Image source. Copyright Miramax Films, 2007.
There are three types of films: popular films, artsy films, and the rare film that manages to be both. Unfortunately, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood falls squarely into the “artsy” category. It’s scarily well-designed, but look beyond its carefully constructed façade and you’ll find little to love inside.
Based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, There Will Be Blood tells the story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an aspiring entrepreneur who at the start of the movie is shown valiantly struggling to get ahead in the silver-mining business. It’s gritty, unpleasant work, but lucky for Plainview, he finds an out after he stumbles upon a fertile oil reservoir near Los Angeles. A few accidents and initial startup struggles later, Plainview emerges looking the part of a businessman impeccably, fancy suit, top hat, tobacco pipe and all. He gets a tip from a vagabond named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) that there’s a large deposit of oil underneath the Sunday family’s property. Ever the clever businessman, Plainview bargains hard to get the property and almost all the land surrounding it for his future oil ventures. In doing so, however, he comes into conflict with Paul’s brother Eli (also Paul Dano), a young preacher skeptical of Plainview’s materialistic ambitions. As Plainview’s oilfields take over the sleepy plains of Little Boston and Eli’s church grows in popularity, who will win in this ultimate clash of worldviews – the slick oilman or the otherworldly man of God?
That last part roughly paraphrases what the movie’s publicity agents put on the back of the DVD case. What actually happens in this movie isn’t really about Eli, although his tensions with Plainview do form a fairly large part of the plotline. There Will Be Blood, first and foremost, is about Daniel Plainview, how far he’ll go to get oil and money, and how, slowly but surely, he’ll throw away anything resembling human decency to stay on top of the game. Think Michael Corleone from The Godfather, except that Plainview was never nice in the first place and (thankfully) doesn’t kill as many people. In his quest to depict Plainview’s transformation into a cold monster, Anderson has made an exquisitely-crafted film. Robert Elswit’s cinematography is a particularly special treat; the shots of an exploding oil well and Plainview down in the mining pits are splendors to behold. Throughout this movie, you feel that Anderson has carefully put everything together in each shot; you find yourself examining every last detail, thinking, “What is he trying to say? What is he trying to express with this camera angle, this lighting, this positioning?”
And that’s just the problem with this movie. It’s all craft, no soul. You can see this especially well in Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. He does all the surface things right – the smooth-talking voice, the body language, the laugh. It’s the studied performance you would expect from the likes of Day-Lewis. But beyond that, Daniel Plainview as a character is absolutely empty – he’s a greedy oilman, but what else? What’s he worth as a human being? If you contrast There Will Be Blood with another movie made the same year dealing with depraved human beings, Sweeney Todd, you’ll see exactly what’s missing here. Sweeney Todd, in many ways, is a far worse human being than Daniel Plainview. Yet Tim Burton and Johnny Depp spent considerable amounts of time showing us the inner humanity inside Todd, someone who, in his experience with injustice, has something in common with all of us. You felt for Todd, even if you may have been disgusted by his actions. With Daniel Plainview, however, why should we care about him? Why should we sympathize with or despise him? Day-Lewis and Anderson simply don’t answer this. Their movie is a well-done portrait of monetary avarice, but what’s the point? Plainview’s story and psyche feel too removed, too cut off from the human race to be worth 2.5 hours of our Saturday evening. In his rush to make a grand artistic statement, Anderson leaves the viewers cold.
There’s a good reason why so many critics adored There Will Be Blood. It’s got all the elements of an artistically complete movie: the cinematography, the direction, the method acting. Yet it comes off as dry, devoid of even an inkling of humanity we can understand. In spite of their strong efforts, Anderson and Day-Lewis have made a film that says a lot, but means so little.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano
Running Time: 158 minutes
Produced by: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair.