There Will Be Blood (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The best things about Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood are not elements that will build large audiences. This is a film about character development/disintegration and a comprehensive look at the early days of the oil industry. The more the film focuses on the mechanics of finding oil, the process of getting it out of the ground, and the politics of persuading landowners to sell the rights to their property, There Will Be Blood has the capacity to engage, if not enthrall. Unfortunately, the film's final third is poorly focused and, while there is a clear conclusion, it feels strangely hollow.

There Will Be Blood is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel, Oil! Instead of developing a faithful recreation, however, Anderson has elected to focus on the early portions of the book and change the main character from the son to the father. This results in a more tightly concentrated story, although it fragments to a degree during the movie's third act. Anderson takes a lot of liberties with the source material but those who have read the sprawling novel will recognize it as the inspiration. There are also echoes of the 1956 James Dean classic, Giant.

When we first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1898, he's mining for gold in a shaft he has dug into the ground of his Texas property. He finds what he's looking for, and perhaps more. Several years later, he has shifted his focus from gold to oil and he has been able to hire some hands. When an accident results in a death, Daniel finds himself with an infant orphan to care for. He raises the child, known as H.W., to be his own. By 1912, Daniel has become a well-known oil man, and he his looking to expand his empire. Accompanied by his partner, Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds), and his son (Dillon Freasier), he travels to California to follow a promising lead. What he finds there astonishes him. He seeks to buy large parcels of property, but he is impeded in his goal by the evangelist preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who wants Daniel to donate $10,000 to the local church before he sells. After the contract is signed, however, Daniel reneges on the deal. Shortly thereafter, once the first drill has become operational, there is an accident that results in an explosion that fuels a major oil fire and costs H.W. his hearing.

For most of the film, Daniel is a fascinating character. He's a mass of contradictions: charismatic, ugly, easygoing, ruthless, silver-tongued, plain-spoken, gentle, violent. He's smart and understands how to manipulate every situation to his advantage. He understands the business of oil and transforms himself from a poor miner into a wealthy businessman who can stand up to the mighty Standard Oil. Unfortunately, the more power Daniel amasses, the more corrupt and dissolute he becomes. He sends his injured son away. He murders a man. Attempts to save himself by turning to religion fail. There are even indications he may have had a relationship with a young girl. Anderson chronicles Daniel's personality decay intelligently. He establishes the character as an admirable individual then slowly erodes him. In this way, it makes it more difficult for the audience to automatically turn against him. By the third act, however, Daniel has become a caricature of evil. He's psychotic and not the least bit interesting. During this phase, Daniel Day-Lewis plays him much as he played Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.

Day-Lewis' performance is There Will Be Blood's biggest selling point. It's intense and volcanic and, at least for two-thirds of the lengthy picture (which runs more than 2 1/2 hours), a brilliant depiction of Daniel's complex and conflicted personality. When he agrees to be baptized, one can see his two sides warring: the one facet that's doing this purely to appease others so he can finalize a business deal and the other half that is desperate for some sort of redemption and solace. Despite having a son and (later) a brother, Daniel is ultimately alone for much of the movie. In many ways, he's a tragic figure. The massive amount of wealth he accumulates does nothing to salve his ulcerated conscience.

For those who have followed Anderson's career, this is in some ways a departure. It's his first distant period piece and is more traditional than either of his best known pictures, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Although There Will Be Blood has a storyline that crosses more than 30 years and offers insights into the early era of the oil business in California, it is first and foremost a character study. Anderson is primarily interested in how developing events shape Daniel's life view. The film's final 30 minutes may fail short of delivering on the promise of the preceding two hours but, even taking into account its faults, this is nevertheless an arresting, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing motion picture experience.

There Will Be Blood (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:38
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1