Blood, oil and liquor combine to create a captivating portrait of tycoon Daniel Plainview in the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson. Set during turn-of-the-century California, ‘There Will Be Blood’ draws inspiration from the Upton Sinclair novel ‘Oil!’ of the 1920s. As the title change suggests, the film is hardly a strict adaptation of the novel.
Though the film revolves around Plainview, expertly interpreted by Daniel Day-Lewis, ‘There Will Be Blood’ also relies heavily on Plainview’s young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and the eerily seductive preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). For Plainview, these two characters represent the most important and most destructive relationships of his life. On the exterior, Plainview’s concern for H.W. serves to justify his maniacal industrialism. He brings his son along with him on business as his partner, a tactic that seems to increase his success. When the pair arrives in Little Boston, Plainview must contend with the moral scrutiny of Eli Sunday. Cognizant of his town’s hidden wealth of oil, the preacher quickly demands money from the oil man for the enlargement of his church. What ensues is an intricate struggle between industrialist and evangelist that defines the film.
Freasier and Dano succeed in holding their own even in the midst of Day-Lewis’ immense performance. From scene to scene, the father-son relationship between Freasier and Day-Lewis is as convincingly real as the seething hatred that exists between Dano and Day-Lewis. Even on his own, Dano exhibits tremendous skill in his disturbing portrayal of a revivalist preacher. This is a far cry from ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’
Not only that, ‘There Will Be Blood’ is a departure from other films by Paul Thomas Anderson. As a period drama, it bears little resemblance to either ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ or ‘Magnolia.’ Nevertheless, ‘There Will Be Blood’ succeeds in no small part due to the involvement of many long-time Anderson collaborators, ranging from producers to the film’s editor. The strength of the film’s artistic attributes, most notably its cinematography and production design, is the greatest indication of its authorship.
One artistic element that defies familiarity is Jonny Greenwood’s score for the film. The Radiohead guitarist and film composer signifies something of a change from Jon Brion, an ideal choice for Anderson’s previous films but less compatible within the context of ‘There Will Be Blood.’ Relying heavily on rhythm and strings, Greenwood’s score is at once hypnotic and dissonant, at times evoking the subtle terror of a Shostakovich string quartet. Silence dominates many scenes, but in others the score translates the tension flawlessly.
Often the mere sound of Day-Lewis speaking adds requisite tension to the film. His character speaks with an unusual accentuation that only increases with drunkenness. When he speaks with other characters, his voice is the only one that seems to matter. His most revealing scene feels like a soliloquy even in the presence of his long-lost brother Henry. With firelight in his eyes, the tycoon tells his brother, ‘I want to rule and never, ever explain myself.’ As the film’s tagline suggests, ‘The quest for oil reveals the dark hearts of men.’
To a large extent, it is difficult to ignore the moral implications of a film such as ‘There Will Be Blood.’ While Plainview struggles to reconcile his responsibilities as a father and an entrepreneur, Eli Sunday must reconcile two conflicting personas within himself. Both men betray themselves and others in the course of their self-actualizing quests. By the end of the film, there is little doubt as to the degree to which Plainview embodies both the self-made man and the self-destructive cost of the American Dream.