Modern America Is Born Of Both Blood And Oil In Paul Thomas Anderson's Latest Cinematic Feat
There's a whiff of Citizen Kane about There Will Be Blood. Like Orson Welles' 1941 masterwork, Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie describes an early 20th century Californian who builds an empire out of his extraordinary energy and then wrecks his own life out of his incapacity for empathy. Both Charles Foster Kane and Daniel Plainview are Shakespearean protagonists--too creative and too wounded to be fully condemned and too ruthless to be fully admired.
Like Welles, writer-director Anderson doesn't have to state his theme baldly, for he has fashioned an original cinematic language to reveal Plainview's personality in all its contradictory genius and monstrosity. Long stretches of this new picture are dialogue-free, but those passages prove far more eloquent than most so-called literary movies. Blood stands as one of a handful of this decade's great American movies.
It begins with the most astonishing of those wordless sequences. At the bottom of a deep, narrow hole in the ground, Plainview swings a pick ax again and again, trying to find some silver in the worthless rock before him. The year is 1898, and Daniel Day-Lewis plays the young miner in a white cotton shirt with rivulets of perspiration running through caked mud on his quarter-dome of a forehead. Every evening he clambers up a rickety ladder to a one-man tent in the middle of a desert; every morning he clambers back down to swing the pick once more. And when some timbers collapse and shatter Plainview's ankle at the bottom of the hole, he has to haul his useless, excruciating leg up that long ladder.
Thus, before a single word is spoken, we are already intimately acquainted with Plainview's desperate, unbendable will and the harshness of independent mining. There's something compelling about a movie scene that elucidates a physical task--whether it be building a house, training a horse, or cooking an omelet--and Anderson fills Blood with such scenes, illuminating one-man silver mining, wildcat oil drilling, and large-scale oil operations with an attention to detail and a clarity of organization.
Thanks to his refusal to be denied and his willingness to shrug off casualties of the business, Plainview becomes a successful oilman. Though he displays little interest in women, he has acquired an adopted son--a dark-banged, cherub-cheeked boy named H.W.--whom Plainview shamelessly uses as a prop when trying to convince farmers to let lease their land for oil wells. In his drooping mustache, flat-brimmed hat, and boyish smile, the oilman is a charmer, talking honestly about his track record of bringing in wells and less honestly about what he'll do for the town's church and school.
Paul Dano, the silent son in Little Miss Sunshine, plays Eli Sunday, a boy evangelist who tries to hold Plainview to his promises. The oilman tries to ignore the preacher, then tries to co-opt him, and finally tries to intimidate him. Eli, in turn, plays on Plainview's good intentions (which prove scant), on his guilt (which proves plentiful, especially after H.W. is injured in a mining accident), and on his commercial calculations (which are always savvy). Their ongoing battle dominates the latter two-thirds of the picture, though there's still room for Plainview's troubled relationship with his son and dangerous competition with Standard Oil.
The back and forth between Plainview and Eli would be interesting enough if it merely reflected the timeless American tug of war between economic pragmatism and moral conscience. But it's richer than that. It also reflects the nation's alternating faith in scientific facts and superstitious hokum. Eli's claims to cure arthritis in his church are clearly bogus, while Plainview's ability to find oil and get it out of the ground is proven over and over. The conflict finally climaxes in a California mansion not unlike Kane's Xanadu or William Randolph Heart's San Simeon.
Day-Lewis, in only his third screen role since 1997, is brilliant. Not only is he equally convincing as the seducer who can wheedle a lease out of the most skeptical farmer and as the striver who can bury the dead and ship off the injured without a second thought, but he shows us the calculating mind that holds those two faces together. More importantly, he radiates the heat from that inner furnace that drives some men to triumph and catastrophe. You can't fake that in front of a movie camera.
Most of the credit, though, goes to Anderson, who wastes nary a word or shot in telling this epic story. There Will Be Blood is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!--so loosely that Anderson changed the title, the names, and much of the plot. The filmmaker evokes not only an exceptional person but also an exceptional time and place--the Southern California of the early 20th century when everything was still up for grabs. More than once, Anderson pulls his camera back to reveal how tentative the wooden houses and oil derricks look amid the rolling brown hills, as if the land might still swallow up the men and not the other way around.