BY NEIL FAUERSO
In an astounding performance, Daniel Day-Lewis plays wildcatter Daniel Plainview (with Dillion Freasier as his adopted son). ©2006 Paramount Vantage, photo by Francois Duhamel.
Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood, is the most interesting filmmaker of his generation. Although not as aesthetically pristine and stylized as Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze, P. T. Anderson is the only young American working today with the fervor, verve, and experimental courage of the legends of the vanguard of 1970s. Even his weakest films, like Magnolia (which now seems an abject failure), have a spirited, roguish jolt, and, quite simply, he’s the rare director who is unafraid of falling flat on his face.
There Will Be Blood is his boldest and most brilliant film, a daring parable of capitalism, religion, and greed funneled through the conduit of one incredible, terrifying character—the wildcatter Daniel Plainview. Anchored by fluid, striking cinematography and a haunting, alien score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood is a robust tone poem of a film that allows Daniel Day-Lewis’s titanic, breathtaking performance to roam the landscape. It’s a film that seems simultaneously timeless and brand new, a perfect synthesis of symbolism and character.
The film begins in 1898 as a bearded Plainview is scrounging in a self-dug mine for gold and silver. It’s a wordless kinetic scene that punctuates with him breaking his leg. A few years later Plainview has switched from gold to oil and found considerably more success. Now a trim, mustached man, Plainview travels around east California with an adopted son (a convenient prop that makes him more likable and family oriented), convincing rural farmers to lease him their land. Plainview is relentlessly competitive and hardworking, a sociopathic character able to turn on a forced folksy charm at will. Plainview’s big break comes when he is tipped off to the Sunday ranch, a barren tract of land where oil oozes out of the ground. As Plainview begins to drill into the black ocean, he finds himself pitted against the young Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a power-hungry preacher unafraid of Daniel’s domineering personality.
For all of its allegorical, even biblically allegorical qualities, There Will Be Blood is first and foremost a deeply physical film. Several segments are entirely wordless, allowing the primitive act of extracting oil to speak for itself. There’s a remarkable scene of a derrick fire in which the characters simply stare in awe. Where his earlier movies where audaciously referential, There Will Be Blood has an austere yet passionate quality that recalls Herzog and Altman. It’s both naturalistic and confidently composed.
At this point, I don’t know what more there is to say about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance. It’s amazing. Completely engrossing, larger than life, yet absolutely convincing, it is the greatest filmic performance I’m aware of. The combination of Day-Lewis’s ferocious embodiment of his character and Anderson’s elegant, yet forceful direction is nothing less than electric. By the film’s loony, brash conclusion in the bowling alley of Plainview’s mansion, the film has been elevated into a fevered opera of the American Dream. Never before has a local film understood more clearly the full implications and strange cross-section of bootstrap capitalism and evangelism. The film doesn’t come to any easy conclusions, because there are no easy conclusions to come to. Like the century it chronicles, There Will Be Blood is brutal, baffling, and absolutely awe-inspiring.