Blood And Fire

Nobody says anything for the opening fifteen minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s monstrous epic There Will Be Blood. There is no need. Over the first clanging notes of Johnny Greenwood’s discordant score, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) swings a pickaxe deep underground, chipping away at a thin seam of gold, the exertion etched on his face. Then, an accident, and Plainview must drag himself out of his pit and crawl back to town. The first theme of this extraordinary film is established – the earth is filled with treasures, for the man strong enough to extract them.

As he will do throughout, Anderson then brings us forward a couple of years to the late 1870s, where Plainview has converted his few ounces of hard-won gold into an oil prospect. There in the desert, with a few swarthy riggers, he makes his first strike – his raw hand covered in the blood-black oil, raised triumphant over his head, a powerfully simple image that calls to mind Kubrick’s hooting apes, champions of their own prehistoric wasteland, giddy with the thrill of discovery.

Now suited and booted, Plainview hones his tactics, adopting a young orphan HW (played with uncanny calm by Dillon Freasier) to establish himself as a family man, and with the help of his lieutenant Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds), builds his business throughout the West. One evening, Plainview is visited by a young man who tells him, for a fee, about a place where the oil is seeping out of the ground. With H.W. in tow, Plainview sets out, camping at the run-down Sunday family farm under the pretence of hunting quail. Soon he has bought the land, and the land around it and (in a scene largely improvised by Day Lewis) met with the townspeople and convinced them of his good name, his good intentions and promised them prosperity and happiness. Plainview has a master plan, to become independent of the oil distributors by buying all the land from the wells to the Pacific and building his own pipeline. His empire is nearly set, but he faces an opponent from the other side of the divide, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) a young firebrand preacher with a mission to bring God to the people of California. Sunday doesn’t trust Plainview but needs his donations to build his church, the first roots of a complex and destructive relationship that Anderson, with consummate skill and remarkable economy, establishes as a living, breathing contest, between the emptiness of God and the fruitless pursuit of Money, fought by two compromised, untrustworthy men.

Then, a series of incidents that bring us forward through the narrative. H.W. is injured in a derrick explosion and is cruelly sent away by his father to school in San Francisco. A man arrives at camp, claiming to be Plainview’s half-brother. A farmer, whose land stands between Plainview and the sea, refuses to sell. The preacher gradually builds his congregation, and sets himself against the oil man. In an exceptional year for cinema, this film stands proudly beside the Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men as exemplars of today’s American cinema and shares with that masterwork the idea that money, and the pursuit of it, corrupts even the strongest of us. More than that, both films look to address the American character writ large through the notion of ‘finders keepers’ established by the first European settlers and distorted through the centuries by acquisition, accumulation and the pursuit of individual greed. In drilling his way to success, Plainview isn’t just chipping away at the ground; he is excavating himself.

There is so much more to say. Last week, Day Lewis won an Oscar for his performance, the finest of his career and one of the most exceptional in the history of cinema. He is in almost every scene and you cannot take your eyes off him, his fierce fighter’s stance and his rolling, soothing voice. The photography from Robert Elswit, another Oscar winner, is breath-taking in its simplicity, its sense of scale, composition and colour. Anderson corrals it all into an undying work of inestimable genius, in front of and behind the camera; a dangerous, daring film that you simply must see.


red said...

But didn't you find that Day-Lewis (and the film itself) goes a bit OTT during the last 30 minutes? I thought it was stunning until then though.

squire23 said...

I disagree. What other kind of ending could it possibly have gone to? A man like Daniel Plainview could never have ended up in the gutter being saved by his son like a typical Hollywood ending.

Overall, I thought it one of the best films of modern times. The cinematography was amazing (although Jesse James should have won the Oscar), the direction perfect & the acting all round justamazing. It'll be up there with Shawshank (whether you like it or not), Pulp Fiction (same year) or any of those.

This is prehaps one of the finest films in the last 20yrs & I would rate Day-Lewis's performance along side that of DeNiro in Raging Bull or Scott as Patton. Simply amazing work. Sad to see Anderson still hasn't being recognised for his films though.

A geniune classic.

John said...

Hi Red

I'd have to agree with squire23 there, and say that I found the ending to be a very satisfying, at times electrifying completion of the story - Plainview to my mind, was mad all along, ever since he fell back into the well and had to crawl back to town.

It's a tricky balance between emotion and overemotion, but I think DDL goes to another place there, far beyond just playing the role so whatever it is, it's real.

I didn't say much of anything about the ending in the review, because its the kind of thing whereby if you know what's coming, or even that there is a debate over the ending, it might ruin your reaction to it. I think you elicit a better response not knowing beforehand that there is going to be a test.

As always, thanks muchly for the comments.

Stace said...

I think Paul Dano is going be a huge star.

Gemma said...

Hi there, just came across this blog! I agree that DDL is amazing as Plainview and he thoroughly deserved his oscar but the film itself did not captivate me the way I thought it would. Did you not find that the score, although itself great, was overused. It created a constant sense of tension which made for uncomfortable viewing. I think I may have to watch this film again on dvd where I have control over the sound!

clom said...

finally got around to seeing this and wasn't disappointed.

the interplay between Dano and Day-Lewis is stunning at times and I agree that the ending was satisfactory.

lots of continued themes from Anderson, he touches on sudden accidental death through falling in the preface to Magnolia. The opening scenes with a character absorbed in work echoes Punch Drunk Love with Sandler repairing the harmonium at the beginning of that film too.

The look of the film is superb too with a beautifully weighted evocation of the transience and urgency of early 20th century America.

And what's not to love about a bit of Brahms.