1911, which occupies close to two hours; and an epilogue set in 1927, which is not only the most “Citizen Kane”-like, but also the strongest emotionally and dramatically.

Though composed of set-pieces, the yarn is unified by the life and times of one man, Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), who transforms himself from a down-and-out silver miner raising a son, H.W. (newcomer Dillon Freasier in a wonderful turn), on his own into a self-made oil tycoon. As such, film could have easily been titled Daniel Plainview (like “Arrowsmith,” “Citizen Kane,” “Elmer Gantry” and other films titled after their strong single persona), and film's current title, “There Will Be Blood,” could have had an exclamation mark, just like Upton Sinclair's book, “Oil!”

In a bravura opening sequence, that again demonstrates Anderson's considerable skills as a dynamo filmmaker, Plainview is seen out in the fields, going in and out a deep well, equipped with basic tools and ropes. Assisted by vet lenser Robert Elswit and brilliant production designer Jack Fisk, we get in minutia details a portrait of the messy work involved in drilling in a day-and-night sequence that uses ominous sound but no music, and no dialogue at all; it takes at least 20 minutes before Plainview utters one word, indicating right from the start the challenging-unconventional and non-commercial-strategy of Anderson's bold picture.

In a stroke of fate/luck/accident, Plainview gets a mysterious tip-off from a mysterious stranger that there's a little town out West, where an ocean of oil is oozing out of the ground. Quickly and smartly negotiating for a deal, Plainview heads with his son to take their chances in dust-worn Little Boston. With no roots or discernible past revealed, which will become one of the film's mottos, the devoted father tells his son that his mother had died at childbirth, and the sad, quiet boy dutifully accepts that part of “family history” at face value.

In the hardscrabble town, the main excitement centers on the holy-roller church of a charismatic preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, who's impressively commanding but may be too young for his part), who uses his personal charm and persuasive powers to captivate the nave and sickly denizens in a manner that recalls Burt Lancaster's Oscar-winning turn as the charismatic charlatan-evangelist in “Elmer Gantry.”

Recruiting workers, building tents, and basically responsible for the emergence of a whole new thriving community, Plainview and H.W. take full advantage of their lucky strike. The more successful Plainview gets, the more greedy and inhuman he becomes as a business and a family man. In a devastating accident, H.W. loses his hearing, and unable to bear the sight of his damaged son and the responsibility of raising him, Plainview puts H.W. on a train and abandons him. However, despite his nature, Palinview is unable to erase completely his son's memory, and thus becomes a tormented man and object of ridicule.

In the film's main chapters, various conflicts escalate, such as the tension between Plainview and Eli Sunday, resulting in admission of guilt, confession of sin, and forced public baptism, with all the ceremonial and humiliating rituals (from Plainview's POV) involved.

Saga gets a shot of energy with the sudden appearance of poor hobo, Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor), who claims to be Plainview's lost brother. Though suspicious, Plainview, now alone and lonely with no family ties, slowly embraces him–until his initial doubts confirm that the Henry is a fake, resulting in an unbearably intense and violent confrontation that's conveyed and shot, like all the other scenes, in a chillingly uncompromising manner.

In short order, driven by ambition and competition, Plainview loses any semblance of humanity–values of love, hope, and community– and his grasp of reality becomes tenuous, subjective and self-serving. Greed, corruption, deception, and mistrust indicate that Plainview has become a misanthrope, a man motivated by primal animalistic instincts. As he himself says in a crucial speech: “I hate most people, my goal is to earn enough money so that I can get away from everyone.

If in “Sierra Madre,” what destroys the men's souls was lustful greed, driven by gold, in “There Will Be Blood,” the commodity that drives the unbridled greed is oil.

However, unlike “Citizen Kane,” there is no equivalent of “Rosebud” in Anderson's film, which deliberately steers clear of psychological explanations and traumatic childhood events, though it does suggest that Plainview, like many great American entrepreneurs, spends a lifetime divesting himself of his past and reinventing himself in a radical transformation that can occur only in an open, upwardly mobile system, such as American society at the turn of the century, a land of unlimited opportunities.

As noted, “There Will Be Blood” only uses the first 150 pages of Sinclair's novel, which later moves onto Hollywood and Washington D.C. Anderson makes one allusion to Hollywood toward the end, when Sunday mentions that the handsome grandson of a landowner wants to be an actor. For the most part, he concentrates on the opening chapters in which Sinclair describes vividly the workings of the derricks and the precipitous moods that defined communities, which sold–or were forced to sell–their lands at bargain prices to the devil, the oil prospectors.

In this, and other respects, Anderson's new work deviates from the communal, ultimately benevolent spirit that defined his previous films, “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” establishing a direct link with the most recurrent theme of the Coen brothers' oeuvre: Unbridled individualism.

It will be unfair to describe the film's production values as just accomplished, since what ace lenser Robert Elswit and designer Jack Fisk achieve go way beyond that, landing the film an historically authentic feel that's a feast to the eyes, evoking the exterior-geographic, interior-architectural, and human landscapes (via memorable close-ups of Day-Lewis) in a vivid, exciting, and indelible way that would make perfectionists like Terrence Malick and David Lynch proud.

Anderson blends meticulously stunning landscape shots, bravura long takes, and thrilling tracking shots (of moving trains, cars, and individuals) with the kind of intimate close-up scrutiny that reveals the thoughts and emotions as registered on Day-Lewis magnificently expressive and handsome face.

Essential to the movie's varied tonality is the original score by Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist and BBC composer in residence. In addition to uniquely haunting orchestral-symphonic arrangements, there's insistent string motif that sounds like the buzzing of an insect inside one's head, a sound that grows louder and more annoying whenever dramatic events are about to happen, such as the first eruption of black gold, or H.W.'s loss of hearing.

“There Will Be Blood” served as the secret closing-night film of Fantastic Fest 3 in Austin, Texas. Paramount Vantage will release the film on December 26 in New York and Los Angeles, and nationally in January 2008; Miramax will distribute the film internationally.

End Note

This review is 2100 words long: I'll discuss the acting and the film's other aspects in another column.

Oscar Scandal

In what's one of Oscar's biggest snubs, Jack Fisk, who has done brilliant work for Malick, Lynch, and others, has never been nominated for the coveted award. With this picture, the Academy has an opportunity to make amends.

Cast

Daniel Plainview – Daniel Day-Lewis
Eli Sunday – Paul Dano
Henry – Kevin J. O'Connor
Fletcher – Ciaran Hinds
H.W. Plainview – Dillon Freasier
Mary Sunday – Sydney McCallister
Abel Sunday – David Willis
H.M. Tilford – David Warshofsky
William Bandy – Colton Woodward
Adult Mary Sunday – Colleen Foy
Adult H.W – Russell Harvard

Credits

A Paramount Vantage (in U.S.) and Miramax (international) release and presentation of a JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Co. production. Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Sellar, Daniel Lupi.
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eric Schlosser, David Williams.
Directed, written by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair.
Camera: Robert Elswit.
Editor: Dylan Tichenor.
Music: Jonny Greenwood.
Production designer: Jack Fisk.
Art director: David Crank.
Set designer: Carl Stensel.
Set decorator: Jim Erickson.
Costume designer: Mark Bridges.
Sound: John Pritchett.
Sound designer: Christopher Scarabosio.
Re-recording mixers: Michael Semanick, Tom Johnson.
Stunt coordinators: Jeff Habberstad, Myke Schwartz.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 159 Minutes.