There Will Be Blood (2007)
“When Ambition Meets Faith”
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds
Synopsis: A story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business.
You wouldn’t want to make an enemy of Daniel Plainview. When he issues a threat that ‘one night I’m going to come to you, inside of your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and I’m going to cut your throat,’ to a Standard Oil representative we don’t doubt for one moment that it’s a threat which – at the time at least – he fully intends to fulfil. And that’s for an insult inferred when none was intended. It’s one of many leisurely-paced steps on Daniel’s descent into madness as he pursues wealth as an oil baron in the United States in the early 20th Century. While There Will Be Blood chronicles Daniel’s rise and fall, it differs greatly from similarly-themed movies for two reasons: Daniel desires great wealth not for material gain but as a means of escape from people – ‘I look at people and I see nothing worth liking’ he tells a man who will later come to reinforce this conviction – and his rise is counterpointed with that of self-proclaimed preacher and faith healer, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano – Prisoners) with whom his life is inextricably linked. Eli and Daniel’s hatred for one another is not the only thing they share: they’ve both turned their back on God, but Daniel, at least, is honest about it.
Daniel’s contempt for his fellow man might be honest and forthright, but little else about him is so straightforward. Like most of us, he’s a man of contradictions – but Daniel’s contradictions are magnified by writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s unyielding spotlight. There is good in him, we think; at the start of the film, he cares for the orphaned infant of an employee who dies on the job, and introduces him as his own son to those from whom he is hoping to buy drilling rights. But is he merely exploiting the boy, as he later claims, because he ‘needed a sweet face to buy land.’? Was Daniel always so calculating, or is his later claim the product of a mind finally diseased by its desire for the wealth it needs to nurture his misanthropy? Anderson seems to suggest that the growth of capitalism – the bastard child of commerce which enjoyed its biggest spurt of growth with man’s discovery of oil and its uses – diminished the influence of religion on society while offering no moral substitute. Religion is in the hands of self-serving charlatans like the creepy man-boy, Eli, while capitalism systematically destroys those it enriches.
A movie which focuses so heavily on one character relies equally heavily on the performance of the actor who fills that key role. Daniel Day-Lewis (Gandhi, Gangs of New York) meets the challenge with confidence and skill. He’s well known for remaining in character even when not on set, and it’s easy to ridicule such fanatical devotion, but the way that Day-Lewis becomes the character he is playing (in a way that few other actors can) justifies that dedication. Although given considerably less screen-time in which to flesh out the character of Eli, Paul Dano nevertheless succeeds in establishing his coldly reptilian nature. He’s a snake charmer of false modesty, and one can imagine his handshake: limp and weak, and slightly moist.
There Will Be Blood has a running time of 158 minutes, and while it’s a testament to the quality of Anderson’s screenplay that the film is never boring, the manner in which Anderson tells his tale – with much to be perceived through what isn’t said or shown – might make it a difficult watch for some. It’s undoubtedly a film that’s worth watching two or three times in a relatively short period of time in order to get the most from it – if, that is, you can sit through it even once.
(Reviewed 1st January 2016)