Movie Review: There Will Be Blood
By Matthew Huntley
March 25, 2008
There are some great things to be written about Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, but unfortunately the list isn't as long as you think. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis' performance is strong and mighty; yes, Robert Elswit's cinematography is sometimes stunning to look at; yes, Jonny Greenwood's score is fierce and pulsating (not that it really needed to be); and yes, the violence in the picture generates a genuine unease and tension. But these are all kind of transitory praises in a movie with some major flaws. Unfortunately, I knew going in how critically praised it was, but altogether I fail to see why.
This is a good movie that could have been a great film. It wants to be a grand epic, but its story and characters only go so far before we start wonder what we're supposed to find interesting about them. Anderson's fifth picture needed another round in the editing room. Maybe then it might have been more focused and impacting.
Day-Lewis plays oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, whose methods for finding and drilling oil at the turn of the 19th century have turned him into an obsessive, powerful monster, though his true qualities aren't readily apparent. We first see Daniel digging underground and searching for oil deposits on rocks. For the first 20 minutes, no dialogue is spoken as we simply observe the cold and brutal lengths this man will go to get what he wants, even if it means dragging a broken leg for miles to claim the rights to an oil field.
When a member of his drilling team is crushed by a makeshift oil derrick, Daniel becomes a surrogate father to the man's infant son. Daniel's sole motivation for raising the boy is for his own benefit (it's much easier to convince small townspeople to let you drill for oil on their land if you appear to be a family man).
Daniel begins building an empire, and one day a stranger walks through his door and tells him he might know the whereabouts of a ranch that has oil coming up from beneath the ground. The young man's name is Paul (Paul Dano), and he's an estranged member of the Sunday family in California. Paul tells Daniel and his assistant (Ciaran Hinds) he'll divulge information about his family's land for a good price.
Daniel and his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), travel to the Sunday ranch, pretending to be hunters, and make the town an offer to start digging. Daniel promises the impressionable folks wealth, employment and a donation to the local church, which is run by Eli Sunday (also Dano), Paul's brother who gradually becomes Daniel's chief nemesis. Both vie for control of the small town, but in different ways.
Eli is a reverend for the Church of the Third Revelation, believing himself to be a prophet of God, able to rip the Devil from people's bodies and cast him away. In one of the film's best scenes, Daniel observes Eli drawing the Devil out from an old woman's hands, screaming and yelling for it to be gone. The scene works so well because of the tension simmering underneath Daniel's face. Could Daniel be somewhat jealous of Eli, or perhaps even admire him? After all, he sees the cunning, manipulative hold Eli has on his congregation.
The movie wisely refrains from letting us know if Eli is a fake or not. Some scenes suggest he is, while others don't, and that makes him all the more interesting to watch, perhaps even more than Daniel.
Another development involves an accident in the derrick that causes H.W. to go deaf, allowing us to fully see an even darker side to Daniel's nature. He's willing to give up anything to ensure he's the best and his competitors are not. We know Daniel is intensely driven, and the movie makes a point of telling us this too many times. Anderson's screenplay even has Daniel bluntly state it to a man claiming to be his brother (Kevin J. O'Connor).
This movie goes wrong when it begins its overkill of telling us things about Daniel we already know. It thinks it's so good that it only has to supply us with it main character, but the problem is it doesn't give him much to do. After a while, I didn't much care where There Will Be Blood was going, probably because it didn't really seem to be going anywhere. There's not much of an arc to Daniel, who's the movie's main focus. And just as we find it frustrating that real people sometimes never change, the same goes for fictional characters.
For everything that's praiseworthy about the movie (production values, performances), I had a hard time finding a story within it to really care about. I'm not asking for a traditional narrative with a traditional beginning, middle and end. No, I'm asking for something to grab onto and make me interested in watching this man. Daniel isn't a one-note character, that's for sure, but the movie only provides him one note to ride. After about the one-third mark, it's just not interesting cinema. Maybe it could have been, but not the way it is now.
Some critics have called this movie a deep, intense character study, but I would disagree, because we essentially see the main character do the same things over and over again. Twice we see him stand before a town hall and state his reasons for wanting to dig oil; twice we see him threaten other people with violence if they don't do what he says; and three times we actually see him resort to violence as a means of crushing his enemy. We get it: Daniel is a violent man who will do anything to be the best. Now, what else can you tell us about him?
I believe I understand what Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to say with this character and plot, and I saw the subtext, along with all the carefully framed shots to reveal things and people ever so slowly (they aren't particularly well-hidden), but they're just not that interesting.
Day-Lewis, whose one of a handful of actors who can completely disappear into roles, goes through his usual transformation as Daniel, and despite a few ostentatious moments when you see him trying too hard to be funny and showy, he is very good. More impressive though is Paul Dano, who I'm surprised to say actually upstages Day-Lewis when they're on-screen together.
But at 158 minutes, There Will Be Blood simply overkills. There are too many long takes, too many stagey scenes that call attention to themselves (especially the ending), and not to latch onto. The movie lacks any kind of payoff, emotional and intellectual.
Even Greenwood's score also seems inappropriate because it pounds on the soundtrack, overtly complementing the tone and characters; it forces its way onto us through heavy percussion and strings, consistently reinforcing the movie's themes even though it's not necessary.
The ending is also overkill because of its location and the director wanting to show us that location way ahead of time. We know something big has to happen here, and when it does, it doesn't mean as much because we saw it coming far away.
Truth of the mattter is, I walked away feeling this story didn't have much consequence. Even though I'm sure P.T. Anderson was in full control of his narrative during shooting and editing, the result makes him appear lost. It sort of wanders around and we wait for something to have meaning beyond what we already know. It just never does.
If There Will Be Blood weren't so well-made, with a close attention to detail, high production values, amazing performances and an excessive patience, it would have been in trouble. I will not go along with other critics on this one and call it a masterpiece. This is a movie I liked and admired...to a degree. It's one I wanted to love but couldn't.