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There Will Be Blood   A

Paramount Vantage / Miramax Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on a novel by Upton Sinclair)
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Sydney McCallister, David Willis, David Warshofsky.

Review by Rob Vaux

The opening of There Will Be Blood makes bold reference to the "Dawn of Man" sequence from 2001: stark, eerie music playing over a seemingly abandoned piece of primal desert. You may think that's a stretch when the camera finally pans down to frustrated silver prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) hacking away at the wall of a mine, but don't worry. They'll come back to it. Plainview has far more in common with Stanley Kubrick's prehistoric yahoos than may initially be apparent. He's more eloquent and he disguises his intentions beneath a modicum of decorum, but at his core, he is equally cunning and no less savage. In other words, he's the perfect man to reap untold riches when he shifts from silver to the burgeoning business of oil.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson bases his fable loosely on Upton Sinclair's Oil!, adopting the author's distain for capitalistic exploitation while reveling in the sort of dirty, skulking minds that can prosper in such a system. Plainview has a nose for the business; when he sniffs out a well, he can deflect all competitors, buy out the landowners for a song, and sink his fists deep within the bubbling black wealth before cracking them against the jaws of anyone who deigns to take what he perceives as his. Much of the film utilizes sparse or nonexistent dialogue, relying instead on images of unspeakable visual intensity rifled through sharp punctuations (and an eerily suspenseful soundtrack from Jonny Greenwood). Anderson claims he approached There Will Be Blood as a horror movie, and while the content may differ, the mood and tone tap into the same primitive core of our brains.

And like a lot of horror films, there are few real heroes to challenge the monster that Plainview becomes. He has a son, H.W. (played initially by Dillon Freasier and later by Russell Harvard), whom he appears to dote upon, but the motivations behind his love grow cloudier and cloudier as the film progresses. A long-lost brother (Kevin J. O'Connor) appears -- possibly real, possibly just an earnest stranger -- but he's devoted to Plainview nonetheless, and he too makes little headway against the man's hateful heart. Competitors rise and fall, circling Plainview like vultures but never quite summoning the strength to inflict a killing blow. The most tenacious is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a Pentecostal preacher of a nothing little California town who holds the locals under his thumb until his twin brother Paul (also Dano) cues Plainview in to the vast oil fields beneath their feet. Plainview recognizes a fellow snake when he sees one, but he underestimates the religious fervor that Sunday can invoke. As he moves in on the town and the stakes rise with each new well, the two find themselves in a figurative and literal death grip.

The particulars of their struggle hold less interest for Anderson than the broad strokes of who Plainview is and what he represents. The story skips forward years (sometimes decades) at a time, remaining fixed within the California desert and watching the slow changes wrought by its most uncompromising inhabitant. We learn much about the dangers of oil drilling, about the greed behind it, and about the process that brings barrels of wealth out of the ground at the cost of human lives. Anderson sees the repulsion of it all (violence comes in shocking rabbit punches, and you can't accuse the title of false advertising), but he spikes the mixture with perfect dollops of black humor, attaining a delirious, surreal atmosphere that might have sunk a lesser production into camp. Here, it becomes awe-inspiring: an Old Testament bellow of ferocity and pain that seduces us on so many levels you'd swear you could see the fourth wall tumbling down around our ears.

And as strong as Anderson's work is here (aided in no small part by DP Robert Elswit and production designer Jack Fisk), it means little without Day-Lewis, who delivers the most incredible cinematic performance in quite some time. Plainview just consumes everything around him, reaching out for whatever opportunities arise and squeezing every last drop before throwing the desiccated carcass onto the sands. That extends to the audience itself as much as the other characters and the mise-en-scène. Seriously and without hyperbole, the man actually made me fear for my safety -- huddled frozen behind the theater seat lest his beady eyes take note of me and he stride out, Purple Rose of Cairo style, to pummel me senseless. Credit O'Connor and Dano for even registering a presence while sharing the screen with a figure so irresistible.

Both actor and director take solid cues from John Huston, whose Treasure of the Sierra Madre has been cited as inspiration and whose Noah Cross would certainly recognize a kindred spirit in Plainview. Like Cross, Plainview possesses a mesmeric fascination, holding everyone in absolute thrall even as his horrid behavior sends chills down our spine. There Will Be Blood tempers his diabolical charisma with an understanding of the moral cost involved, but delivered so eloquently and with such unspoken strength that it feels as natural and believable as its protagonist's misanthropy. Anderson never celebrates his behavior, but he does realize how attractive it can be, and how a man like Plainview can dismiss as soft and weak the only things in life that really matter. The question is not whether he loses his soul, but whether he ever had any soul to lose in the first place... and by extension, whether anyone with such ambitions could claim to be any better. Kubrick had an answer for that once upon a time, and cinema was never quite the same afterwards. There Will Be Blood takes those lessons to ravishing, hypnotic, and equally triumphant heights.

Review published 12.29.2007.

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