It’s not hard to believe, watching There Will Be Blood, that Daniel Day-Lewis could simply do a Google Search for an Oscar, and it would arrive at his door the next day via FedEx. He’s that good. And in this would-be epic by director Paul Thomas Anderson, his ferocious performance outstrips the film attempting to contain it.
Not that it’s difficult to become spellbound by Robert Elswit’s probing camerawork of New Mexico and California, or by the eerily engaging soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood. Blood has visual overtones of The Searchers and Giant, yet its tale of moral depression, greed and loneliness bears even closer resemblance to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with some Elmer Gantry thrown in.
The story, based on “Oil” by Upton Sinclair, is as simple and sweeping as Citizen Kane. It is a tale of one man’s blind obsession and how the fortune that follows alienates him from other people, and ultimately his own soul. But Blood is no tragedy, and Day-Lewis’ character, Plainview, is no visionary. He’s a doggedly ruthless, unlikeable, turn-of-the-century entrepreneur driven to prevail by some dark fire.
The opening scene sets the tone — for both the film and for Day-Lewis’ performance. For the first ten minutes there is no dialogue at all, as we watch the physical ordeal of a man out in the middle of nowhere, deep in a pit digging rock with a pickaxe. The sheer desperate hardship of this life is conveyed in every sinew, every throbbing vein of Day-Lewis’ anatomy. Setting a charge of dynamite, Plainview breaks his leg. But even that doesn’t stop him from crawling to the assay office in town with a sample of ore and staking his claim. Nothing will stop this man. Nothing will stop Day-Lewis from winning the Oscar, either.
Using his hawk-eyed physical architecture to claim his character, Day-Lewis goes to the far reaches we expect from him, forging an American accent and a tight, gnarled voice that matches his character’s evolution into a bitter castoff from human companionship.
A Nietzschean dialectic unfolds over the next two-and-a-half hours between men and sons, sons and brothers, religious froth and capitalist hypocrisy. Yet Plainview’s quest for oil takes place in a moral vacuum. There is no good or evil here, only another day of drilling.
As Plainview discovers more and more untapped oil fields, he makes the rounds with a young son in tow. Posing as a “family man” he eases his way into the lives of dirt farmers eager to put bread on their tables, and buys up their lands. An adversary appears in the unlikely form of grassroots evangelist, one Eli Sunday (played with paroxysms of inspiration by Paul Dano). With a different script, this adversarial battle for one man’s soul and another man’s land might have proved potent. Yet sadly, it peters out at what was to have been a pulverizing climax. In the final scenes, even the harrowing rage roiling through Day-Lewis can’t hide directorial breakdown. The last moments descend into something closer to slapstick than revelation.
It’s wonderful to watch much of There Will Be Blood, and to lean into the images of the Western frontier, its early railroads, campfires, flimsy ranch houses, honest dust and sweat. The elemental textures of the land are hauntingly captured – oil glistening by firelight, the thunder of a gusher barreling up from the earth. Sunset on the empty desert.
Yet Blood is no “up with the people,” feel-good saga, but something unflinching and hard — with neither hope nor redemption. Daniel Day-Lewis’ bleak and emotionally impenetrable character drives himself, we know not why — and along the way to a fortune, he loses sight of what the point of it all might have been.
It is a bracing study of an unrepentent man. Only an actor with Day-Lewis’ confidence would have accepted the role. And it’s hard to think of any other who could have pulled it off.