On Tuesday morning, “No Country for Old Men” had to share the Oscar nomination spotlight. “There Will Be Blood” was able to tie “No Country” for the most nominations with eight. If “No Country” had all the hype to begin the Oscar season, “There Will Be Blood” has the most hype as the Oscar season is peaking. But does “There Will Be Blood” really match that hype? Is the crazed worship of lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis correct as well? Do we have two masterpieces in one year?
Yes, God yes, and very close.
The latest example of Day-Lewis showing crazed devotion to a part comes in Daniel Plainview. Over the first decade of the 1900’s, he becomes a budding oil profiteer in California. With help- and a marketing tool- in his son H.W, Daniel is out to create an oil empire. But his big score lies at a small town called Little Boston, which has an ocean of oil underground. It is also where young preacher Eli Sunday tries to work with and use Daniel to get more power for his church. Over the next several years, Daniel’s battles with Eli, his struggles with his son, and his desire to get ahead combine to strip the humanity clean out of him.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is not known for this kind of epic. Anderson is known for 3 hour long, multi character epics like “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Like the Coen Brothers did with “No Country,” Anderson steps into a whole new setting with “There Will Be Blood” and brings his own unique tactics to it. Anderson had tended to borrow the styles of directors like Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, but “There Will Be Blood” aims even higher this time. The spirits of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Citizen Kane”, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, and others clash in a one of a kind vision from Anderson.
“There Will Be Blood” seeks to personify the rise of Big Oil in Daniel Plainview, and does so in vivid fashion. The wordless opening segments show how people like Plainview learned about oil drilling and made invaluable inventions as they went along. It is almost like the way Kubrick showed the dawn of man in his opening segments of “2001.” “There Will Be Blood” shows how modern day America was built on people that formed new industries on wits and drive alone. The birthing pains of America’s oil empire were forged on the backs of Daniel Plainviews, with all the demons and corruption that it entailed.
To get there, Anderson literally makes “There Will Be Blood”‘s audience feel like they are living in this time and place. With gorgeous wide screen cinematography from Robert Elswit, the scope of the movie is epic, even on a relatively small budget. To add to the unpredictable tone, Johnny Greenwood, a member of the rock band Radiohead, creates a score as large and all over the place as “There Will Be Blood” itself. Greenwood’s score intrudes and keep you on edge to such an extent that “There Will Be Blood” would be a lesser film without it.
With the look and sound of “There Will Be Blood” taken care of, Anderson crafts a story that runs the gamut of tactics. It can be prone to a few lulls, and sometimes jumps around at the expense of the overall plot. But every time there is a lull, Anderson gets it back on track. He can do it with a stunning visual, an unforgettable set piece, a character detail, or by the efforts of the actors. The scenes when Plainview’s well finally strikes- with H.W in the crossfire- is perhaps one of the most jaw dropping sequences in a long time. The tit for tat battles between Plainview and Eli Sunday are frequently brilliant and nerve wracking. And for all the criticism of the film’s ending, there is no way to ever forget it. “There Will Be Blood” is a montage of small and big moments that adds to a gigantic picture.
“There Will Be Blood” can encompass big themes like oil and religion, and how they impact the story and America as a whole. But it also hits on themes involving humanity’s darker impulses, through one man succumbing to his hatred and greed. This story has been told before in classic movies and in second rate knock offs. Anderson may not have a new kind of storyline, but few movies in today’s Hollywood could have told it the way “There Will Be Blood” has. And certainly no one would have acted it out the way Day-Lewis does.
The hype about Day-Lewis is true. And the hype about his character is true, to a point. Daniel Plainview has been called one of the new great movie villains, and that becomes true in the crazed third act. But before Plainview goes that mad, I did not see a monster. I saw an all too human character, and Day-Lewis is the reason why.
In that silent opening, Day-Lewis shows a man of great ambition and skills, but a small man in the grand scheme of things thus far. But he does finally talk, in a voice that supposedly impersonates legendary director John Huston, who directed “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and played depraved water tycoon Noah Cross in “Chinatown.” With that impersonation, Day-Lewis makes Plainview a skilled manipulator and salesman, but not a monster. He is mostly softened by his relationship with H.W, and the silent but valuable chemistry between Day-Lewis and young Dillon Freasier makes that entirely plausible. Even his appetite for “wanting no one else to succeed” is sadly universal.
Many of us with ultra competitive streaks will never go to the lengths that Plainview does, but it can happen to the best of us. We can be frustrated of humanity while trying to accomplish our goals, as Plainview does. If we hate people, it is often due to smaller hatreds that build up little by little, like Plainview says his does. And for how rotten he becomes as a human being, Plainview has to at least be admired for the skills he uses to create great wealth, as others did at the time. The big metaphor of the movie is the impact of Big Oil and Big Religion on America. The metaphor of Daniel Plainview’s rise and moral downfall encompasses the worst of all humanity.
Critics have complained that it isn’t explained why Plainview hates people so much. To this I answer: were you happy when characters like Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader got more extensive back stories? Would you have been pleased if a psychological explanation of Anton Chigurh slowed “No Country” to a crawl? When unknowable characters have their demons fully explained, it hasn’t tended to work much. So it might be better for Daniel Plainview if we don’t know that much about him. Day-Lewis tells us so much more about Plainview by himself than any back story ever could.
But Day-Lewis is not the only star of the movie. Paul Dano, last seen as the silent son of “Little Miss Sunshine” tries to match Day-Lewis as the equally opportunistic Eli Sunday. At first glance, Dano does not seem like an actor that can match up to a titan like Day-Lewis. And with Eli Sunday, it is easy to underestimate him as another person for Plainview to run over- at first. But as Eli becomes more of a match than one would think, Dano similarly becomes a worthy opponent to Day-Lewis.
In his own way, Dano embodies his character in a more unsettling way than Day-Lewis does. But there is a drawback to that. Day-Lewis makes Plainview a real human character, and someone we can understand if not sympathize with. But Eli can be a more thoroughly detestable character, and is easier to root against than Plainview. And when Dano has to scream to high heavens, his high pitched voice is a bit distracting. Whereas Day-Lewis shows us all the aspects of this complicated character, Dano is often limited to playing Eli as a more hateful antagonist. When Plainview is able to outdo Eli, its less an example of how he’s losing his soul, as it is something to cheer about at Eli’s expense. It would have been more bothersome if Dano was not able to make Eli get under our skin so thoroughly, and could not actually stand toe to toe with Day-Lewis.
In a final comparison between “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country”, they are both different, unique movies on their own terms. But “No Country” may leave you with more to talk about and discuss afterwards, depending on how much you like the third act. With “There Will Be Blood” the tone in which its third act plays may be a distraction from the larger messages the movie tries to express. By the end of “There Will Be Blood” you may remember a bowling alley and lines about milkshakes more than you recall the overall themes of the film.
That may give “No Country” the final edge in the Oscar race, but “There Will Be Blood” will also stand the test of time with future viewings, future analysis, and with Day-Lewis going down in movie history yet again. And in a movie directed by Anderson, who once ended a film with frogs falling from the sky…. is it that surprising that “There Will Be Blood” goes similarly overboard? Only a director with such a grandiose and powerful vision would risk taking it to such a wild place once, let alone twice in the same career.