“What’s in a name?” asks Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Maybe, but when a writer gives a character a name, consciously or not, it holds a meaning. Take the protagonist of “There Will Be Blood”, who goes by the name of Daniel Plainview but who’s called J. Arnold Ross in Oil!, the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel on which the film is based. This suggests a few things: 1) director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t intend to be slavishly faithful to the book; 2) actor Daniel Day-Lewis intensely connects with this particular character; and, most interestingly, 3) the ‘Plainview’ surname makes me think of the expression “hidden in plain view”, as in, “a monster hidden in plain view.” Now, you might say, this ain’t a monster movie! Think again.
As portrayed by Day-Lewis, in what might be his best performance, Daniel Plainview is one of the most iconic monsters in cinema history. He might seem like an ordinary guy at first, a benevolent family man even, who just happens to have a strong drive to succeed as an oilman. But before long, you can tell he’s not only greedy but filled with pride, hatred and contempt. He only goes along with the social interaction game insofar as it allows him to get close enough to people to sink his teeth into their neck and suck them dry of their blood/oil. If this isn’t the definition of a vampire, I don’t know what is!
As you can tell, this is new territory for P.T. Anderson, who has until now made mostly sentimental movies. The characters in “Boogie Nights” might have been porn stars and Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan from “Punch-Drunk Love” was certainly full of anger but, ultimately, they were all profoundly sympathetic chaps and the films were full of heart. In his latest, Anderson rips that heart out with his teeth, then gleefully watches as blood spurts everywhere. “There Will Be Blood” indeed.
As much as I adore previous PTA flicks (especially “Magnolia”, one of the all-time masterpieces in my opinion) for their sense of humanity and love, it’s an immense pleasure to watch him take a break from that and plunge into the darkest corners of the soul. I say pleasure, because as disturbing and mean as this tale can be, it’s also pierced by an infectious streak of (oil) black humor. Try not to giggle as the battle of wills escalates between Plainview and his nemesis, self-appointed leader of the faith Eli Sunday (played by a fanatical, practically possessed Paul Dano).
I’d rather not go into plot details and let you discover the many surprising twists for yourself, so I’ll just mention that Plainview and Sunday are basically both professional bullshiters, who manipulate folks for their own profit, and each can instinctively tell that the other is on to him and, well, that’s bothersome. This leads to a series of figurative but also often literal (!) bitch-slapping matches, as the two enemies relentlessly try to beat each other into submission. The climax to that is the most insanely over the top sequence you’ll see all year, and I loved every second of it.
“There Will Be Blood” is kind of a cross between a Western and a horror movie and, accordingly, Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit alternate between sun-bleached shots of wide open spaces and sequences taking place in the dark of night, which is sometimes lit up by hellish fire, in a few key instances. Long stretches are dialogue-free, making room for purely visual storytelling… Though said visuals are aided by the brilliant music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, which is equal parts dissonant, percussive musique contemporaine and a classic film score à la Bernard Herrmann.
Since its premiere at the Austin Fantastic Fest last October, “There Will Be Blood” has repeatedly been compared to such American cinema classics as “Giant”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and that holiest of the holiest, “Citizen Kane”. That may sound like an oversell but believe me, it is that good and then some.