There Will Be Blood: An American Tragedy

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Paramount Vantage

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood

Monster, idealist, con man, obsessive — Daniel Plainview, toweringly portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, offers anything but a plain view of himself in There Will be Blood. When we meet him he is none-too-successfully prospecting for silver. Then he strikes oil in his mine and it strikes a fire in his mind. Yes, there will be blood in the course of his life. But there will also be riches that reach beyond the dreams of avarice. And, finally, beyond the bounds of sanity, too.

With this film writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson aspires to the creation of an American epic — a story in which Plainview attempts to fill the vast empty spaces of the 20th century American West, and the equally vast empty spaces within himself, by the relentless acquisition of — well, yes — oil leases. His movie is full of echoing silences, punctuated by acts of violence that are sometimes accidental, sometime inevitable. It is also a work that is easy to understand too quickly and utterly depends for its haunting resonance on the great performance that stands at its center.

That performance begins with a very curious voice. Plainview speaks with great syntactical precision in cultivated, almost mid-Atlantic tones that belie his early wildcatting ways. He sounds a lot like John Huston, the director-actor, when he was doing his best to persuade us of his sincerity. And, as with Huston, we can never be entirely certain whether he is playing us true or false. When he is assembling the land for the oil field that will transform his fortune, make him not merely rich but super-rich, he speaks idealistically of a community, perhaps a new sort of civilization, he intends to build, and we don't entirely disbelieve him. He passionately loves his son, who as a mere child is always introduced to people as Plainview's "partner." There is within him, I think, an authentic belief in the Gospel of Wealth, that old American doctrine holding that the rich man is but the steward of money, obligated to spend it for the benefit of all.

Two events sully Plainview's idealism. His perfect son is grievously injured in an oil field accident, which slowly sunders their relationship and robs Daniel of the dynastic rationale for his depredations. Worse, he falls into opposition with a young fundamentalist preacher, Eli Sunday (the excellent Paul Dano) — also an idealist of sorts, but an irrational one. The preacher forces Daniel into a false, public conversion to his faith, which wipes out what remains of his faith in the perfectability of the people. From this point onward Daniel surrenders himself to pure greed, to acquisition entirely for acquisition's sake, and There Will be Blood ceases to be a historical drama. It is loosely based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, who was himself an idealist whose dreams were dashed by the realities of American life; his novel was, in turn, loosely based on the curious career of Edwin Doheney, the pioneering California oil man the film turns into a sort of modernist parable.

What Anderson is saying is that we have travestied this nation's incalculable natural wealth, in the process surrendering its potential to finance a paradise on earth in favor of a purely selfish materialism, feebly justified by desperate religious fantasies. Or to put that point in purely movie terms, Daniel Plainview becomes Gordon Gekko's grandfather. And becomes purely insane. It is the genius (and I use that word advisedly) of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance to slowly, patiently, show the madness replacing his former rationalism, to prepare us for the film's astonishing ending, an ending one dare not reveal, but that contains what I — resistant as I am to superlatives — consider to be the most explosive and unforgettable 10 or 15 minutes of screen acting I have ever witnessed.

I've already heard people mumbling about There Will Be Blood's inordinate length (it's over two and a half hours long), about the fact that for long stretches nothing much seems to be happening. They are wrong, of course. Within these beautifully photographed (by Robert Elswit) landscapes, we are witnessing the impact of events (some of them by no means dramatically uninteresting) on an overmatched mind, one that dimly aspires to something more than mere acquisition, but is slowly undone by a universe ineluctably prone to mischance, misunderstanding and just plain mischief. It requires time for Day-Lewis and Anderson to realistically explore the life-long processes of disillusion which is their film's true subject. But the promise their sometimes langorously paced film makes is openly stated in their title — yes, there will be blood. And when it comes it will more than reward whatever patience — and impatience — you have invested in this unique experience, one of the most wholly original American movies ever made.