January 24, 2008

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There Will Be Blood (R)
Daniel Day-Lewis is awesomely crazy as an oil man straddling the turn of the 20th century in There Will Be Blood, an explosive and captivating movie from director Paul Thomas Anderson.

At one point in the movie, Day-Lewis, covered in oil, watches a geyser of oil flame against the dark sky. His face seems illuminated from within, like a jack o lantern. It’s an ominous image — his son’s just been injured and his derrick is aflame. But the explosion of oil and ensuing fire mean that there’s “an ocean of oil” underneath his feet, as he tells one of his workers. He grins and you sense that he’s deeply satisfied about more than just the money that the oil means — it’s the power that comes with unleashing all that oil. It spills up into the sky and you get the sense that hell itself has come roaring into the world. For no particularly good reason, it’s a completely terrifying scene and image and Day-Lewis himself is like your most irrational nightmare version of the devil.

There are lots of scenes like this in There Will Be Blood — scenes where the ominousness is so thick that you feel scared witless (however briefly) and for no reason you can put your finger on. Like Robert DeNiro at his most Deer Hunter-ish, Day-Lewis is one frightening dude.

We first meet Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) crawling out of a hole in the ground during some late 19th-century exploration. He’s alone in the wilderness and barely looks human — all grunts and dirt-covered determination. He falls and gains a limp as well as a small haul. We see him again a few years later, with a better rig. This time, he finds oil but loses a worker. The loss of the worker gains him the man’s young son.

It’s into the 20th century that we see him and the boy, H.W. (Dillion Freasier), running their game on a group of people who potentially have oil to drill. Daniel, who says he is an oil man and fond of plain-speaking, offers the family a non-negotiable deal and H.W., his “partner” in business, stands behind him giving credence to the things Daniel says about being a family man with a family business. Daniel turns down a job that looks like it will have too much controversy among the various players and instead follows the tip of a boy who says his family’s goat farm sits on oil. As proof, the boy’s got that Standard Oil has just bought a big swath of land in that very part of southern California (the town itself is called Little Boston).

Daniel and H.W. head to the farm on the pretense of quail hunting and make a rather meager offer for the land. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) thinks his father is weak and perhaps sees a fellow striver in Daniel. He negotiates up the price to include a sizeable donation for his church. He’s a preacher, you see, one who has honed a performance of soft-spokenness and histrionics to convince his flock that, for example, he’s exorcised the arthritis-causing demon from a woman’s hands. Daniel sees Eli as a straight-up con man whose con was less respectable than his own straightforward bid to make as much money as he could on each of the many oil wells he set up. They cross many times, with Daniel, each time, seeming just barely to keep himself from beating Eli into a bloody pulp. Their relationship reminded me of Deadwood and the unvarnished hatred that George Hearst, the silver prospector, had for the entire town. They were an unsavory obstacle between him and his money and it took all his willpower not to kill them all.

It’s a relationship, Daniel admits to his half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), that Daniel has with most people with very few exceptions.

To say that Daniel Plainview is intense is to say that a hurricane is a bit breezy. He’s like a wild animal, poised to rip your throat out at any moment. It’s a heat that Daniel recognizes in himself — his goal at making money might really just be, as he says, to afford the luxury of solitude — and one that he can’t always contain. Like any wild animal, his nature does take over and he does strike.

Daniel Day-Lewis fills the screen with Daniel Plainview’s ferociousness. The rest of the movie seems to barely come up to his knees. This is his performance in Gangs of New York but without the glee. His character burns on pure greed and malice — what he rather understatedly says is a competition that exists inside himself.

Look around Day-Lewis and you’ll see that there is more to the movie: a beautiful, harsh and occasionally hellish landscape, a wonderfully different kind of petty villainy in Eli, and a strange and chill-inducing score that seems at times to scream.

There Will Be Blood is violent and full of malevolence, awe-inspiring and cinematically beautiful, operatically large and fitted with a maniacal ending. This movie holds you in your seat and doesn’t let you look away for all of its nearly two hours and 40 minutes. A

Rated R for some violence. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and written by Anderson (from the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!), There Will Be Blood is two hours and 38 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Vantage.