'Blood,' Tapping A Real Gusher

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008

Paul Thomas Anderson becomes California's certified cinematic poet laureate with "There Will Be Blood," his masterful account of the state's oil boom at the turn of the century.

On the heels of Anderson's previous films "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," both of which chronicled the recent history and culture of Los Angeles and its environs, Anderson has now joined the ranks of such definitive California writers as Nathanael West and Joan Didion in crafting his own personal and potent version of the state's creation myth. If "There Will Be Blood" represents a reach back into time for a filmmaker whose canvas has always been contemporary, it is also unquestionably an ambitious leap forward, proving that Anderson is an artist of virtually unlimited range and confidence.

Its sanguinary title notwithstanding, Anderson's visionary, often startling take on the classic western actually features relatively little of the substance. Instead, it is oil that trickles, flows and gushes with viscous promiscuity throughout a sweeping epic of enterprise, aspiration, greed and hubris. But blood provides a constant subtext in this by turns classical and audacious portrait of California's founding and, by extension, the forging of the American identity. What better backdrop than the harsh, unforgiving edge of a country to explore the shadowy boundaries of its deepest anxieties and most febrile dreams?

The man in whom those warring impulses dwell is a prospector named Daniel Plainview, who as "There Will Be Blood" opens is mining for silver in 1898. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who with "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Gangs of New York" clearly has a gift for portraying American archetypes, Plainview is a man of single-minded focus, formidable physical fortitude and roiling ambition. He's also a man of few words, able to convey volumes in one meaningful glance. The first several minutes of "There Will Be Blood" transpire in almost complete silence, broken only when Plainview spies a bit of ore and whispers, "There she is."

As inhabited by Day-Lewis, who even breathes with ferocious authenticity, Plainview swiftly becomes an uncommonly transfixing character, all the more captivating for his near-total inscrutability. Like the title of the movie itself, Plainview's name is not descriptive of the man, whose view becomes increasingly occluded by almost pathological misanthropy and self-deception.

But before he turns into a monster of power-mad loathing, Plainview gives viewers one of cinema's great anti-heroes, a man of crafty wit and wily street wisdom, who at his best personifies American pluck, ingenuity and gritty self-reliance. When Plainview discovers oil in one of his mines, he swiftly turns to that profession, transforming himself from a wordless loner to a slick salesman, convincing newly minted Californians to lease their land to him. In this road show he's aided by his young adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who was orphaned as an infant when one of Plainview's men died in an accident. (Those sudden, violent mishaps provide what few scenes of blood there are in "There Will Be Blood," and even then it's virtually indistinguishable from the muck and the mire.)

The relationship between Plainview and his son, characterized by devotion as much as by utilitarian practicality and, finally, betrayal, is just one of the fraught dynamics that propel the film. The story also pivots on Plainview's encounter with a young Pentecostal preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, in a stunning turnaround from his role as a sullen teen in 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine"), whose theatrical pietism may be the only force greater in its ambition than Plainview's adamantly secular avarice. Watching these two master manipulators as they one-up each other is just one of the pleasures of "There Will Be Blood," which despite its vivid period setting bursts with contemporary political relevance (it's not for nothing that Anderson has named Plainview's son H.W.). When Plainview and Sunday engage in a brief and amusingly sloppy bout of fisticuffs, it's like watching the head of the Cato Institute go mano-a-mano with Jimmy Swaggart.

Things get even muddier when a mysterious party appears on the scene, claiming a long-lost connection with the socially isolated Plainview. But the twists and turns of the plot are probably the least interesting thing about "There Will Be Blood," which Anderson adapted, very loosely, from Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel "Oil!" What makes this one of the best movies of the season is its supreme commitment to pure cinema, both in the gorgeous cinematography of Robert Elswit and a stunning musical score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, whose edgy strings give the film a menacing, apocalyptic buzz. The production design is by Jack Fisk, and "There Will Be Blood" often recalls Fisk's work with Terrence Malick on the equally meditative yet operatic "Days of Heaven."

From the unforgettable, wordless opening sequences of "There Will Be Blood" to the movie's spectacular set piece of an oil derrick catching fire, turning a gusher of oil into a flaming column worthy of the Old Testament, Anderson's vision of the new American West bursts with the energy and vim that so fiercely drive the man of action at its center. (Movie mavens might recognize the spirit of John Huston hovering over the entire enterprise, from Day-Lewis's seeming impression of the late actor and Eli Sunday's resemblance to the religious hustler in Huston's "Wise Blood," to "Chinatown," in which Huston played one of the swindlers, showmen and speculators who bullied California into being.) And when Plainview finally does speak, it's with the exhilarating vernacular flourishes of the era, whether he's delivering a sermon to some small-town landowners about bread and family or hungrily scanning an oil-rich landscape and asking, "Can everything around here be got?"

That, finally, is the only question that drives Plainview, who by the third act has become a far less compelling character, his contradictions having calcified into grotesque artifacts of mendacity and greed. Arguments will surely ensue after the film's bizarre final scene, when the title finally comes to extravagant fruition. But for all its hyperbole, that symbolic showdown makes its own insane kind of sense, anticipating yet another California boom, when fame would be harnessed to fortune in colonizing the American dream, when the bread Plainview once so floridly promised would prove just a little less seductive than circuses.

There Will Be Blood (158 minutes, at Bethesda Row, E Street Cinema and AMC Georgetown) is rated R for some violence.

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