We get the idea that Daniel Plainview has been working his entire life to get to the thrilling conclusion of “There Will Be Blood.” And we also get the idea that Daniel Day-Lewis has been searching his entire career for a role such as this. And all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have prepared him for this masterpiece.
Nothing prepared me for this amazing, harrowing, difficult film about greed and the people consumed by it. The opening shot is of a mountain range in the desert, and the chilling orchestral crescendo to accompany it makes the moment reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In a mine shaft behind these mountains is Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), working all by himself looking for precious stones. It’s 1898, but to get as deep as he is, he must have been working a long time. After an explosion inside the shaft, Daniel falls and breaks his leg, but he manages to pull himself out of the shaft and drag himself miles over the mountains. The first place he goes is to sell his diamonds.
By 1902, he’s beginning his own company, mining deeper in the same spot. In it he finds oil, and the Daniel Plainview we will follow throughout the rest of the film finally comes to light. A coworker with a baby boy is killed as they mine, and Daniel takes the boy, raises him as his own and uses him on his sales pitches.
What’s brilliant about this back-story that takes almost 20 minutes to tell is that it’s done almost completely without dialogue. The camera and the soundtrack or lack thereof of one do the talking instead. But the cinematography by Robert Elswit still paints the setting as not quaint or even dangerous, but fearsome and odd.
We pick up with Daniel in 1911, now a successful oilman and building wells nationwide. He gets a visit from a man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who tips him off to some oil seeping from the ground in his small town of Little Boston. He purchases the land from the Sunday family after negotiating a deal with Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Dano), who wants the money to build a church and establish himself as a powerful priest.
These people are so odd, each of them forming rivalries as they remain at the top of their own metaphoric hierarchy. Day-Lewis and Dano are masterful at painting perceptions of people so inherently corrupted and yet blinded that it is impossible to imagine any good in them at all. How fitting and tragic a story that results in their alienation from within a normal society and the ultimate clash between each character convinced they are the best of their kind.
Anderson however is the real driving force behind this elaborate character study, forcing Daniel and Eli into painful and unexpected scenarios beyond their control. There’s a fire that rages for hours at Daniel’s mill, killing several of his workers and causing his son to go deaf. He runs across a long-lost half brother, opening up to him his hatred and dislike for all of mankind. These scenes that challenge and test the characters’ understanding of themselves are absolutely riveting.
And each of them is handled with the best of acting and the most stunning of cinematography and shot placement. “There Will Be Blood” is a study in greatness. Day-Lewis finds the perfect blend of ferocity and quiet intensity in his performance. No matter what his dynamic level, Day-Lewis has the natural ability to simply floor you, and this is by far his best performance.
As for Anderson, he spares no wasted shot. He knows his film is about Daniel Plainview and nothing else occurring on or off screen, and his camera understands this man. He captures his self-centeredness, his brutality and his insanity, and he does it in the most minimalistic of styles. His appearance of doing so little lends entirely to the film’s inherent creepiness.
But what shocked me the most about the film is its statement about fate. Anderson alludes to the fact that these characters, their development, their tragedies and their conclusions in life are all somehow predetermined. He makes subtly clear that the film started well before Daniel finds diamonds in 1898. It is also apparent that Daniel’s insanity began well before his confrontation with Eli Sunday, or before his meeting with Paul Sunday, or even before he dragged his broken leg miles across a desert. Watch the ending and listen to Daniel Plainview’s last line and you’ll understand as he does the finality in his action and that doing so has been a long time in the making.
“There Will Be Blood” is a masterpiece, simple as that. If it did not win the Oscars it should have, it is because “No Country for Old Men” is equally perfect. But this film will receive the recognition it deserves. It is practically predetermined.