Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Paul Sunday/Eli Sunday), Dillon Freasier (H.W Plainview), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher Hamilton), Kevin J. O'Connor (Henry Brands), David Willis (Abel Sunday) & Russell Harvard (H.W Plainview, older)
Inspired by Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, Paul Thomas Anderson presents a fascinating look into the early days of oil production -- out in the American desert, dangling inside dusty holes, chipping away at solid rock with a trusty pickaxe. Our guide on this journey through the late-19th/early-20th century is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), greasy-moustached and busy raping the earth for black gold...
Essentially a conman, Plainview uses a well-rehearsed sales pitch, promises of community wealth, and the veneer of a family-orientated lifestyle, to trick dimwit locals out of their precious subterranean treasure. Enter the Sunday family, particularly evangelical preacher Eli (Paul Dano), who sit on a Californian oil field and trust that Plainview's drilling will enable their congregation in Little Boston to flourish.
From the strident opening note of Johnny Greenwood's jangling score, that ushers in a mesmerising and dialogue-free opening 15-minutes (echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey in that respect), Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a beautifully-realized, handsome epic from beginning to end. Like many films nudging a 3-hour runtime, I'm sure the story could have been told in half the time, but it's never a chore to sit through...
This is primarily down to Daniel Day-Lewis, who deservedly won an Academy Award for his blistering performance as Daniel Plainview -- a man who allows his thirst for wealth cloud his priorities, devour his humanity, and ultimately leave him as hollow as the ground he's plundered. It's an eloquent, perceptive, sometimes manic performance ("I! Drink! Your! Milkshake!" has become a cult) that cements Day-Lewis' reputation as the best actor working today. However sporadic.
There's great support from Paul Dano as Eli Sunday, too -- another "conman" who performs exorcisms of his god-fearing flock at the Church Of The Third Revelation. It's a subtle, quiet, involving performance. Can anyone else believe Little Miss Sunshine's Dano was once the "ugly-teen" of The Girl Next Door, a mere 4 years ago? That teen sex comedy has retrospectively become a junction point for hot new Hollywood talent (Emile Hirsch went Into The Wild, Timothy Olyphant headed to Deadwood). Only Elisha Cuthbert's career stagnation spoils my theory...
But I digress. Eli's a young man whose faith in Plainview turns to dust when promises start going unfulfilled, although both men's acrimony forms the only significant adult partnership of their lives -- albeit one based on shame, lies, mutual loathing and corruption. Indeed, there are no real women characters throughout the film. Plainview's conniving revolves around making people believe he's an upstanding family man -- while actually never fathering any children of his own, and consequently forced to pretend a fictional wife died in childbirth.
One of the best elements of Plainview's character is how he learns to genuinely love his secretly-adopted son H.W (in the wake of a debilitating accident), yet the fact this relationship is built on a lie ultimately stunts his ability to put his boy before his work. Interesting to note how the eventual emancipation of H.W has its roots in a young girl he befriends and grows to love.
The wider cast aren't too integral, as the film leans heavily on Day-Lewis and Dano's performances and intertwined stories, but Kevin J. O'Connor (The Mummy) pops up as a missing relative and upsets the balance to fine effect. For an actor usually cast as the comic-relief in Stephen Sommers flicks, O'Connor shows that he has more range than expected. It was actually a shame his role in proceedings was dramatically cut short.
For a relatively low-budget film (it took 2 years to get the funding for such a risky, non-commercial venture), There Will Be Blood looks twice its price-tag. P.T Anderson oversees everything with a Kubrickian eye for perfection, to produce a film that visually stays alive in your mind with its collection of standout sequences (like the frightening ignition of an oil derrick) and beautiful vistas.
Anderson already has a catalogue of great work behind him (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love), but this is undeniably his greatest cinematic achievement so far. It speaks of a truly gifted director, able to bring us fresh material that opens a window on a pocket of American history most people have rarely thought about. The bravura opening, excellent choice of musical score (by a member of Radiohead), and general aesthetic reminded me of something Stanley Kubrick might have cooked up. Have we found a spiritual successor to the big K? Time will tell, but this is head-turning evidence to the affirmative. Let's hope his Kubrickian work-rate gets left behind, though...
Paramount Vantage/Miramax Films
Budget: $25 million