Translating a 1927 novel about the Teapot Dome Scandal made famous to most modern-day moviegoers via the venue of high school history class into a film that holds its own in a contemporary context is difficult. Doing it the way director, producer and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson does with “There Will Be Blood” seems almost impossible. And yet, somehow, Anderson managed to make a movie that is as superb as it is spare, as engrossing as it is infuriating and as captivating as it is completely crazy.
“There Will Be Blood” is epic, to say the least, but it is not the typical epic film. The movie relies almost entirely on its captivating sound mix – with a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – and carefully calculated camera choreography to convey the movie’s many moods. Like the scenery of the barren brush in which most of the film is set, the movie’s dialogue is deliberately sparse, and lines of dialogue are few and far between. What little talking there is comes in the form of carefully crafted sentences, in which simple statements are imbued with the kind of meaning that can only come from the highest caliber of actors.
In fact, as beautifully as the film is crafted, it is the cast that saves it from being nothing more than a never-ending series of sweeping shots and symphonic sound mixes. The movie’s plot, loosely based on the aforementioned Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, follows the metaphorically-monikered prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he goes from a lowly local oilman into a mega-millionaire after striking black gold on a California ranch. The twist? The tip responsible for his discovery of the ranch’s oil comes from the eminently enigmatic Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) – an amateur preacher who tells Plainview about the presence of oil on his family’s land in exchange for the promise of a payout to his church. The even bigger twist? It’s not technically Eli who first finds Plainview, it’s his twin brother, who may also be a manifestation of his possible split personality.
While the film leaves the rather large loose end of Eli and Paul’s relationship wide open for frustrated interpretation, it does provide plenty of other plot points to showcase both Anderson’s stunningly spare script and the awe-inspiring acting of both Day-Lewis and Dano, as well as Dillon Freasier and Russell Harvard, who play Plainview’s son H.W. After H.W. loses his hearing in an explosion at Plainview’s flagship oil mine, the relationship between father and son goes from good-natured to god-awful in a matter of minutes, and the combination of repugnance and reverence with which Plainview and H.W. treat each other is as captivating as it is heartbreaking. It is in the interaction between father and son that Day-Lewis does his best work, brilliantly communicating the battle between his fatherly feelings of love and his utter lack of patience for his son’s newfound disability. And Freasier and Russell do an incredible job of conveying the conflicted boy.
Meanwhile, as the eerily self-assured preacher, Dano delivers a spine-chillingly haunting performance. He’s an enigmatic character as well, and Dano does a great job of conveying Eli’s particularly creepy combination of saccharine-saturated civility and feverish faith. It’s a performance rife with physicality, and much like Day-Lewis, Dano says more with his wild eyes, waving hands and pursed lips than with all of his dialogue combined.
Indeed, if there is one thing the actors in “There Will Be Blood” prove, it’s that mere words cannot begin to convey what sights and sounds can – a rare revelation with which to come away from a film. “There Will Be Blood” is a very visual experience, viscerally so, in fact. As the camera closes in on Day-Lewis’ drawn face across acres of dry desert, you can feel the dust underneath your own fingernails. It’s an intense experience, and indeed, the film as a whole is nothing if not an emotional expedition. It’s been called the “Citizen Kane” of our time, and for good reason. “There Will Be Blood” is the kind of movie that makes you linger in your seats after the credits roll, the kind of film that fosters an overall feeling of uneasiness even as you find yourself unable to look away from the screen.
It may be long, it may be drawn out and it may be about as far from easy, escapist entertainment as you can get, but it is a masterpiece of a movie. It’s deliberately drawn, carefully crafted cinema at its best. Every shot, every simple sentence, every note of music and every minor movement onscreen is so clearly the product of carefully calculated forethought and so completely capable of conveying the character of the film’s setting and subject. It’s not easy to get into “There Will Be Blood,” and you will be tempted to turn and run straight for the nearest megaplex mega-hit, but the bulk of the movie makes for the kind of film that sets the cinematic bar for filmmakers everywhere. It may be a long journey, but it is definitely one that any film fanatic needs to take.