Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds

MPAA Rating:  (for some violence)

Running Time: 2:38

Release Date: 12/26/07 (limited); 1/4/08 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Daniel Plainview, the antihero of There Will Be Blood, is the archetype of cutthroat corporate ideology. In other words, capitalism gone amuck. And in other words, the essence of American economic power. He is a horrible, hate-filled, ambitious man, and the film serves as a study of the implications those qualities have on himself and those around him. On another level, his rise to wealth and influence and fall into madness mirror the United States' own post-Industrial Revolution economic boom and the corruption that came with it. That the focus of Plainview's trade is oil only brings to mind our current economic troubles and corporate shenanigans.

The film is adapted from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, and while it's missing Sinclair's overtly political, muckraking machinations and motivation, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's take on the material is still fascinating. It works as a character study and a basic overview of corporate mentality in its infancy—as ambitiously ruthless and openly hypocritical as it is today. Holding the specific (i.e., character) and general (i.e., social) examinations together is another phenomenal performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who balances his character's purpose as symbol and depth as an individual.

The film starts in 1898 in the Southwest (shot with rich composition by Robert Elswit), where Plainview is picking away in a pit. It's a long, dialogue-free section of film that shows him discovering oil, hiring a larger crew, striking it rich, and taking the liquid gold from the ground. A man is killed in an accident, and Plainview takes his baby on a train. Now it's 1911, and Plainview is in a small town, trying to convince the townsfolk to allow him to set up an oil well operation. He has a prepared speech for this type of event; he's not only an oilman but a family man as well. He introduces his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) as his partner.

Met with disagreement, Plainview takes his business elsewhere. A young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to Plainview's office and tips him off to the presence of oil in his town of Little Boston. Plainview and H.W. take the trip, meet with Sunday's family, including the fanatically religious Eli (also Dano), and after discovering there's credence to the Sunday boy's claim, begin a derrick operation in the town, promising the locals education, employment, and roads. Eli sees this endeavor as an opportunity to enhance his church.

The central conflict—apart from the clash between the kind of man Plainview says he is and what he actually does—is between Plainview and Eli. Both are salesman. Eli is looking for souls and power; Plainview is looking for money and power. Both men are on to the other before anyone else is. Eli knows why Plainview is in Little Boston from the start; Plainview refuses to donate money to Eli's church. When Eli asks to bless the new derrick, Plainview agrees only to perform the dedication himself. They are competitors; they are both corrupt.

It's an intriguing concept for a dispute and comparison, religion and capitalism, but it's decidedly in the background compared to the fleshing out of Plainview's views of the world, his wealth, and his concept of a good life. He seems a down-to-earth man. He tells the population of Little Boston he has their interests at heart. He seems a loyal, furiously protective family man. He takes in his hitherto unknown half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor) into the business after his story of hard times. He threatens to cut the throat of a Standard Oil man who tries to tell Plainview how to raise H.W after the boy is injured and deafened at a derrick accident.

That's only the appearance. Before threatening the man, we've seen Plainview interfere in the Sunday family's affairs, stopping the father (David Willis) from hitting their young daughter. He sends H.W. away, giving Eli the perfect ammunition to get back at Plainview when he forces the oil tycoon to repeat his sin—the only thing that seems to affect him—in front of the whole congregation. He tells his brother that he hates competitors (and people in general) and doesn't want to see anyone succeed. "I want to earn enough money to get away from people," he confides.

Later, the brother reveals a secret, and the aftermath shows even further the kind of man Plainview really is. He's a hypocrite, a man of influence who uses it to his own ends. He is an oilman through and through. Anderson's goal is illuminate these traits of an entire industrial power in one man, and if not for the work of Day-Lewis, it could easily be lost. Day-Lewis' Plainview borders on caricature, but his performance is fully defined, from the voice to the posture to the internal ticking of motivation, keeping it the study of a man. From that, we get the study of a paradigm.

There Will Be Blood lets it all seep in slowly until its epilogue in 1927. There are two key, final dialogue scenes: one between Plainview and his son; the other between Plainview and Eli. The implications of the second one are clear from the start—a final showdown between rivals (the execution, though, is almost absurdly comic)—but the first one is a little more difficult. Is that last scene with H.W. chilling because Plainview is lying about his feelings to break a competitor, or is it possible that he's telling the truth?

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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