Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film has been a long time coming and fittingly it is an epic of far broader thematic scope than his previous work. To confirm and elevate his status as one of the premier young directors at work today, ‘There Will Be Blood‘ is a daringly original and challenging piece coming in a year shaping up to be one of the best for film in recent memory. Revolving, sometimes claustrophobically, around Daniel Day Lewis’ turn-of-the-century “Oil Man” Daniel Plainview, an obsessive prospector and entrepreneur with an unbending thirst for success. Featured unflinchingly in nearly every scene, Day Lewis’ studied performance is work of classic method acting that charms as much as it revolts. From the Irish-American drawl (said to be modelled on John Huston’s) to the ambling gait, it is a totally unique portrait of a man who is at once compelling, unknowable and vile. Given his enormous presence in ‘There Will Be Blood‘, the film gambles on Day Lewis being able to deliver a performance that holds our attention for two and a half hours, and he delivers in spades.
The closest comparison that can be made to ‘There Will Be Blood‘ both thematically and stylistically, is ‘Citizen Kane‘. Both films centre around a ruthless and charismatic loner whose appetites – however successful they become – are never sated. Both films deal with the corrosive power of greed and show men at their most despicable in pursuit of fortune. Plainview – a man who openly admits his misanthropy – begins his quest gnawing away at the earth as if driven by some innate (or indeed divine) instinct. The first, wordless, 15 minutes or so, follow his obsessive journey from sole prospector to “Oil Man” as if to depict one crucial step in human development. This sequence, which has been compared to the opening scenes of ‘2001: A Space Odysey‘, builds ominously under Jonny (Radiohead) Greenwood’s Kubrick-esque score. The torrents of oil that gush from these primitive wells bring deaths – both accidental and, later, intentional – and it is clear what the blood of the title refers to. But oil also brings the inexorable tide of progress that 20th century America was built upon, and contributed to its transformation into a superpower.
Plainview is a an alternative take on the mythological figure at the heart of the ‘American dream’, the adventurer-entrepreneur. As with Senator Kane or the real-life Howard Hughes (or at least the version of Hughes presented in Scorcese’s ‘The Aviator‘), Day Lewis’ “Oil Man” is the capitalist visionary anti-hero that runs against the more idealised and acceptable versions such as Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘.
In a complex film riddled with loaded parallels there are numerous baptisms of blood, both of oil and holy water. Others are force-fed oil and, alternatively, milk laced with whiskey in separate acts of misguided paternalism. Parental failure and surrogacy are themes that resonate throughout Anderson’s films and it could be argued that There Will Be Blood‘s world is a motherless one in which fallible male figures compete to feed and educate their flock. Plainview competes with a boy preacher to show their community a path to salvation – one to fortune and progress, the other to God. But are these sermons for the good of the people or motivated by greed? In a theatrical final sequence we are forced to recognise the fallibility of both in the historically significant setting of the Depression.
It is a bleak vision that burns indeliably on the mind. There are characters forced to publicly denounce everything they believe in for money, to accept the lowest humiliation in search of fortune. A dispiriting view of human nature that is suggestive of more contemporaneous evils committed in the pursuit of oil, it shows humans at their lowest. A singular and uncompromising masterpiece by Anderson, ‘There Will Be Blood‘ challenges – along with the Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country For Old Men‘ – as one of the films of the year, if not the decade.