Daniel Day-Lewis gets diabolical in There Will Be Blood
It’s not so easy to say, or even determine, what There Will Be Blood is really all about, but that in itself is surely part of the point and also part of this fascinating film’s peculiar power.
You could say that it’s a character study, and a ferociously ironic one at that, with a great smoldering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis at the center of it. And that certainly gets at the most evident and conspicuous aspects of this new, much-heralded production from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), based on the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!
But TWBB is also a strange, sprawling sort of epic, and a bizarre, fragmented period piece, with an elusive range of curious secondary characters drifting temporarily into the orbit of the Day-Lewis character. The epic character study becomes a desolating sort of allegory via the Day-Lewis character’s relationships with a handful of key figures who enter significantly enough into his orbit that he is moved to hurl them violently from it.
Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview, a solitary miner/prospector who parlays an isolated discovery of oil in California circa 1898 into an aggressively expansive and perversely independent empire. The story of his career proceeds by way of perplexing combinations of narrative leaps and bounds with protracted moments in which Plainview and others violate the apparent logic of their behavior in scenes immediately preceding.
Malevolent behavior, sublimated and otherwise, is a recurring element in all this, but even after that becomes a foregone conclusion TWBB maintains an air of poetic puzzle. Plainview’s intimate cold-heartedness with his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier as a child, Russell Harvard as an adult) and his half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) provide key examples, but the most crucial and primal character clash is ultimately between Plainview and a charismatic young evangelist and grass-roots entrepreneur named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).
Eli’s brother Paul (also played by Dano) makes the deal that triggers Plainview’s launch into empire-building, but Eli, modeled on profit-oriented evangelists from Southern California’s past, is much the greater promoter and deal-maker, with the ultimate result that Plainview sees him as, among other things, a greater threat than the corporate might of the Standard Oil executives whom he also violently and willfully defies.
TWBB’s larger allegorical gestures suggest religion and big business locked in an unholy embrace, with Plainview and Eli as matched false prophets dueling for ever-higher stakes.
Day-Lewis’ Plainview is a great growling demon, a pantherish misanthrope/prophet, and the film gives him just enough in the way of archetypal American context for us to suspect that he should be seen as some sort of diabolically inspired angel of individual enterprise as well.
The story begins in a dark-hole underground, and it ends in a private, palatially lit bowling alley. Pools of dark liquid will form in both settings, but the offsetting ironies involved raise more questions than they answer. It’s that kind of film, and all of its greatest assets—Day-Lewis’ performance, Anderson’s oblique screenplay and the musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood—are part of the deal.