Sunday, 17 February 2008

Film Review: There Will Be Blood

Rarely do you see such towering ambition.

There Will Be Blood is a tour-de-force display in cinematic virtuosity by Paul Thomas Anderson; a deliberate stab at greatness that his lead character Daniel Plainview would be proud of.

A portrait of greed at the beginning the American century based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood is epic, at once, miniature and not far from being absolutely perfect.

Set against the backdrop of the Southern California oil boom of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, it tells a story of greed and envy of biblical proportions, reverberating with Old Testament fire and brimstone and New Testament evangelicalism.

In an almost wordless opening twenty minutes – the only sound we hear is Johnny Greenwood’s screeching score – we’re introduced to Daniel Plainview. Inside a deep, dark hole, he pickaxes the hard-packed soil like a bug gnawing through dirt. When he falls down the mine shaft and breaks his leg, he hauls himself back up to the top and starts all over again. If we loathe Plainview by the end, we certainly admire his pluck at the story’s beginning.

The large swath of the story takes place in 1911, by which point Plainview has become a successful oilman. Using his informally adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) to give him a human mask – "I’m a family man" he proclaims to prospective leasers – he storms through California, sniffing out prospects and trying to persuade frenzied men and women to lease their land for drilling.

One day Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) arrives with news that oil is seeping out of the ground at his family’s ranch. The ranch is in the town of Little Boston, where oil forms puddles out among the cactus, scrub and human misery.

While Plainview sets up his derricks, he soothes the poor, isolated population with promises of schools, roads and water. His gospel is soon challenged by Paul Sunday’s brother Eli (also played by Dano). A charismatic preacher looking to build a new church, Eli slithers into the story. Eli’s only goal to extract money from Plainview to build his Church of the Third Revelation; forcing Plainview to pit his capitalistic force of nature against its Bible-thumping mirror image.

The clash between these titanic egos is the heart of the film and the picture Anderson paints is bleak. Both Plainview and Eli are corrupt, out primarily to consolidate their own power; both sell their snake-oil schemes with promises to better those who follow them; and both ultimately betray those who choose to believe in them.

After more than two hours of low-key tension and unease, the final scene gushes like the oil from one of Plainview’s wells. Driven mad by obsession and possession, and without any further need to charm or cajole, Plainview blows and bellows as he comes head-to-head with Eli one final time.

Comparisons with Citizen Kane are apt but slightly misleading; Plainview has no Rosebud. He regrets nothing. Misses nothing. Pities nothing. He’s a monster. Articulate and largely civilised, but coarse, animalistic and steeped in avarice. He hates all men, and therefore himself.

Brilliantly located at the precise juncture between cinematic realism and theatrical spectacle, Day-Lewis’s outsize performance is among the greatest in cinema history. Unlike its forerunner – Day-Lewis’s turn as Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York – Plainview never strays from believability.

His voice, almost a character in its own right, is frank imitation of the late John Huston. The cadences, the pauses form an elaborate courtesy. With such considered enunciation, he can only be a liar.

Through a tangle of relationships, raging fires, geysers of oil and the inevitable blood, There Will Be Blood film excites, disturbs and provokes in equal measure. It’s nothing short of a work of art.

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