I admit to being biased against There Will Be Blood directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. When I sat down to watch, I braced myself for a 158-minute melodrama. Surprisingly, the movie entertained me in a bizarre way. Oilman Daniel Plainview is an unforgettable character. Portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s so crazy he’s alluring. However, the truly surprising performance belongs to Paul Dano as Eli Sunday, a young preacher on a power trip he scared me as much as Lewis’s slimy oilman. The cinematography and soundtrack absorb the viewer into a story that revels in unrest.
Daniel Plainview has built his career wrenching minerals out of the earth. First a silver miner, he now travels with his son H.W (Dillon Freasier) buying up land and planting oil derricks. His newest lead brings him to Little Boston, an isolated community in Southern California. Plainview finds an ocean of oil under Abel Sunday’s ranch and guards it hungrily. Even mighty Standard Oil stays clear when he threatens to cut the throat of one of their executives. Yet it’s Abel’s teenage preacher-son Eli who could derail Plainview’s scheme. He presses Plainview to donate money to his Church along with buying the ranch. Plainview agrees just to get the contract signed, but never donates the cash. From then on they share mutual hatred and try to weasel advantages over the other.
There Will Be Blood is a very focused character study with sporadic action. Plainview claims almost every scene and our attention because his character is driven almost entirely by capitalism. He’s a workaholic who’s been so fixated on making money, it’s eroded his social skills. When he and H.W visit the Sunday ranch they pretend to be camping. He refuses the supplies Abel offers, claiming to want to rough it. This display of individualism masks deep paranoia. Plainview’s more complicated though because he seems to care for his son, workers and even a little girl. But he can suddenly turn heartless if they hold back his profits.
His biggest enemy is Eli Sunday, a fellow charlatan who’s meddling with his oil business. The teenager runs the Church of the Third Revelation and completely believes in faith, healing, and prophesy, but he seems more greedy than caring. After Plainview’s son is deafened in an accident, Eli coldly demands the money for expanding his church.
There Will Be Blood doesn’t have lightweight performances. Daniel Day Lewis’s Plainview is a historical figure captured on film. As he ages and he breaks down all barriers to his greed, Lewis plays him appropriately as a caged animal, an emotional force you don’t want to disturb. Paul Dano is more surprising since I remember him as a high schooler in The Girl Next Door. With Dano playing Eli Sunday, his face is so calm that it makes him more threatening.
The movie looks like old B/W photographs. Robert Elswit’s camera depicts a desolate landscape dotted with rickety sheds by Production Designer Jack Fisk. One wonders how anyone could live or work in a place like that. It expresses the characters and mood. Oil wells tower over workers. Violence looms around the fields. People die in sudden accidents. An oil gusher explodes into flame. One image shot with a telephoto lens features a corrupted Eli Sunday walking past a lake of oil as he angrily confronts Plainview about his money. In that scene, Plainview slaps Sunday and drags him through the oil. The lighting stays in the extremes with no middle ground. Some scenes are dim and dreary while others are bright and washed out.
Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood scores the movie without a thought to melody creating a terrifying mood. The main theme sounds like string instruments twisted into an atonal wave that lingers over several scenes before fading. Like an air-raid siren, you wonder when the next bomb will drop. When a flourish of orchestral music happens at the closing credits, you feel a sense of release. Some will hate it, but it works.
There Will Be Blood is a dark and engrossing period piece. Anderson possibly focuses on Plainview a little too much. That’s not a bad thing as this film is about men desiring great power and wealth. The most successful will be the one willing to sacrifice his humanity. This is a challenging movie that will reward those willing to spend time with a human monster.