There will be brilliance
Daily Staff Writer
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL ” Sometimes, very rarely, a certain movie will stick in my craw, just stewing in the back of my cerebellum while I try to decide what to make of it. I replay the images in my mind, looking for patterns, connections, flaws or moments of transcendence. “There Will Be Blood” is one of those movies, and after I left the theater I knew I had seen a wholly formed piece of art on film ” I just wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. After several days of piecing it together and being unable to eject it from my mental VCR, I think I’m ready to call it fantastic. I think.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, known for sprawling, Altman-esque ensemble pieces like “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights,” chose a much different tack for “There Will Be Blood:” He chronicles the rise of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a hardscrabble silver miner who finds oil and makes it his mission to bring it out of the earth, at all costs. While Anderson’s previous films had moments of lightness and even whimsy, an overarching feeling of dread looms over “Blood,” as Plainview stalks the barren landscapes of this country’s Southwest like a beast, consumed with rage and lust for the black blood within it.
Plainview learns of a hopeless little town in California called Little Boston; the pious residents are cursed with salt water, poor soil and earthquakes, but oil bubbles up from the ground at will, hinting at a vast “ocean of oil under our feet,” as Plainview puts it. He must have it, and he enters into negotiations with the town as he always does: He brings along his moon-faced son HW (Dillon Freasier), to soften his image as a ruthless oilman out to rape the earth under the townspeople’s feet and leave them high and dry.
Little Boston has a wrinkle in it, though: The town is possessed by and devoted to their boy preacher and prophet, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a charismatic charlatan who contains the same ego and drive for power as Plainview. The only difference is that he mines for souls instead of oil. The atheist Plainview plays along as a man of God until a tragic accident alters his relationship with HW; the incident removes yet another layer of humanity from Plainview, and the power struggle between him and Sunday begins in earnest.
Day-Lewis delivers one of the best screen performances I’ve ever seen in any film. His Plainview feels wholly of that era, textured and weathered to match his profession and fully possessed by the boundless greed promised by early capitalism. And yet as realistic as he is, with his Method actor gait and odd-but-authentic John Ford-inspired accent, he brings something otherworldly to the role. Plainview’s demonic force and presence drives the film like a Satanic engine, erupting in moments that remain by turns terrifying and blackly comic, but that then inexplicably inspire moments of introspection and sympathy.
Paul Dano is brilliant in his alternately calm and manic role as Plainview’s spiritual antagonist, and amateur actor Dillon Freasier feels startlingly authentic as a lost boy caught in forces he can’t possibly understand ” yet.
Anderson directs in a thoroughly classic style, with long takes of alien landscapes and frontier towns. But he adds an intangibly modern sensibility into many scenes, as when he turns a burning oil well into an action set piece, lingering on the men who scramble like ants to contain it while it rises high into the sky like a real-life dragon waiting to smite this little town. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood contributed one of the most original and modern scores in years: It’s loaded with soaring, dissonant crescendos and odd percussion pieces that ratchet the film’s more tense sequences even tighter to your ears.
Anderson’s script is predominantly a war of words, with all actors involved (especially Day-Lewis and Dano) dishing out thinly veiled threats and promises broken before they’re even spoken. Even more astounding is that, in perhaps a rejoinder to the brilliantly vulgar “Deadwood,” Anderson maintains the tension through period dialog that doesn’t contain a shred of profanity.
As we watch Plainview descend into a hell of his own making ” though perhaps one he’s likely happy to call home ” it can be difficult to process and figure out ‘what it all means.’ The film really has two conclusions that occur when each of the bipolar protagonists, Sunday and Plainview, experience a moment of shameful surrender. Both are thrillingly over-the-top ” each man’s false transformation becomes a literal one, one that is inexplicably frightening, hilarious and bewildering.
But these conclusions leave us with little more than the confused and mangled emotions we’ve just seen on screen. Is the film an extended riff on the rise of capitalism that will dominate the next century? Is it a lengthy meditation on greed? One man’s descent into madness and misanthropy because of his single-minded pursuit? Or is it just a matter-of-fact document of a period in our nation’s history, a well-written term paper spattered with oil and blood?
The truth is, “There Will Be Blood” could be all of these things, and it might be none of them. Audiences can argue over these ideas for hours and find themselves no closer to any conclusions, just left with the brutal actions and smeared emotions of the film itself. In this moment, we may realize that the true brilliance of Anderson’s film is that it transcends these questions and literally forces us to look deep inside ourselves for answers, only to realize we might never find them.