'There Will Be Blood': Film Review

Daniel Day-Lewis in 'There Will Be Blood.'
Daniel Day-Lewis stuns in Paul Thomas Anderson's saga of a soul-dead oil man.

Both an epic and a miniature, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood uses the fewest possible brush strokes, spread across a vast canvas, to paint a portrait of greed at the beginning of the American century. Built around another powerhouse performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, it's a certain awards contender and will be a strong draw for serious moviegoers.

Partially shot in Marfa, Texas, and stretching across three decades — just enough time for an infant to rise up and defy his father — it begs comparison to another Marfa production, Giant. Blood has none of that film's melodramatic sprawl, though. Instead, it pares allegory-friendly material down to the elementals. It shows not the birth of the American oil business but the origin of a certain kind of oil man — self-made, hands-on, destined for great wealth but doomed to not enjoy it -- then pits this capitalistic force of nature against its Bible-thumping mirror image, hinting at the culture-shaping sibling rivalry between the influence of God and of Mammon in America.

Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a prospector introduced in a wordless sequence showing his progression from heavy-bearded miner to civilized man with prospects: In the entire first reel, the only dialogue we hear is a muttered "there she is" as Plainview finds his buried treasure. The soundtrack is dominated by wilding clouds of strings that bestow on petroleum the mysterious power of Stanley Kubrick's famous obelisk.

That music, by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, is captivating and sometimes intense, greatly contributing to the sense that tectonic forces lie beneath the drama.

The film then makes up for lost time as Plainview addresses a gathering of country landowners in hopes of talking his way onto their property. In Day-Lewis' hands, the spiel becomes a John Huston-ish seduction, a velvet rumble about how qualified he is to suck oil from their dirt and transmute it to wealth for them and their children. When his listeners hesitate before taking the bait, Plainview refuses them a second chance, moving briskly to the next-best prospect. Eventually, he lands a territory with vast, empire-building potential, and the film settles down there, watching him struggle to exploit the discovery.

The film isn't as bloody as its title suggests, but from the start it makes the most of what violence it contains. The dangers of digging for oil are starkly depicted, and at one point — during a hair-raising sequence in which a just-struck gusher catches fire — Plainview's young adopted son takes a fall that costs him his hearing.

That loss and a more mysterious family matter are all we see of Plainview's personal life; he seemingly exists to do nothing but find and sell oil. An obstacle arrives in the person of Paul Dano's Eli Sunday, a self-styled man of God hoping to funnel as much as possible of his congregation's impending wealth into glorifying the Almighty. Barely old enough to shave, Sunday spellbinds listeners with frenzied exorcisms and threatens to steer his flock away from the man who needs their land.

Director Anderson's critics might not know what to do with this picture, which has none of the attention-grabbing flourishes of earlier films — no hailstorms of frogs or deus ex machina pianos here. The closest it gets to self-conscious showiness is its closing scene, a confrontation as memorably strange as the fireworks-popping, "Jessie's Girl"-belting drug deal in Boogie Nights. Its setting is as visually spare (a highlight of Jack Fisk's brilliant production design) as the other was decadent and cluttered, and eventually the scene makes good on the title's promise — but only after offering a virtuoso humiliation to mirror one Plainview suffers earlier in the story.

Even here, though, what could be mere showboating serves as the last step on the path Blood started out on: drawing us slowly and with steadily increasing horror into the bitter worldview of a man whose name suggests he sees the world for what it is.

(This review was written for the 2007 Fantastic Fest screening of There Will Be Blood.)

Paramount Vantage
Ghoulardi Film Co./Paramount Vantage/Miramax Films/Scott Rudin Prods.
Director-screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on the novel by: Upton Sinclair
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, Joanne Sellar
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eric Schlosser
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editors: Tatiana S. Riegel, Dylan Tichenor
Daniel Plainview: Daniel Day-Lewis
Eli Sunday: Paul Dano
H.W.: Dillion Freasier
Fletcher Hamilton: Ciaran Hinds
Running time -- 158 minutes
MPAA rating: R