Daniel Day Lewis (MY LEFT FOOT, GANGS OF NEW YORK), in yet another towering performance, is Daniel Plainview, a California oil man looking to suck the desert dry of black gold. Beginning with the film’s gripping, dialogue-free opening 20 minutes, the audience gets a sense of what’s in store for them. Lewis, whose Plainview is mining for silver alone in a ditch and sweating profusely, opens the film with such physical intensity that I almost forgot to breathe. Combined with Johnny Greenwood’s otherworldly electronic musical score, the film transports the audience to a specific time and place, one that is familiar yet alien. Plainview wants nothing more than all the land he sets foot on, and travels the state convincing people to let him buy their land so that he can get at the oil beneath them. He becomes a surrogate father to an infant whose father is killed in an accident, and as the boy grows up, Plainview refers to him as his own son, and uses him as a prop when meeting with prospective townspeople while giving them his spiel about buying up their land. Plainview’s life is changed forever when Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) shows up at his doorstep, with news that his town is bubbling with oil. Paul asks Plainview for some money in exchange for the location of his town; Plainview pays the boy and sets off for his next conquest. When he gets to the town, he meets Paul’s family, which includes Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also played by Paul Dano). Eli is a preacher, with designs of his own church, and he realizes pretty quickly that if he plays his cards right, he might be able to get money out of Plainview to help build his house of worship. THERE WILL BE BLOOD predominantly centers on the relationship between Plainview and Eli, and how the two men are similar creatures of passion and rage.
That’s about all I want to say about the story. There isn’t much in the way of plot per se, rather, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is more interested in people, place, and psychological decisions. The film pivots on three or four big set-pieces, with an oil derek explosion and fire serving as one of its major highlights. In this sequence, Anderson, along with his virtuoso cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has shot all of the director’s films along with many others including MICHAEL CLAYTON and SYRIANA, stages a bravura tracking shot that demands to be seen for the first time on the big screen. Make no mistake; if you have even a passing interest in this film, do not wait until it hits DVD. This is a big screen movie event, and denying yourself the pleasures that a film like THERE WILL BE BLOOD can give you in a movie theater would be criminal. Anderson has never made a period film before; up until now, he’s been interested in spinning wild tales of dysfunctional people in Southern California. In THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and with the help of legendary art director/production designer Jack Fisk (DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE NEW WORLD), Anderson evokes an era of simple beauty and dark menace. Just watch as Plainview admires an oil fire for a moment about half-way through the picture; it’s truly a picture worth a thousand words.
The ending of THERE WILL BE BLOOD is likely to irk audiences even more than the controversial last 30 minutes of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN did. It’s some sort of bizarre miracle that two genre busting films like these would come out in the same year, let alone from the same distributor (Paramount Vantage). After setting up a grand story and taking it to the limit, both visually and thematically, Anderson gets intimate with Plainview and Eli during the last act; the results are electrifying. There’s one moment in the last 15 minutes that has Plainview so enraged with Eli’s deceit and trickery (again, don’t want to spoil anything, but Eli is more or less a phony evangelist) that I cannot help but burst out laughing every time I see it and hear certain lines of dialouge (I’ve seen the film at least six times now). Anderson is constantly showing the audience how dark and twisted Plainview and Eli really are, and by the end, the two characters are simmering at each other’s throats, looking for some sort of emotional release. Some people will find the ending too stagy or theatrical; others, including myself, will view it as a perfect, and justly fitting finale to one of the more uncompromising American epics made this decade.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD isn’t an easy film. Its characters are flawed and even reprehensible at times. The musical score is purposefully intrusive yet somehow it works. It’s a quiet film at times, with stretches of no dialogue (or limited dialogue) that force the viewer to work in a visual manner which can be annoying to some. The film’s outlook on the human condition is bleak and rough; Plainview is a distinctly American monster that Anderson wants everyone in the audience to identify with, though I’d disagree with some critics in that Plainview, at heart, does have some good intentions and isn’t entirely evil. Nevertheless, this is a challenging film that will turn off as many people as it delights. It’s the sort of risk-it-all endeavor that screams at the world: “Hey, look at me!” We need more films like THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Vital, brutal, intensely focused, and ravishing to the eye, it’s yet another masterstroke for Paul Thomas Anderson, who is further cementing the notion that he’s the best filmmaker of his generation.