Sunday, February 17, 2008

Film Review: There Will Be Blood

In 1898, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a solitary silver prospector seeking his fortune, discovers oil. Over the next ten years he builds himself an empire as a self-made oilman, with his adopted son H.W. Plainview always in tow. After a tip-off from a man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) brings Plainview to the town of Little Boston, he finds himself competing with Paul's brother Eli (also Dano), the town's local preacher.

That's about it. There isn't really a plot to There Will Be Blood, it's more a premise that allows for several great characters to exist alongside each other and try to gain dominance over each other, whether financially, morally, or spiritually, over the film's 158 minute running time. The chief battle is between Plainview and Eli, one of whom wants dominion over the soil, the other wanting dominion over the soul, though he wouldn't mind some of that soil as well, but that's only the most basic approximation of what There Will Be Blood is.

There Will Be Blood is a film that is ostensibly about oil, loosely based as it is on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, and the concept of drilling for oil is a somewhat apt metaphor for the experience of watching the film; you start slowly, work your way through and eventually your efforts will be rewarded. That's not to say that the film is tough going or at any point boring, far from it, it's just that it takes quite a long time for anything to happen. Take the opening ten minutes of the film, in which director P.T. Anderson has Plainview work as a silver prospector, break both his legs, discover oil, and adopt a child after one of his workers dies in an industrial accident. All of this happens without a single line of dialogue being spoken. The start of Plainview's empire is told solely through images and music and more or less sets the menacing tone of the film, giving the audience an early glimpse into the surprises that Anderson plans to spring on them.

This film is an epic, an American epic which can be favourably compared to, and which is heavily influenced by, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston's classic tale of greed and madness, and which has thematic links to Roman Polanski's Chinatown, a connection which is strengthened by Day-Lewis' performance, which is actually based on Huston's voice. It has also been compared to Citizen Kane but I personally think those comparisons are superficial, but more on that later. As with those films, There Will Be Blood is full of depth and open to interpretation; is it a simple tale of two men battling for supremacy in a barren, early-twentieth century California? Is it about the competing forces of religion and capitalism that are so central to the American identity, and the idea that both or which are as corrupt as each other? Is it about Man's triumph over God? Is it about the current conflict in the Middle East and the idea that oil, ultimately, can only lead to death? It's all these things but it doesn't force any of them upon the audience; they are all there for you to find if you want to but you can also ignore them and just focus on the glorious cinematography and some truly wonderful performances.

Chief amongst these is, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, whose magnetic performance grounds the various thematic threads of the film in one monstrous form. At its heart, There Will Be Blood is a horror movie, the evidence for this can be found in Jonny Greenwood's doom-laden, amelodic score and the gothic lettering used throughout, and Plainview is the monster at its centre; when we first meet Plainview, he is at the bottom of a mine, scrabbling through the dirt in search of silver and, even at this early stage, exhibits a desire for wealth so powerful that after breaking both his legs in a fall he drags himself up a mineshaft, across a desert and to the local town where he can get a soil sample checked to see if he has found oil. Plainview's desire for wealth is the driving force of the film, he's not so much a man as a force of nature, destroying men, buildings and the very land around him in search of oil. He is an implacable man; he never lets on what he is thinking, never reveals the real Plainview (this aspect of his character does seem to bring about one of the few noticeable plot contrivances of the film as a character is introduced solely so that Plainview will talk about himself) and even when he does, you can never tell if what he has said is even remotely true. You can never know, for instance, if he actually loves his adopted son, or if he considers him to be just another tool in his arsenal. All you know about him is that he hates ''most people'', and there's little Plainview does in There Will Be Blood that can question that statement.

Plainview is a monster, but he's a very human monster; his drive is not outside of the realms of human understanding, his actions and motivations do not stem from some mania, they are just the end result of a terrifyingly human obsession with power and the attainment of wealth, though his greed has an ethereal edge to it, stemming as it does more from a sense of competition than any tangible reason. Admittedly he moves beyond the human and into animalistic and somewhat over-the-top supervillainy in the film's closing minutes, but even that feels natural. The power of the characters is pretty much all down to Daniel Day-Lewis who imbues the character with the humanity needed for him to be even remotely sympathetic, even though that basic empathy for the character is what makes some of his actions so reprehensible. Particularly since his threats, promises and sweet persuasions are all uttered in his comforting, lugubrious tones.

Here is where I feel the comparisons to Citizen Kane fall down; whilst both films deal with the rise of a businessman, the two central characters are markedly different. When an audience watches the story of Charles Foster Kane, they see a tale of man who starts off ambitious and idealistic but who is gradually corrupted and embittered. When an audience watches the story of Daniel Plainview, they see a man who is just as obsessive when lying broken at the bottom of a mine shaft in 1898 as he is sitting in a mansion in 1927. There is no regret in Plainview, he doesn't care what anyone thinks and he has no qualms about expending human life in search of his own ends. His is a pure, driven and unfettered desire, and watching it play out over the course of the film is simply mesmerising.

There Will Be Blood is not an easy film to watch. It's very disorientating, both in terms of the hazy, hallucinogenic fervour that pervades the film, as well as Greenwood's dissonant score, but also because of its unpredictability and the emotionally draining nature of the story and the performances. It's a film that asks a lot of the audience and those who go along are in for one hell of a ride. With his first four films, P.T. Anderson established himself as an audacious, terrifyingly talented film-maker, but with this he firmly establishes himself as one of the greatest American film-makers of the last twenty years. God know what he'll do next, but I for one can't wait to see what it is.