Five films in, and Paul Thomas Anderson is already wonderfully tricky to pin down. After his debut, Hard Eight, came the terrific pair of ensemble dramas Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and he followed that with, effectively, a small character piece in the shape of Punch Drunk Love. Heading into There Will Be Blood, with its two and a half hour plus running time, I didn’t think it unreasonable to expect something more on the ensemble side again. Instead? It’s a character study, that subsequently spends the vast bulk of its time in the company of one individual.
That individual is Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day Lewis, who we meet at the start of the film in the late 1800s digging in the ground and hunting for silver. Soon, Plainview starts finding oil, and begins his ascent into becoming a major, and very rich, oil man. Alongside him is his young boy, H.W. (a strong turn from Dillon Feeasier), and when the two of them are approached by someone who offers to tell them the location of lots of untapped oil for a cash sum, it triggers the chain of events that moves Plainview and his crew to New Boston.
It’s here where most of the film takes place, and it’s also where Anderson’s camera makes good mileage out of the expansive scenery, and the slow build up of Plainview’s drilling operation in the area. It’s the sheer detail that Anderson includes that proves so evocative, and it’s a fascinating film simply to look at.
Little Boston is also where we meet Eli Sunday, played by Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano. Surprisinly, Eli is the only other character to really get much in the way of screen time, and he and Plainview don’t see eye to eye. Eli is also the local preacher, evangelising to the people of New Boston (and Dano’s monologues are terrific), and there are inevitably interesting parallels between the two characters, that come together dramatically before the film is out.
But There Will Be Blood is very much a film about Daniel Plainview, and very much a film powered by Daniel Day Lewis. His portrayal of the leading character is simply mesmeric, transforming himself yet again into a a magnetic presence, replete with acccent, mannerisms and a performance that surely – surely? – has Best Actor Oscar stamped all over it. Day Lewis doesn’t do many films, but when he does – as we saw in the flawed Gangs Of New York – you end up dearly wishing he would.
There are, of course, all sorts of modern day parallels you can draw to Plainview’s selling of his oil operation to New Boston, from the low price he pays through to the slow creep of his business through their daily lives. There Will Be Blood subtletly covers these, bringing in dark humour and the occasional brutal moment as well to add to its punch.
The film’s primary focus is, though, watching the impact of power and drink on its central character; the Daniel Plainview we meet at the start of the film has lost any smitheren of charm by the time we get to the last reel. We never really see a direct catalyst as to why, and for this reviewer at least, the back end of the film feels flawed and problematic. The final scene in particular, while certainly rivetting, is an odd fit.
There Will Be Blood is a film with a few more problems too, but it’s also a fascinating, if bleak, piece of cinema. Boasting a penetrative score by Jonny Greenwood, and the best leading performance seen on the silver screen in a long, long time, it’s, in large parts, worthy of the acclaim it’s been receiving. Yet it’s, for this reviewer at least, not the masterpiece that many critics are proclaiming it to be. Masterful, perhaps, and worth watching, certainly. But that masterpiece tag will have to be left on the shelf for now.
It certainly does Paul Thomas Anderson no harm whatsoever, though, proving once again that when it comes to sheer audacity, he’s perhaps the most exciting young director working in America right now. What he does next? That’s pretty much anybody’s guess…