By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2008)
In the audacious opening shot of his magnificent, sprawling, demented epic, There Will Be Blood, director P.T. Anderson presents us with a tracking shot of a vast expanse of rocky, desolate scrub land, scored by an ominous, discordant drone. When the camera (literally) disappears down a hole, we are introduced to the protagonist, a lone, shadowy figure, chiseling away at the subterranean rock wall of a derelict well with a fierce, single-minded determination.
There is nary a word of dialogue uttered during the ensuing 15 minutes; yet through the masterful implementation of purely cinematic language, we are given a sufficient enough glimpse so as to feel that we may already have some inkling of what it is that drives this man, even though we do not yet even know his name.
Stylistically, this scene recalls the prologue for 2001: A Space Odyssey. What we witness in the film’s introduction may not be quite as profound as Kubrick’s rendering of “the dawn of man”, but it does put the spotlight on something just as primeval. It is something that is buried deep within the capitalist DNA-the relentless drive to amass wealth and power through willful exploitation and opportunism (hey, don’t knock it- it’s what made this country great!)
Flash forward a few years, and we find that our mystery man has made a name for himself in the midst of California’s turn-of-the-century oil boom. The ambitious Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has moved up from prospecting for precious metals to leasing tracts of land for the oil drilling rights. He is well on his way to becoming very wealthy. He did not get to this place in his life by being a nice guy (who does?).
He is a bachelor; but in order to give an impression as a sincere “family man”, he totes a young orphan along to business meetings, who he introduces as his son (not unlike Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s con artist team in Paper Moon). In his worldview, you are either with him, or you are his “competitor”. In fact, Plainview is the quintessential lone wolf, having very little tolerance or use for people in general, unless they can help further his agenda.
Plainview’s biggest payday arrives in the form of a furtive and enigmatic young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who walks out of the desert with a hot tip about a possible oil field beneath his family’s central California ranch land. Everything appears to be going swimmingly until Plainview crosses paths with Sunday’s twin brother Eli (also played by Dano) a fire and brimstone evangelical who sees his family’s business partnership with Plainview as a potential cash cow for building up his ministry. The relationship between these two characters forms the heart of the story’s conflict.
Plainview and Sunday are in reality two peas in a pod; they both employ their own fashion of charlatanism and manipulation to get what they want. They circle each other warily, grudgingly accepting that they need each other to achieve their goals. Plainview sees himself as an empire builder, and promises the milk and honey of economic prosperity to sway the landowners to his way of thinking.
The unhinged Sunday envisions himself as a prophet, and uses the lure of eternal life and the theatrics of faith healing to win over his followers. He clearly sees (plainly views?) Plainview as the Devil; this is suggested in one of the film’s most stunning visuals, where Anderson frames Day-Lewis in ominous silhouette against the hellish backdrop of an oil well fire, recalling the image of Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia. It is significant to note that when we are first introduced to Plainview, he emerges from underground (the Underworld?). The resulting pissing contest between prophet and profiteer makes for a compelling tale.
The story spans thirty years; culminating on the eve of the Depression, by which time the obscenely wealthy but completely soulless Plainview has morphed into a reclusive Charles Foster Kane type figure, alone in his mansion. The film’s jaw-dropping climatic scene is destined to be dissected and argued over by film buffs for some years to come.
The story is rich in allegory; especially in the character of Plainview, who is the very personification of the blood-soaked history of profit-driven expansionism in America at the turn of the century (and it must be said that the particular brand of puritanical religious zealotry represented by Sunday has been responsible for its fair share of damage throughout U.S. history as well).
I was reminded, oddly enough, of the excellent documentary The Corporation, in which the filmmakers build a psychological profile of the typical corporation, as if it were a person. From that film’s website:
To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person,’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.
That is Plainview, and to some extent, Sunday. The famously meticulous Day-Lewis is nothing short of astonishing . It is one of his finest performances . He does make some interesting choices; especially in his carefully measured vocal inflection. I’d swear that he is channeling the voice of the late Jack Palance. But it works-and maybe it’s not such a stretch, since director Anderson appears to be channeling the mythic style of George Stevens’ westerns (Giant, obviously; and in a tangential sense, Shane).
Credit must also go to Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine), who does an admirable job of holding his own against the greatest character actor on earth. In a recent interview, Dano said that Day-Lewis never once broke character, even refusing to acknowledge him off-camera. Kudos as well to Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood for his soundtrack.
This marks the most cohesive and mature work from director Anderson, who adapted his screenplay from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Anderson’s previous films have shown a tendency to polarize critics and audiences. I personally find him one of the most unique American filmmakers working today, and I think that this movie is going to surprise a lot of people.