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There Will Be Blood’s title is more of a promise than a descriptor. Yes, there will be blood in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest exploration into taking left turns on film, but there won’t be a lot of it, and that’s not really what the movie’s about. It’s just where it’s going.
Instead, There Will Be Blood is two hours of intense navel gazing, or rather mustache gazing. Most of the film is spent examining the intricacies of Daniel Day-Lewis’s mustache. That might sound like a knock on the movie, but the mustache is part of Day-Lewis’s portrayal of an utterly fascinating and complex character: early twentieth century oil man Daniel Planview.
Daniel is a hard working, self-made man. We first meet him as a poor speculator, scrabbling around in the dirt, feverishly searching for oil in a desolate wasteland made to seem even more desolate by the movie’s almost horror movie like score composed entirely of screeches and metallic howls. It’s not long before Daniel strikes oil, and starts parlaying that into an empire. Most of the film is spent with Daniel several years later, after he’s already become a businessman and minor success, and is now on the verge of becoming a major player with the discovery of massive oil fields under the small town of Little Boston.
It’s in Little Boston that he meets Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a glory-hungry local preacher who attempts to use his position in the community to glam off Daniel. Daniel of course will have none of it, and though he plays the friendly family man with the townspeople, on the inside he’s a seething caldron of hatred and contempt. Here is a man driven by competition, a need to succeed at the expense of others. And though he puts on an affable exterior, he succeeds by trampling over others, and refusing to let anyone, or anything, even those he loves, stand in his way. The movie isn’t so much about what happens to Daniel or what he does, but figuring out who he is.
The movie’s based on a book by Upton Sinclair, and if it’s anything like the film I can’t imagine a more boring read. The film is spent simply zooming in on a single character, and watching him live and breathe business dealings. Daniel talks little, and indeed the film itself is mostly silent with no real score to speak of except for the aforementioned screeches, and with great stretches almost entirely free of dialogue. It works as a movie though, in large part because of PT Anderson’s outside the box method of directing and because of Daniel Day Lewis, who gives one of the best performances of the year. Because of him, watching close-up after close-up of hard-edged Daniel Planview proves an intensely engrossing experience.
I do however find myself getting nostalgic for the old PT Anderson; the guy who made Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love. There Will Be Blood is as different from those films as any movie could possibly be, having in common with them only Anderson’s willingness to do something completely different from what any other filmmaker is doing. Where his previous three, slightly fanciful movies use music, color, and exciting imagery to convey broad, sometimes gut-wrenching themes There Will Be Blood is intentionally stark, barren, and slow-paced. The life and energy Anderson has always had in such plentiful amounts is completely gone, replaced by the cold, harsh, intricacies of the oil business and a dark character who, if not exactly sympathetic, is in his own quiet, hard way more real than anything else Anderson has ever done.
Actually, if there’s one word that accurately describes There Will Be Blood, it’s real. Maybe too real to keep popcorn audiences interested, but for more patient moviegoers Daniel Day-Lewis’s hypnotic performance makes it a must see. Still, as much as I found myself liking There Will Be Blood, I can’t help but hope that Anderson doesn’t make this a habit. Alright Paul, doing one movie like this is interesting. Well done. But let’s not make a tradition out of it. For your next one, do us all a favor and give us back Boogie Nights PT Anderson.