By Matt Singer
[Photo: Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]
“There Will Be Blood,” the title promises. But it never really comes, at least not in the sort of quantities we’ve seen in other movies this fall, like “No Country For Old Men” or “Sweeney Todd.” In the film’s climax, its protagonist, oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells his antagonist, preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), that he drinks “the blood of the land” every day. There’s something to that symbolism, I think. Most of this man’s transgressions are subterranean, lurking out of view of the public he needs and secretly despises.
There’s a bit of Charles Foster Kane to this Plainview man, and maybe a bit of C. Montgomery Burns as well. We meet him in his youth during an extended sequence that shows his early mining ventures and his transition from silver prospecting to oil. The scenes are noteworthy for sketching out most of Plainview’s character without the benefit of dialogue, but given the precise choices director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson makes, it’s obvious the actions speak more clearly than words would. We know what kind of man he is when the ladder of the silver mine he’s working on collapses while he’s climbing it, and he falls to the base, breaking a leg and maybe a few ribs. Plainview claws his way out of the pit and then crawls his way back to civilization.
The action picks up again in 1911 after Plainview has begun to make his fortune in earnest. When one of his workers dies on the job, he adopts his orphan son not out of the goodness of his heart, but rather a sense that having his own son would lend his huckster sales pitches an air of familial respectability. He totes this child around everywhere, telling anyone who cares to listen that he’s his “business partner.” But notice how many words Plainview and his son actually share almost none. Later, an accident befalls Plainview’s son and the boy switches from an asset to a liability. Notice what happens then, as well.
Anderson’s counterpoint to Plainview’s character is Sunday, who is as skeptical of Plainview’s hucksterisms as he is certain of his own role as a divine instrument. Plainview needs Sunday’s land, Sunday wants Plainview’s money for his church. So the two are pitted in direct conflict, giving Anderson the chance to ask the movie’s crucial question: Does salvation come from God or from money?
Much of the middle of the movie is devoted to imagery that suggests the intermingling of these two pursuits. After Plainview ignores Sunday’s request to dedicate their new oil derrick with a prayer, a series of accidents befall the venture. Then a serious setback occurs when an explosion at the well shoots out a geyser of oil. When the inky spew turns into a giant tower of fire, it’s as if hell itself is pouring out of the Earth. When Sunday later confronts Plainview, the scene is established with a breathtaking shot of the heavens reflected in a murky puddle of crude. When Plainview finally talks about the “blood of the land,” and you see where their respective philosophies have led both men, you have to conclude that Anderson’s decided that both choices are dead ends; in the end, there will only be blood, and nothing more after that.
Day-Lewis is phenomenal, but at this point, that’s to be expected. The real discovery is Dano, who matches his highly pedigreed costar in scene after scene. His performance is both shocking in its fervor and terrifying in its believability; when he “heals” a member of his church by casting Satan out of his congregation while screaming and shoving and shaking, it seems like he’s the one possessed by a supernatural force, not the woman with the achy hands. (Ever the skeptic, Plainview is ready with a dynamite response: “Well, that was one goddamn hell of a show!”) Sunday’s Church of the Third Revelation is the setting for many of the best scenes, including Plainview’s reluctant baptism, where Sunday confronts him about his mistreatment of his son.
Still, I wish “There Will Be Blood” had a bit more blood not literally, but figuratively. As terrific as both stars are, there is something a bit inevitable about their conflict, and as convincing as Dano is, he’s never really a true equal or rival for the power that Plainview craves and eventually wields. Their battle is a little one-sided and so the ending, however appropriate, is also bit of a foregone conclusion.
Regardless, the film has a powerful impact. Particularly impressive is Anderson’s use of Jonny Greenwood’s eerie electronic score to create a mood of underlying menace when none would seem to exist onscreen, and his remarkable recreation of turn of the century oil rush country. Technically, he’s as sharp as any director working. One could even say he drinks the blood of the cinema every day.