Blood thicker than oil

Amy Buchanan 21 February 2008

There Will Be Blood

(15, 158 mins)

5 stars

With both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe under his belt for his enigmatic performance as the sinister turn of the century oil man Daniel Plainview, all eyes are on Daniel Day-Lewis in the run-up to the Oscars, and rightly so. For There Will Be Blood really is a cinematic tour-de-force, practically faultless in execution.

Critics who have dismissed the film as nothing but a reductive star vehicle are missing the point – although epic and sweeping in form, the very core of the film hangs upon the insular, and gradually fractured, world Plainview builds for himself.

The plot feels almost incidental given this depth of character exploration. After receiving a tip-off from the mysterious Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), Plainview travels to New Boston, California, with his young son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), where he discovers a veritable ocean of oil and sets about securing it. Yet mounting hostility appears to threaten his ambition in the guise of Sunday’s creepy preacher brother Eli (also played by Dano), who initially accepts Plainview’s proposal only in return for funding to help build his “Church of the Third Revelation”.

This mounting hostility leads the audience to expect a clash of the titans, when this was never really the point. Neither character is likeable, each affecting a mask – one of everyman humility, the other pious evangelism – that gradually slips off by turns, exposing the same egotism and greed. But soon we realise the conflict really resides within Plainview himself: “I have a competition in me.”

The hints were there all along. Gazing upon the fire caused by an explosion on an oil rig, Plainview’s face becomes positively demonic, glowing eerily red. An enforced baptism is transformed into an exorcism: Sunday slaps him, with screams of “Get out devil!” murmured back by the congregation.

Shades of The Wicker Man are arguably discernible, but here it is the outsider who poses the real threat. Comparisons have also inevitably been drawn with Citizen Kane and The Aviator, further examples of the “successful mogul turned psychotic misanthropic recluse” genre, yet unlike Kane or Hughes no real reasoning is ever given for Plainview’s degeneration, only serving to make it all the more horrific and indecipherable.

Yet Plainview is far from a one-dimensional portrait; Day-Lewis manages to evoke compassion from his audience via his tumultuous relationship with his stricken son, H.W.. We are more than once led to believe that H.W. is being used, worth nothing more than the oil his cute face can help Plainview buy; but we know better, having witnessed many an unspoken moment between the two.

Both Dano and Freasier are note-perfect in their roles, with Freasier particularly notable for his subtle and touching handling of what is predominantly a silent role. Dano exhibits real promise here of great things to come, calling to mind a young Ed Norton. Veering between the disturbing gentle whisper and the screeching yell, his performance is filled with a creepy juxtaposition that echoes that displayed by Day-Lewis, yet is never developed as fully.

None other than Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is responsible for the score – the opening mounting note, heard before the film even begins, is genuinely terrifying, instilling an overwhelming sense of foreboding into the viewer that never really goes away. It is discordant, jarring, something does not feel quite right; this is the way we are meant to approach There Will Be Blood from the outset.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson, best known for his ensemble pieces Boogie Nights and Magnolia, finally lives up to the potential he has displayed in the past. He has constructed a world that is at once familiar and utterly alien, visually lush with its panoramic shots of the western desert and intimately lit close-ups of his cast.

His masterpiece, however, is not entirely without fault. What some will see as striking innovation, others will view as indulgence, particularly the film’s dialogue-free fifteen-minute long prologue. With a running time of 158 minutes, it really does require stamina and it would be hard even for the most avid audience-member not to experience feelings of tedium in places. The second half loses momentum and the whole thing can begin to feel like an anti-climax; that is, of course, until that final scene and the already infamous milkshake speech. Criticised by some for sticking out like a sore thumb, its jarring nature in fact arguably constitutes the defining feature of the whole film. A film essentially about innate rivalry and monstrous ambition, with sterling performances all round, There Will Be Blood should clean up at the Oscars – it fully deserves to.

Amy Buchanan