DIR/WRI: Paul Thomas Anderson • PRO: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar • DOP: Robert Elswit • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DES: Jack Fisk • CAST: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier
Something strange has been happening to US cinema as of late. At some point towards the end of last year, Hollywood remembered how to make great films. In the past few months we’ve been treated to some excellent work from all ends of the cinematic spectrum. Juno has shown that you don’t need big stars to make a successful comedy, while on a bigger budget, Cloverfield has offered the YouTube generation their own Star Wars experience. Meanwhile, The Assassination of Jesse James and the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men have legitimised the western for the 21st Century and given the Oscars their best selection in years. There Will Be Blood, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson (his first in five years) sits comfortably alongside the latter two, but may outshine both of them. Already hailed as the best film of last year by countless American critics, showered with awards, and a solid bet for at least one Oscar, the film arrives here with a considerable burden of expectation. That some critics have compared it to Citizen Kane should be indication enough of the film’s pedigree.
It’s not a bad comparison – a lengthy, complex and rich American epic set in the early 20th Century, There Will Be Blood is pure cinema, but at the same time genuinely unlike anything you will have ever seen before. An astonishing opening sequence sets the tone – essentially, it is an eleven-minute silent masterpiece unto itself, as we witness Anderson’s protagonist Daniel Plainview searching for silver. Entirely free of dialogue, the sequence is instead imbued with a sense of dread and power by Johnny Greenwood’s remarkable score. Following Plainview as he builds his oil business, at the cost of the life of one of his workers, it is nearly a quarter of an hour before he opens his mouth; but when he does, what a voice it is. As Plainview, Daniel Day- Lewis gives a towering performance that should go down as one of the finest in cinema history. Even by Day-Lewis’s impeccable standards, Plainview is an extraordinary creation; a man who claims to value family but uses his adopted son as a sales pitch. A man who hates everyone, yet demands their attention, be it in the form of love, respect or fear. A man whose desire for power extends beyond oil, beyond wealth and beyond reason, he is rarely anything less than pure evil, but he avoids caricature. The plot, and the outside world, run alongside Plainview, occasionally interfering with his plans but never stopping him from getting what he wants. Plainview is not merely the subject of the film, he is the film.
By 1911, Plainview has established himself as a wealthy, charismatic entrepreneur, and has moved into the oil business with his adopted son H.W. as his partner. After a tip from a local, Plainview arrives at a small town called Little Boston, and begins buying land in order to drill the oil that lies underneath it. There, he is met with little opposition except for Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Sunday, whose family own a crucial piece of land, is a teenage preacher who wants Plainview to pay part of the oil money towards his church. How the relationship between the two develops alongside the creation of 20th Century American capitalism is the driving force behind one of the most vital, bold and fascinating films of recent years. Alongside Day-Lewis, Paul Dano is not to be overlooked; in a terrific breakthrough performance, he infuses his scrawny teenage frame with fiery intensity whilst in his church, and acts as a cold, calm foil to Plainview’s bellowing outside of it. The two characters show the ugly side of two principles on which modern America was built; capitalism and religion, and the two’s uneasy relationship with another. For Sunday, commerce is a means for him to spread his message, while for Plainview, religion is simply another sales tool. It’s a compelling, darkly humorous competition.
Anderson, best known for his superb ensemble pieces Magnolia and Boogie Nights, is on new territory here. While there are occasional similarities with his earlier work – the sudden, shocking burst of violence recalls the climax of Boogie Nights for example – this is a far more mature and concentrated work. The self-conscious cleverness which accompanied Magnolia’s key moments is entirely absent here – there’s no raining frogs, no cast sing-along. Instead, There Will Be Blood offers filmmaking and storytelling in the purest, most electrifying form possible, and positions Anderson as one of the most fascinating directors working today. It’s a tough film, and one that values character over plot, but rewards attention and suggests that further viewings are required to understand all of its nuances and themes.
Nothing more clearly illustrates the film’s difficult, divisive qualities than its ending. Though it deals with familiar themes – the dark side of the American dream, a man driven mad by greed – there is nothing about the film that treads on traditional narrative ground. Just as the wordless opening sequence catches you off guard, so does Anderson’s earth-shattering climax, as Plainview mutates into a new kind of monster. It’s a truly surprising, memorable moment, complete with a catchphrase (‘I drink your milkshake!’) that has already earned the film infamy in the States. Rest assured, there’s truth in the title.
A truly staggering work, There Will Be Blood is a film loaded with fascinating contradictions. Visually, it’s stunning, Anderson painting grimy but beautiful landscapes. Greenwood’s score varies from dominating industrious noise one minute to graceful classicism the next. The performances, while there may not be many of them (Plainview is such an all-consuming figure that there are few speaking parts besides him and Sunday) are uniformly superb. And the screenplay feels like a vast epic, despite the film only really focusing on one man, who, at the heart of it all, has a character that is made up of some of the biggest contradictions of all. It’s a fascinating, challenging masterpiece, and essential viewing for anyone serious about the art of film.