Wherever Stanley Kubrick is, he’s beaming at Paul Thomas Anderson.
Anderson’s There Will Be Blood brilliantly resurrects Kubrick’s uncompromising, uncomfortable approach to the rawness of human existence, his penchant for the pleasures of literary pacing and his best filmmaking flourishes.
For the first 20 minutes, there’s virtually no dialogue — only sound effects, human grunts and ominous buzzes, drones and hums of a Jonny Greenwood score that evokes 20th-century composers. (The Radiohead guitarist used too many non-original classical cues to qualify for an Oscar, but pagan percussion and pizzicato strings make this 2007’s most organic, integral score.)
And like the prologue apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blood’s characters fall prey to their worst nature in the shadow of a mammoth object (here, oil rigs). Yet Blood’s monolith is a man.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has lied with body broken in the earth’s bowels to pursue his dream of mining America’s oil resources and lining his pockets. Caked in blood, oil and sweat at the 20th century’s turn, it’s clear Plainview has paid his proverbial dues. But at what personal cost, these spoils of commerce and ownership, becomes the film’s ferocious question.
Anderson’s filmography has frustrated as many filmgoers as it’s elated; Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love all are flashy, brash pieces of modern-pop ambition, yet some of their many brilliant moments felt stumbled upon. Consistent maturity and patience in Blood, though, is all practiced rhythm, not a lucky improvisational accident. Anderson slowly cranks the vice on claustrophobic internal tension in a period piece that’s sumptuous and snarling all at once.
It’s the byproduct of a collaboratively clear connection with Day-Lewis. The actor, whose resume is built on superlatives, offers titanic, transcendent work here that’s more just his latest career-best. Few actors could work in such an elite echelon of envelopment on such a decrepit character, but Day-Lewis fascinates us with every facet of Plainview’s corrosive style and corroding soul.
Resembling Burt Lancaster at fighting weight, Plainview is not a speculator in the now-relic era of American oil prospecting. That would suggest something to fall back on. Plainview is a true oilman, out to build an empire. And by the time 1911 rolls around, he easily could be the great-grandfather to Frank T.J. Mackey, the misanthropic “motivational” sleaze of Magnolia.
Plainview’s suggestion of success is hypnotically subliminal, and Anderson leaves his camera fixed on this pied piper of prosperity while he woos with wheeling deals of striking it rich by striking oil. As much a rush to hear as it is for Plainview to speak in his clipped Jack Palance brogue, this is salesmanship that strikes trepidation and fear, but also respect, in its marks.
That includes Plainview’s “son” H.W. (Dillon Freasier), to whom Plainview became a dad after a prospecting partner’s sudden, swift accident. Whether Plainview’s parental decision is about pursuing property or patriarchal intent beautifully blossoms beneath the surface of the story.
When Plainview doesn’t get his way in Little Boston, Calif., it’s more a life intrusion than a business interruption. Told about an ocean of oil underneath this simple, small town, Plainview travels there only to learn there are no days of rest for Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), his egotistic equal.
Little Boston’s fervent teen preacher, Eli isn’t one to back down — seemingly timid with a squeaking voice, he’s impulsive and impetuously obsessed with his influence. With folded hands and shifty hesitance, Dano gives a fine performance of slow-burn simmer and shyster maneuvering.
Eli’s attempts to entwine Plainview’s oil work with the church’s financial future force a merciless collision of fanaticism, greed, family, desperation and commerce — the story of a century’s changing face with roots in shattering, personal tragedy.
Blood commingles commodities of oil and religion, yet modern-day metaphors aren’t an aim. Loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, it showcases a fascinatingly foreign world of bubbling crude in our own land, a landscape filmed with epic grandeur by cinematographer Robert Elswit.
All those open spaces lead to vast opportunity that’s inviting and deceptive. Using Sinclair as a springboard, Anderson has woven a masterful tale of the parallels and disconnections between primal bloodlust and a life of luxury. Both the movie and the man that sit at the center of that idea are a marvel to watch, and Blood easily stakes a claim as both 2007’s best film and a classic for our time.