WHEN AMBITION MEETS FAITH.
When I saw this film I wasn’t sure what to think of it. It is easy to be completely mesmerized by Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance… but what about the rest of the film? Is all the other stuff just as good or does Day-Lewis make us forget about the potential flaws of the story? I thought about this for a while but in the end I decided that this tale about the birth of the oil industry is indeed a very powerful film about greed and a clash of egos.
The film was not really based on but inspired by the Upton Sinclair novel “Oil!” and the story begins in 1902 with a prospector called Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) barely escaping a collapse of his silver mine. He is close to losing his legs, but the profits he makes from the mine become the basis of his future success. A while later he turns to oil and becomes one of the early entrepreneurs in that area. It’s a dangerous job; after an accident that kills one of his workers, Daniel adopts his baby boy, H.W.. Years later, when H.W. (Dillon Freasier) is ten or eleven, the boy has virtually become Daniel’s business partner. They’re approached by a young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who tells them that his family’s land most likely is full of oil. The Plainviews go there, disguised as quail hunters, and discover that oil is indeed seeping to the surface.
Paul doesn’t live with his family anymore but he has a twin brother, Eli, who suspects what the Plainviews are up to. The Sundays agree to sell their land, but Eli makes Daniel promise to donate $5,000 to his newly founded church. As Daniel starts making money off of the new wells, Eli’s church also attracts a rising number of visitors…
Hardly any dialogue at first
This is certainly not a feel-good movie. In the beginning, there is hardly any dialogue, just Jonny Greenwood’s ill-boding music accompanying Daniel’s work in the silver mine. As the story continues we grasp the character of Daniel Plainview. He loves his adoptive son, but his primary reason to become a successful oilman is to make enough money to get away from people. He hates most of them, particularly those who use their authority to punish others. The person he loathes the most is Eli Sunday, the squeaky-clean preacher who thrills his audience every Sunday; Daniel sees the same kind of greed in his eyes as he knows is evident in his own and he can’t stand the hypocrisy.
The film becomes an epic battle between the two, culminating in a very off-putting final scene in 1927 when the two men meet again and their worst sides are put on full display. Some viewers might see this film as a symbol of how rotten the oil industry was from the beginning, but most huge industries had a rocky start. As the tagline says, this is primarily a portrayal of what happens when two very similar individuals clash; both are very ambitious, charismatic and know how to sway people, but suffer from bloated egos that will destroy them.
Day-Lewis is a towering presence as Plainview, reminiscent of his character in Gangs of New York (2002), and Dano is also impressive as the preacher who shows the kind of false holiness that we’re used to seeing from televangelists.
Finally, I should say something about the cinematography. Robert Elswit, who has shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, deservedly won an Oscar. I see similarities with John Alcott’s work for Stanley Kubrick; the shots are meticulously planned, the camera moves slowly and shows vast areas where not one item is randomly placed. And much like Kubrick’s films, Anderson depicts inhumanity and its devastating consequences. Fascinating.
There Will Be Blood 2007-U.S. 158 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Novel: Upton Sinclair (“Oil!”). Cinematography: Robert Elswit. Music: Jonny Greenwood. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Paul Sunday/Eli Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Sydney McCallister.
Trivia: Day-Lewis based his voice on that of John Huston’s.
Oscars: Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Cinematography. BAFTA: Best Actor (Day-Lewis). Golden Globe: Best Actor (Day-Lewis). Berlin: Best Director, Artistic Contribution (Greenwood).
Last word: “[Day-Lewis and I] spent a couple of months together in New York. I just remember a lot of eating breakfast and a lot of walking around, more or less getting to know each other and not talking that much about the movie – just this flirtation, like dogs sniffing each other out, to get to know somebody that you’re gonna get married to. We decided that we would make the film together, or more to the point, he decided that he would make the film with me. [Laughs.] Then we went in separate directions; I was back in California and he was in Ireland. That was a really good time, because we were separately doing our work. I was still working on the script, and he was doing whatever he was doing. We never really asked each other what we were up to that much.” (Anderson, The A.V. Club)