originally published in the middlebury campus
Indie auteur Paul Thomas Anderson was a critical darling of the late 1990s, with his films Boogie Nights and Magnolia firmly cementing his reputation as one of the most prominent rising directorial stars. His films tend to be paradoxical. They are dramatic, but have a strain of absurdist comedy running them. They are intimate, but have an epic vision. They are simultaneously about one person and all people. His latest release, There Will Be Blood, is different, though. Anderson jettisons the tongue-in-cheek humor one usually finds in his films and instead focuses on crafting a sweeping epic.
Using Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1927 novel Oil! as a jumping off point, Anderson tackles the California oil boom, which we see between the early 1890s to the mid 1930s. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, as the film follows his rise from one man mining crew to a ruthless oil baron. The key to his success is the dusty backwater town of Bakersfield, California, a town where Plainview finds an ocean of oil waiting for him just under the ground and settlers all to willing to sell their land. The thorn in Plainview’s side comes in the form of a 19 year old boy (played by Paul Dano), a self styled preacher who, like most people in the film, is looking for money so that he might expand his small country church.
P.T. Anderson has made a film that some might find difficult to like. The characters are selfish, greedy, and nearly impossible to connect with. Even the character of the preacher, who in most other films would be seen as a protagonist, comes off as shrill and irritating. But those characteristics that most would find off-putting makes the characters fascinating, and because the film is so long its easy to see how greed insinuates itself into the very fiber of their being. Anderson is less interested in the social history of the California oil boom, but is instead setting himself to work on showing the dark side of the American success story. He and Day-Lewis have made a modern day Charles Foster Kane, a man who has set out to better his living situation, and in so doing loses touch with the rest of mankind as greed overtakes his entire world view. Day-Lewis delivers a titanic performance as Plainview. He allows himself to become Plainview, and pays little mind to whether or not the audience can connect with the monster he has created. It is one of the gutsiest and best performances in recent memory, and further cements Mr. Day-Lewis as one of the screens greatest actors. Also impressive is young Paul Dano as the irritatingly self-righteous priest, Eli Sunday. It takes a lot to stand alongside to Day-Lewis’ amazing performance, but Dano more than holds his own. As much as I would like to go through and praise every performance in the film, but space prevents it so I will just say, all the performances are fantastic, from Day-Lewis to Kevin J O’Connor as an interloper claiming to be Plainview’s brother.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the score, by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood. His first foray into film scoring is fabulously successful. Drawing on influences from modern classical music he uses dissonant chords in the string section and unusual time signatures that, along with the stark cinematography of Roger Elswit, gives the film an unsettling feel.
I’m not sure if it would be correct to say that Anderson has grown as a film maker, he has always been a fantastically talented writer-director, but what is true is that this film has a drastically different feel from his other films. It is more mature, and he has a confidence in his images that some of his films seemed to lack at times. He allows his camera to linger on people as they work. Unlike his earlier films, he allows his characters’ actions to speak for them (in fact you have to wait for eleven and a half minutes before you hear a character speak), and it’s breathtaking. There Will Be Blood is a sensational film and one that marks the emergence of Paul Thomas Anderson as a mature filmmaker who is a force to be reckoned with.