WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Prospector Daniel Plainview endures hardship and injury before striking it lucky by finding Black Gold in California. With an adoptive son in tow he drills in pastures new, acting on a tip-off from acquisitive youngster Paul Sunday. As Daniel continues to prosper, his single-minded pursuit of profit brings him into conflict with Paul’s evangelical twin Eli, who believes his church should benefit too. He should know that Plainview is not a man to be messed with.
It’s 1898 and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), engaged in the lonely, dangerous pursuit of silver mining in California, finds a patch of oil. A few years later he has a few co-workers, one of whom is killed in the process of extracting the precious liquid, leaving a young boy orphaned. Plainview takes the boy – dubbed H.W. (Dillon Freasier) – on as his own and uses him as a friendly face in his tough negotiations with landowners. So far, so modest: but one day Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) comes into Plainview’s office, demanding money in return for information about a potentially plentiful oilfield near his family home in Little Boston. When Daniel and H.W. turn up, Paul is nowhere to be seen, but his identical twin Eli is just as difficult, asking for money for the Church of the Third Revelation where he is a charismatic preacher.
As the Little Boston wells continue to grow, H.W. is deafened by an accident and Eli becomes a thorn in Daniel’s side; the relationship between them appears to be settled conclusively when the preacher is humiliated on the oil plains; but then William Bandy (Colton Woodward), the sole standout when Plainview was buying up land, becomes vital to Daniel’s plan to lay a pipeline directly to the coast. Daniel is baptised in Eli’s church, but the younger man’s revenge is fleeting. Meanwhile, Daniel’s indigent half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) appears out of the blue, and for a while becomes Plainview’s ineffectual partner. However, Daniel’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and aggressive as he drives people away – or worse. Finally, Plainview has no family, no community, no friends: but at least he has control.
Straight from the incredibly powerful opening, during which Plainview endures horrendous hardships and adopts H.W., all without a single word being spoken, There Will Be Blood is an immensely impressive experience. I’ve not previously seen an account of the very first days of the oil business, and this does the job so well I’d be surprised if there was another one. The reasons why Anderson’s film works so well are manifold, and as with all the best films combine and bolster one another. At the heart of There Will Be Blood is an extraordinary turn from Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview, a role he (typically) inhabits so utterly that to call it a performance is to do it down, even if his chosen voice is eerily reminiscent of a very cross Sean Connery.
Plainview’s journey from pauper to kingpin is fascinating, becoming ever more removed from humanity and morality as he becomes increasingly rich (the turning point being his celebration of the massive oilstrike amid the burning machinery and H.W.’s distress). Paul Dano does incredibly well to hold his own in Day-Lewis’ company, and his Eli is also an extraordinary creature: at times other-worldly, at others avaricious, at others still practically schizophrenic, keeping us guessing as to whether he is a genuine spiritualist or a fraudulent faith healer. Though these two dominate the piece, there are also valuable contributions from Freasier and Kevin J. O’Connor as doomed chancer Henry.
The heightened emotions are enhanced by gorgeous cinematography which is fluid and lyrical, and consistently finds beauty in the industry that scars the land so horribly – the dark sheen of the oil is visually arresting and metaphorically significant, blackening not only the skin but also the souls of those it touches (only young Mary Sunday, destined to be H.W.’s bride, remains pure and white). Jonny Greenwood’s score also makes an enormous contribution, rhythmically pushing the story along while brooding when it needs to.
But – but but but. Just when There Will Be Blood is shaping up to be an epic, all-time classic, it starts to wander, and meander, and take its own sweet time in the indulgent manner that afflicted Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The final act of the film suddenly takes Plainview away from his precious oilfields, and wraps up the stories indoors, in the dark, with overlong speeches and wildly exaggerated emotions. Day-Lewis’ barnstorming performance (though he thoroughly deserved his Oscar) becomes less impactful and threatens to run out of control during the disappointing sub-Chinatown ending, the extraordinary final line notwithstanding. It’s as if Day-Lewis struggles to contain his huge performance in an interior space.
The other problem I have with the film is an unfortunate by-product of its creation, which others may find intriguing. As is widely reported elsewhere, the actor who originally played Eli Sunday – how shall I put this? – had to leave before the film was finished, giving Anderson a massive headache. He solved his problem by promoting Dano to play both Paul and Eli, which also introduced – since the ‘brothers’ are never seen together – an element of ambiguity into the character of Eli. Was he in fact a madman, a schizophrenic acting as two people? As I say, it’s potentially intriguing, but There Will Be Blood makes a bit of a hash of it; because while it allows the question to hang in the air, it ducks out from answering it. If Paul and Eli are two separate people, why does Paul never re-appear, for example at the church? If he’s just one man, what does Daniel mean about Paul’s ‘three wells’ towards the end? You might call it deliberate ambiguity, or an error of logic caused by circumstances; either way, it adds nothing to the film.
As an exercise in the maxims radix malorum est cupiditas and ‘power corrupts…’, There Will Be Blood is a mightily powerful movie for the greater part of its running time. However, it eventually loses the tightness and discipline that could have made it flawless, and in dawdling starts to display the artificiality it had concealed so well in its first ninety or so minutes. Like Boogie Nights, this is a film that you absolutely should see once. Whether or not you can face watching it again is very much up to your own tolerance levels: I’m not sure I could – in the next couple of years, anyway – and this is why this (mostly) glorious film has to be marked down a peg or two.