There Will Be Blood

Paramount Vantage
Paul Thomas Anderson/United States 2007

There Will Be Blood is the sort of film you stumble out of, desperately searching, like a drowning man frantic for air, for an adjective that is both descriptive enough to encompass your experience and distinctive enough to convey your stratosphere-bound senses.

There was but a single word for me: gobsmacked.

There Will Be Blood is a sprawling epic gorged with the blistering power and scope of John Ford and Orson Welles. It is an utterly astonishing cinematic experience, rippling with muscle and sinew, gestated in a classical tradition long thought dead, buttressed by a musical score of bombastic thunder and eerie dread, and set in the sort of magnificent desolation that has always figured into a distinctly American mythology. It is an open space of manifest destiny that lures with a siren’s call, and rewards those who answer with greatness … or madness … or both.

Spanning 30 years and straddling the turn of the 20th century, There Will Be Blood is the story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a struggling, misanthropic silver miner who gathers his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and heads out West when tipped off to a small, hardscrabble town named Little Boston, afloat on a sea of oil so vast it belches up from the wounded ground.

The shrewd Plainview buys every lease in sight, hiding the true value of the land from the ranchers and farmers who live on it, promising to pay them when and if he ever makes a profit. He hires a small army of men who descend on the desert town, raise mighty derricks and soon have black crude geysering from the earth, wreathing the landscape in apocalyptic smoke and coating all beneath it in a viscous slime that makes oil, blood, tears and sweat utterly indistinguishable. No one in this film is ever clean.

Little Boston has but one diversion – the holy rolling Church of the Third Revelation and its teenage, charismatic preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Soon, Plainview and Sunday find themselves pitted against one another. Theirs is not a polarity of good vs. evil, but the squaring off of two charlatans of equal ambition and corruption. The decaying Little Boston never sees its money, though Plainview makes his millions and – like Charles Foster Kane – erects his Xanadu if only to hobble around inside it alone, having eradicated both his enemies and his few friends.

There Will Be Blood luxuriates in its unhurried pace. It is perhaps 10 minutes into the film before we even hear a character utter a single word. And yet we are captivated by its perfectly balanced images and the long tracking shots of Robert Elswit’s lavish, yet austere cinematography, perfectly capturing the vanishing American frontier. We are hypnotized by a musical score that is part classical, and part The Shining-inspired dissonant wails by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. And we are bourn away by some of the most breathtaking acting performances of the year.

These are not characters, but colossi. Day-Lewis’ Oscar nomination – as perhaps his win – is assured. He moves through the film on his scythe-like body with a demonic gaiety – hunched, dragging a smashed leg, and forming his words with a robust, elongated enunciation rather than being biting them off and spitting them out. His Plainview is a dangerous, malevolent charmer who represents the dark, ruthless side of the American entrepreneurial tycoon. Emboldened with a natural distrust of humanity, he wants no one but himself to succeed, and is willing to destroy those who love him the most to get his way.

Dano’s Eli Sunday is almost equally impressive, a vacant-faced ghost where human features should be. Teetering between fraudulent piety and ecstatic vehemence, Dano’s adolescent preacher would feel right at home as a modern televangelist. The two men’s belligerent humiliation of each other is predestined to give birth, when it matures, to bloody violence. The final line of the film, spoken by Plainview and echoing the last words of Christ on the cross, either signal the oilman’s doom or are a proud, unrepentant pronouncement on a life’s work.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who was already an impressive filmmaker (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), now reveals himself to be a peerless one. There Will Be Blood is like nothing he has ever made before. This isn’t merely a departure, it’s an evolutionary leap forward in his filmmaking. His every past impulse has been subverted and overturned in a script based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, which Anderson adapted merely as a writing exercise before realizing its titanic potential.

There Will Be Blood is assured and ambitious, a majestic, audacious work that is impossible to shake even weeks later. It is among the most compelling and magnificent American films of recent years, and one of the first truly classic, 21st century works of art that will inspire debate, adoration, and emulation for decades to come.

© 2007 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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