It’s fascinating how one can take almost any historical situation in the growth of civilization, introduce ambitious but flawed and, by their circumstances, limited characters, and add the right atmosphere and here, particularly, music, and come up with a mesmerizing film. This “western” about a California oil tycoon at the turn of the century does just that. “There Will Be Blood” is the latest film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based rather loosely on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” Back in the 50s, my father got a copy of “Spindletop” (by James Clark and Michel Halbouty) for Christmas, and I remember the garish dust jacket with a gushing oil geyser. Now this movie, if you want to call it a modern “psychological western” following a tradition from the 50s, adds to that tradition the contemplative style of Robert Altman (to whom the film is dedicated). It somewhat resembles the earlier Jesse James movie from Warner Brothers. However, it was produced as a joint venture of Paramount and Miramax, and is distributed in the US by Paramount Vantage (or Classics).
The movie, then, is somewhat like an opera with (effectively) "sprechstimme", and it more or less has an opera-like plot. I don’t want to post too many spoilers on the first day that the film showed outside NY and LA. One major theme of the story concerns the relationship between Daniel and his son (Dillon Freasier), who is accidentally deafened by the explosion when the oil gusher is discovered. The mother had died at childbirth, but there are more revelations later. But much of the story deals with the tension between oil man Daniel Plainview (British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who looks like a man here, a far cry from “Last of the Mohicans”), and a young “preacher” to be described in a moment. Day-Lewis could win best actor for this performance. But if so, then New England born Paul Dano, only 23 in real life, turns on the performance virtuosity (probably a nod for Best Supporting Actor), however buttoned up physically by the costumes, as the evangelical preacher Eli Sunday. He seems like Paul himself in his articulation (so far I have always seen him play the serious geeky character. It's even more complicated, as the character is sometimes called Paul in the movie, when he is a young "businessman," as if he were a twin or an alter ego, or a previous incarnation of Dano himself, who makes one believe that a young man can be all things at once). You get the feeling that preaching was what he got good at as a little boy, and he can turn on the act, saving people and exorcising them. However, whenever necessary, he turns businessman, seeing through Daniel’s schemes and demanding enough money to protect his family, and then himself. At one point, after an earlier "fight" where Daniel forces Eli to wallow in oil mud, Eli tells his family, "God doesn't save stupid people!", showing the underbelly of his own "faith". The movie spans about 30 years, until after the 1929 crash, and curious in the final “lover’s quarrel” confrontation in the home bowling alley, Eli Sunday still looks like an eighteen year old. He hasn’t aged biologically a day, as if he were some kind of angel. He is forced to say that he is a false prophet (when maybe he is true) and then, well, I won’t spoil it. The title tells all. There will be blood.
The 158 minutes of this film pass quickly, and it actually seems lean and mean at that (despite the opulence of the 2.35:1 western photography, which is used to full advantage – as in one scene where a steam train is just barely visible on the right of a full panoramic shot; the colors seem a bit muted by the naturalism). I saw this film in Georgetown in Washington and the audience did seem to have a large GLBT presence, possibly because of the undertone of the psychological nature (sort of platonic, an outward "hatred" and an inner curious attraction) of the relationship between Daniel and the young preacher. There are few women in the film. This is a movie about life for its own sake, apart from reproduction and intergenerational wealth and dynasty – despite all of Daniel’s talk of being a “family man” and about investing in educating kids when he tries to do business in the community early in the film.