Movie Review: Il y aura du sang
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
As surely as our country's multiple personalities owe a great deal to both religious fervor and the oil industry, "There Will Be Blood" reminds us that the greatest screen performances don't settle for capturing one trait, a dominant emotion or an easy way in. The very best of them are symphonies of paradox, forcing us to reckon with the ramifications.
This is what Daniel Day-Lewis achieves in director Paul Thomas Anderson's majestic crackpot of a film. It runs 158 minutes on a brooding rhythm all its own. It lacks almost every visual trapping (crowd scenes, big emotional swells) of the usual screen epic. The character at its center is not like most protagonists. Yet he is classically American - rugged individualism run amok, Horatio Alger with a homicidal edge.
"There Will Be Blood" is certain to divide audiences, particularly with its final section, which takes its story and its central character down a corkscrewy path more readily accepted in literature or the theater. (Too much has been written about the 1927-set coda, so we'll leave it at that.) The film's problems include a bit of confusing doubling in the roles of siblings played by Paul Dano. But three-quarters of it is brilliant. And as early 20th century oil man Daniel Plainview, whose eyes glow, however deceptively, with paternal concern one second and turn as cold as a snake's the next, Day-Lewis gives the kind of performance that does more than win Oscars. It rises to a rich and strange occasion, and the actor's work - joyously accomplished technique on one level, mysterious emotional reserves on another - will be debated and celebrated for years.
Anderson's fifth feature, "There Will Be Blood" comes from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!," though just barely. The novel begins as the story of a former mule driver, J. Arnold Ross, who claws his way into the oil business and strikes it rich. His son Bunny takes over the tale well before the halfway point, and Sinclair's heart lies with this "parlor Bolshevik" and his radicalization, in addition to his affair with a Hollywood starlet. Here's the sort of sentence from "Oil!" that finds no corollary in Anderson's freely adapted screenplay for "There Will Be Blood": "Bunny was studying and thinking, trying to make up his mind about the problem of capital versus labor."
So, out with the socialism, in with a different sort of morality play - stark, like Erich von Stroheim's "Greed," but with a sense of black humor in keeping with our own times. The opening sequences keep us in close proximity, without words, to Anderson's version of the oil man, renamed Plainview for the film. (Later, when he speaks, he frequently oozes bromides such as "I believe in plain speaking," and the way Day-Lewis delivers them, you delight in the lie.) The film begins with Plainview in the southwestern desert, mining for silver in 1898, alone and driven. The work is treacherous, and it doesn't take much to injure or kill a man.
The bulk of the tale unfolds in 1911. Plainview gives up silver for oil, and his son, H.W., is literally baptized in the stuff. For much of "There Will Be Blood," which dangles its title like a threat, H.W. is played by the marvelous preteen actor Dillon Freasier. Sometimes the casting gods look down and smile; in his tight little suit and implacable expression of trustworthiness, Freasier's H.W. - introduced by Plainview to prospective land-sellers as "my son and my partner" - is the perfect complement for Day-Lewis.
A supporting character in Sinclair's novel, the hypocritical evangelist Eli Sunday, becomes Plainview's antagonist. Dano plays Eli as well as his saintly brother. As Eli's so-called "Church of the Third Revelation" ascends (a direct nod to "Elmer Gantry" here), so does the oil magnate, whose fortune is built in part on grabbing Eli's family land early, before the first derrick begins gushing.
Most of Anderson's film takes place prior to World War I in wide-open northern California. Visually it recalls all sorts of related films, from "Giant" (both were filmed in Marfa, Texas) to the harsh, hot desert of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
Which brings us to Day-Lewis' most clearly identifiable reference point: John Huston, the director of "Sierra Madre" and best known on screen as Noah Cross in "Chinatown." Day-Lewis may be doing Huston, but the avuncular growl is such an integral part of his characterization, it never sounds like a stunt. Plainview is a portrait in monomaniacal ambition with a veneer of respectability, and Day-Lewis, striding across the terrain with a broad-rimmed hat, looking like an elongated Teddy Roosevelt, keeps surprising you with witty character details - his way of pausing and chewing over the next thought, the next acquisition (jabbing at a map: "What's this? Why don't I own this?"). Watch for the scene (a key clash of wills) between Plainview and Brother Eli, the latter relishing his chance to humiliate his rival before his flock. The vicious look Day-Lewis shoots Dano prior to his umpteenth repetition of the sentence "I've abandoned my son!" is the sort of moment most actors only dream of finding.
In his fluid, panoramic modern epics "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," writer-director Anderson proved himself an intuitive stylist and, particularly with the biblical flourishes of "Magnolia," a risk-taker of unusual nerve. Like many other young filmmakers he is besotted with the sheer joy of moviemaking, and of creating a kinetic, volatile universe. Often in his earlier works, though, as well as in the more compactly bizarre "Punch-Drunk Love," you felt as though you were watching a highly talented filmmaker run through his Netflix queue of favorite directors: Here a little Altman, there a little Scorsese.
Not here. "There Will Be Blood" is not, contrary to some reports, a bold change-up in terms of Anderson's style. It is a refinement. Each scene is beautifully considered and scored to careful rhythm. It's as if the sheer size and force of Day-Lewis' performance forced the director to judge each setup and Altman-esque glide toward the action more selectively. Cinematographer Robert Elswit's contribution is immense, the light and shadows below and above ground never settling for the merely atmospheric.
So, the ending. I have to see it again to figure out more precisely why I resisted Anderson's shift from near-tragedy to the near-screwball. Many will hate it, not because it's ambiguous or open-ended - nothing in "There Will Be Blood" is fuzzy, except for the matter of Dano playing near-identical twins, which was not Anderson's original casting plan - but because it's such a weird little capper to a story of a man crowded by his demons. I think Anderson overstates his central theme in the final minutes, trading the original socialism-vs.-capitalism allegory in "Oil!" for an equally simple square-off between two men and their false (but profitable) idols. Anderson, Dano and Day-Lewis pull out the stops, but the resulting cacophony plays like a first draft rather than a finished result.
And in the end it really doesn't matter. The film exerts a singular pull. Nothing about it feels formulaic. Composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead scores it like Old West science fiction (think "2001" with a miner and an ax instead of an ape with a bone). The music promises violence and dark, bubbling wonders around every narrative corner, and as Plainview and his son separate, reunite, then separate again, "There Will Be Blood" makes good on the promise.
Day-Lewis doesn't moralize about his character. He's too busy making him unforgettable in his obsession. In "Gangs of New York," the actor didn't get the movie his characterization deserved. Here he does, and when you consider what Sinclair wrote in the preface to his own little-known stage adaptation of "Oil!" - "I concentrated on the human story, and reduced the `propaganda' to a minimum" - you realize that Anderson has done the same thing, but far better. He drills "Oil!" for his own dramatic purposes and hands Day-Lewis the role of a lifetime.
"There Will Be Blood"
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; screenplay by Anderson, based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!"; photographed by Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Jonny Greenwood; production design by Jack Fisk; produced by Anderson, JoAnne Sellar and Daniel Lupi. A Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films release. Running time: 2:38. MPAA rating: R (for some violence).
Daniel Plainview - Daniel Day-Lewis
Paul Sunday/Eli Sunday - Paul Dano
Henry - Kevin J. O'Connor
H.W. - Dillon Freasier
Fletcher - Ciaran Hinds