Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Review: There Will Be Blood
4.5 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Those who enter Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood expecting something brutal are going to get it, though not in the way the title suggests. While blood is indeed spilt more than once and a few characters meet ugly ends, a gore-fest this most certainly is not. The brutality of the much-heralded epic comes from within the core of its monstrous central character, played ferociously by the great Daniel Day-Lewis. What he and the film create is something far more unsettling than mere flesh wounds.

The character is the greedy and ambitious oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, who’s about as abominable a man as one could dare to imagine. When we first meet him (in a long opening scene that’s transfixing without a single spoken word), it’s in his humble beginnings as a Texas silver miner at the turn of the twentieth century. Once Plainview strikes black gold, his blind quest for riches and success takes over, and soon we’re thrust years forward when both have come to fruition. With his adopted son and associate H.W. (Dillon Freasier) in tow, he combs the lands for more oil to cultivate, migrating from town to town and pitching the same practiced proposition to each one. A solid work ethic is Plainview’s only admirable quality. Admittedly hateful of all people and surrounded only by those who can contribute to his own personal gains (H.W.’s presence is essentially a sales tactic), he could be compared to Ebeneezer Scrooge if the Christmas Carol lead sought petroleum and took steroids. “I have a competition in me,” Plainview says at one point. That he surely does, but a “storm” is a better word to describe what’s brewing inside this man. Like the bubbling crude he’s constantly searching for, he’s an unpredictable force of nature, ready to erupt at any given moment.

Day-Lewis (an actor who rarely works but delivers nothing less than genius when he does) uses his counterpart’s abhorrent traits to construct an incredibly intimidating screen presence. With a growling voice and deep, dark eyes that burn, the power he instills in Plainview is born from the teetering uncertainty of his capabilities. It’s a virtuoso performance that deserves every award it has already received and has yet to receive (*note: Oscar).

Plainview’s travels eventually lead him to the small California town of Little Boston, where an earthquake has shaken up so much oil it gets kicked up by men’s boot heels on the ground surface. It’s also where a large chunk of the film’s narrative unfolds and where Plainview meets Eli Sunday, a sniveling, sweaty young priest played by Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano. Sunday and his family agree to let Plainview harvest their land, so long as he use some of his money to finance the corrupt local church. When he naturally fails to do so, the two become bitter rivals, their conflict ultimately leading to a bewildering final showdown that will no doubt leave some audience members enraged.

It’s interesting that this and Joel and Ethan Coen’s superior (though not by much) No Country for Old Men were the most critically acclaimed films of 2007. For as alike as the two movies are (same setting, same nihilistic tone, both nearly devoid of a female presence), they have one stark foundational difference. Whereas No Country thrived on its lack of background music, There Will Be Blood is driven inexorably forward by it. About a third of the way through the story, a major character goes deaf, and all I could think about was what a pity it would be to not be able to hear this tremendous score. It was produced by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood and, dare I say, it’s the blood-pump of the film. Composed of strings, drums, and a handful of other sounds at their most chilling, it immediately turns even the tamest of scenes into searing drama and makes the movie that much more frighteningly intense. One not-so-tame sequence it notably highlights is when one of Plainview’s wells shoots a thunderous black geyser into the sky and the entire rig catches on fire. The tension that the music in the scene provokes is not from the potential danger of the flames, but from the growing knowledge of just how much oil lies underground. Plainview is so entranced by the notion that he fails to even immediately care for his injured child.

There Will Be Blood (loosely adapted by Anderson from the 1927 novel "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair) is hypnotic and intoxicating. I arrived just a tad bit late to my screening, but once I sat down, I dared not look away nor interrupt someone else’s hypnosis to ask what happened in the few minutes I missed. The scope and execution of it is the stuff that constitutes great pictures, while its unnerving nature is the stuff nightmares are made of. I’d compare it to The Deer Hunter, in that its quality is unmistakable, but at the same time, its eeriness, unshakable. It could also be viewed as respondent to the times, what with its presentation of what gluttonous, powerful men will do for oil and its depiction of religion as evil and fraudulent. It’s a tough film to take, one that’s hard and often unfeeling. If the title makes would-be viewers afraid, so they should be. It is terrifying, but the brilliant ways in which it achieves so primal a terror are the very things that make it so good.

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