There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood deals with epic themes and settings: the emergence of modern American capitalism and religion on the wide-open California oil fields of the early twentieth century. What's remarkable about the film's approach is that these issues are largely pushed to the periphery of the frame. At the center of the frame, for nearly every shot in the this two and a half hour film are Daniel Day-Lewis's piercing, fiery eyes. The film is monomanically focused on the character of oil baron Daniel Plainview.

This is a radical departure for Anderson. His films tend to feature large casts of characters, all struggling to overcome their personal weaknesses and traumatic pasts and forge real connections with each other. There Will Be Blood never takes the focus off of Plainview, and his character arc is one of raging misanthropy and a repeated turning away from human trust and companionship. The viewer gets a long and harrowing view of the rocky outcroppings of Plainview's burning mind. Although larger issues of class, capitalism and culture are kept in the background, the film does offer a critique of capitalism that comes from a unique angle. While a character like Charles Foster Kane begins Citizen Kane as a young idealist who has his humanity sapped from him by his isolating wealth and growing power, Plainview starts out the film as an isolated, vengeful misanthrope, and it becomes apparent throughout the course of the film that he has sought out wealth and power explicitly to allow him to dominate those around him. Also, we see that his world-encompassing mistrust and contempt serve him very well in his frantic grasp for wealth.

The result is one of the most vivid and terrifying depictions of human misanthropy in film history. Jonny Greenwood's dissonant score suggests the demonic, and Anderson's camera captures stark shots of desolate California brush and an oil fire belching forth from the earth like a portal to hell with a grace and restraint his previous films have lacked. In the end, though, the film is mesmerizing because Day-Lewis is mesmerizing: it might be the most sustained, powerful performance I've ever seen. He is in almost every shot, and your eyes are drawn inexorably towards him, but at the same time the character is so closed off that he seems almost alien: his bizarre, mid-Atlantic accent certainly adds to that perception. What sense of the character the viewer does come away from is to be found in Plainview's relationship with his adopted son H.W. and his long-lost brother Henry. In these relationships, we see the constant battle within Plainview between his accumulated hatred of humanity and his real yearning for human connection. Now, whether that yearning is born out of an authentic desire for compansionship or a need to conform to the expectations of civil society is never made clear. It's just one of the many quandaries of the character that are left unanswered. After all, Daniel Plainview is a man who "doesn't care to explain" himself.

For all of Day-Lewis's bravura mastery of his role and Anderson's elegant set piece direction the film would not be nearly as haunting or powerful were it not for the brilliant, audacious and perfectly over-the-top final scene, in which the full flower of Plainview's rage and hatred come to bloom. In this scene, the damage that he has carelessly wrought on those around him, until now only hinted at, is made chillingly manifest. Plainview, rich and old and retired from the field of capitalist combat, has just disowned the son who provides him with his only tether to the human family. He is lying unconscious before a half eaten meal on the beautiful parquet floor of his mansion's personal bowling alley. He is in every respect a broken, deracinated husk of his former leonine self. Then, Eli Sunday, his old nemesis, comes into the room with a business proposition. What follows is a cinematic transformation as vivid, riveting and illuminating as any I've ever witnessed. As Plainview reveals himself to be the master of the situation and Eli realizesthe vulnerability of his position, Plainview grows monstrous before us, filling with vigor, rage and sadistic joy as the will to live drains out of Eli. Here we find Plainview in his moment of ultimate triumph: destroying another human being emotionally, spiritually and, in a act that is surely the happiest moment of Plainview's life, physically. This is where we find the only real use that Plainview has for the human race: they are his fuel. To vanquish people, to destroy them, to grind them beneath his heel is what sustains Daniel Plainview. It's the real reason behind his obsession with accumulating wealth and power: the better to eat you with, my dear. And, as befits a gentlemen of leasure, he calls for his butler to take away the remants of his meal when he's finished.