“There Will Be Blood” is a drama, a parable and a sermon all rolled into one powerfully bloody narrative about one man’s quest for oil, a moral disintegration brought on by greed, and the violent collusion of evangelical religion and capitalism — all in an attempt to make greed and profit palatable in a society that likes to think of itself as compassionate.
It is a distinctly American film, or should I say, one based on the real and mythic American experience fueled by the god of capitalism. It is based on Upton Sinclair’s “Oil,” his 1927 novel that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly found in a London bookstore. Anderson, one of our most daring and imaginative filmmakers (“Boogie Nights,” “Punch Drunk Love” and “Magnolia”), has adapted the book into a sprawling narrative starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a silver miner turned oil magnate whose work ethic would put most of us to shame.
Say what you want about the capitalist motive in our society, but even the most fervent, dedicated socialist has to acknowledge that the model capitalist is not afraid of rolling up his sleeves and work mightily to establish his dominion. Indeed, the movie’s long, opening minutes represent some of the most breathtaking images you will ever see on film. In an attempt to show us the almost maniacal devotion to one man’s grueling perseverance, Anderson renders it all without dialogue. It’s Daniel in and out of mines, enduring horrendous falls into jagged pits of hell, and somehow ending up with a boy he calls H.W.
Played by Dillon Freasier, H.W. is Daniel’s chosen son, following him everywhere, observing deals, quietly absorbing the style of a man who one moment appears morally sound and the next totally, irredeemably ruthless. Finally, the real Daniel Plainview emerges when we hear him confess, “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” Is that Sinclair’s, and by extension, Anderson’s take on the American capitalist? Even if one begins with hard, honest work, is this the attitude that inevitably consumes anyone who surrenders his soul to the god of profit?
Watch how he reacts when H.W. loses his hearing in an explosion. Imagine, Christians, if the Almighty pushed Jesus away if he had a debilitating limp. As I said, “There Will Be Blood” is rife with allusion and symbolism.
Daniel vs. Eli
Daniel’s transition into the oil business explodes when he is lured to California by the twin brother of a religious mystic played with fiery intensity by Paul Dano, who plays both brothers. Amen to this young preacher who may or may not be a huckster in the tradition of an Elmer Gantry. He is Eli Sunday, who exacts a $10,000 church fee from Daniel after the oilman buys Eli’s father’s land. As a thank you, Daniel not only reneges on his promise, but brutally discards the fire-and-brimstone preacher, who is meanwhile gaining a kind of revival-tent following. There will be a showdown. Boy, will there be a showdown.
Alas, Eli will have his day, and when we watch Daniel anointed with the waters of baptism, Lewis brilliantly takes on the character of a man who seems both to loathe and embrace his entry into salvation. Is he now a man saved or a tycoon using religion for a higher cause enshrouded in dollars? We also see Eli extract his vengeance, as he humiliates the greedy oil man. But in a strange way, the preacher and the capitalist need each other to advance their causes — none of them rooted in altruism. Is this a paradigm, for the American experience? I would love to know Billy Graham’s reaction to this film.
In what amounts to a final act, Anderson seems to lose control of his material. Though I must spare important details, this finale is both bloody and violent. By this time, our hero has lost it, and in a scene evoking memories of Charles Foster Kane and Howard Hughes, we are in a pit of absolute evil, a hell that even the poet Dante would welcome into his inferno.
With haunting music composed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, “There Will Be Blood” casts a bizarrely mysterious demonic glow on its subjects and on us. If I left disenchanted with the ending, why did the movie and its vision stay with me for days, as I think it might with you? If parts of the film are sprawling, many other scenes are as powerful as they are focused.
In the collision and fusion of greed and religion, we have what amounts to a distinctly American epic, one that reminds us and riffs on the mind-set of our early Puritans, our cultural founders who equated affluence with God’s message of sure salvation. That is, if you are rich, that means you have been saved.
I still have a difficult time assessing Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. At times, it seems over the top, while in other instances his interpretation of this avaricious, prototypical American visionary and businessman explodes off the screen.
It’s unlikely that you will leave the theater indifferent to an experience that connects us with the roots of our culture or not be transfixed by Lewis’ intensely evocative performance.
‘There Will Be Blood’
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel “Oil” by Upton Sinclair
STARRING Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Kevin O’Connor and Ciaran Hinds
RUNNING TIME: 158 minutes