Don’t worry: Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film “There Will Be Blood” eventually fulfills its sanguinary promise — in the final scene, quite a good deal of the stuff (I won’t say whose) pools darkly on the hardwood floor like crude oil.
Unfortunately, to get to that point, one must sit through two hours and 40 minutes’ worth of slow and relentlessly demonizing characterization, adorned with desolate desert panoramas and an ever-present score brimming with ominous chords.
To be fair, the rave reviews of “There Will Be Blood,” loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!,” are not entirely unwarranted. The movie is directed and acted with wonderful attention to detail, right down to the way the characters hold their cigarettes. Daniel Day-Lewis as self-made oil man Daniel Plainview is excellent as usual, and so is his co-star Paul Dano (the Nietzsche kid from “Little Miss Sunshine”) as a zealous young preacher. Even little Dillon Freasier impressively holds his own as Day-Lewis’s son H.W.: His solemnly cherubic presence provides a powerful contrast to the roughness of the oil-drilling men.
And the score, by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, does have its moments. In one of the most exhilarating parts of the film, a busy and rhythmically dynamic percussion section mimics the noise and excitement of the oil rigs. But mostly the music serves to distract and detract from the subtleties of the film. The very first seconds of the movie are overpowered by a bone-chilling swell of chords, which reappear throughout, establishing a sense of utter, menacing evil that foreshadows … well, utter, menacing evil. There is not a drop of goodness in this movie save perhaps Freasier’s cutie-pie H.W., innocent for most of the film by virtue of being 10 years old, and later, inexplicably, an upstanding fellow who seems to have emerged emotionally unscathed from Plainview’s warped fathering. Otherwise the movie brims with nastiness, and in a way that is ultimately unsatisfying.
It is certainly fun at first to watch Day-Lewis play the villain, a role he clearly enjoys. There is, however, only so much one can take. Plainview’s vices are revealed slowly, one at a time, in an excruciating process that culminates in his portrayal of an insane old man who it is no longer possible to pity.
Plainview starts out as a man who tries to placate his crying baby with milk and whiskey; who takes advantage of simple country people to obtain their land for oil drilling; who has a ruthless and competitive business sense. By the time the lights go up again, he has destroyed everyone around him and seems to have no regrets.
All this makes it difficult enough to stick with Day-Lewis’s character for the entire film — and there are no real alternatives with whom to identify instead; everyone else is either just as despicable (Dano) or ultimately one-dimensional (Freasier and others).
Furthermore, the movie has absolutely no sense of humor about the evil it portrays. This film takes itself very seriously, aware of its position as what The New York Times called an “epic American nightmare.” It is undeniable that “There Will Be Blood” paints a powerful portrait of a piece of national history. Yet this grandiosity ends up distancing the viewer even more from the characters on the screen, further tipping the movie towards agonizing rather than entertaining.
Finally, it’s difficult to determine the deeper message of all this sin and misery. A fellow audience member emerged from the theater wondering, “What was the point? Drilling oil is bad, so good thing there’s almost none left anyway?”
The intended point of the film may be The Evils of Oil Drilling, or more likely The Evils of Capitalism, but the intensely characterological nature of the script presents a message more along the lines of The Evils of Daniel Plainview. Entertaining and edifying for a while, this portrait of utter malevolence eventually leaves the viewer cold, bled of pathos, if you will. There will be more movies where Day-Lewis plays the villain, surely; it is worth missing this one.