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by Upton Sinclair
(Discounted from Amazon)
"There Will Be Blood"
The surprise in store for you when you see this film is that an actor in the mold of Orson Welles and John Huston still exists. His name is Daniel Day-Lewis, and he roars with the fires of a carefully tended and exquisitely released dramatic energy in his interpretation of one of the more eccentric and driven characters we've seen in many a year.
Drawing inspiration from a legendary source, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson sets a new high mark with an adaptation of Upton Sinclair's "Oil," which forms the basis for a central figure as joltingly commanding as he is. Departing, with a very bold step, from his lighter, comedic fare ("Punch Drunk Love"), Anderson turns to the magnetic force of obsessive drive. Anderson gives us the hypercharged character of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis).
The film starts with a bare landscape shot and a screeching, howling chord of dissonance -- a sound of serious intent, dying slowly away as if warning of the scarring, the probing and the blood that will be spilled over this land because of what it contains. Immediately, we get a hint of Plainview, a mineral and metal prospector hard at work, totally alone, pickaxing rock in a small mine shaft (probably in Texas where the film was shot). It's boom time for metals and oil in 1898.
A serious fall that might have killed him is shrugged off in view of the overriding reality that the rocks he's broken loose tells him there's oil on his claim. The assayer's office confirms the fact and he quickly and efficiently hires a crew and builds an oil derrick for proper drilling. His manner is brusque, his determination and hands-on know-how marks of discipline and leadership.
One man works at the site while tending his young son, a tot. When a snag in the drill threatens to upset the operation, this father sets the boy into a basket on the ground and goes below the rig to help sort the problem out. A pipe section gets away from the drillers and falls into the hole below, striking a mortal blow. The father dies. The shock to everyone, including Plainview, is palpable. From that day forth, he takes the boy as his own, representing him as his son.
But, as we will find out in due course, this is not the action of an empathetic man, nor of one feeling grief or pity.
Sometime in 1911 (the year indicated by titles), with the operation well underway and making Plainview a decent living, a young man by the name of Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) presents himself in Plainview's office with an offer. He wants a modest payment (500 1911 bucks, not at all bad) for information about a sizable property with oil seeping to the surface. After the necessary haggling, the Sunday lad identifies his parents' property on the West Coast.
Plainview and his now-grown boy outfit themselves as hunters and appear on the Sunday land as quail hunters which, greed and misrepresentation issues aside, stikes a vein of humor. Plainview presents his son as H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier). The hospitality of Abel Sunday (David Willis), the father, gives the Plainviews a chance to scout the property. When the elder Plainview makes an offer to Abel and his younger son Eli (also Paul Dano) -- already at his young age a Baptist preacher -- Plainview finds the Sunday family fully aware of where his sudden interest lies. Quail has nothing to do with it and he pays accordingly.
By now fully able to invest whatever it takes to drill his new property, Plainview buys up all the parcels he will need for a pipeline to the sea, making himself independent from huge Standard Oil, which is operating in the area. A speech to the townsfolk about how much good he is bringing to the area is the next part of his protocols to avoid barriers and control his endeavors. Of course, where humans beings are concerned, not everything is controllable -- perhaps least of all a community preacher with demands.
But none of this tells you the stunning style of the guy. One minute he's holding his acquisitive nature at bay; in the next he lets it loose in ways that are those of a cruel drill sergeant (no pun intended). While obsessively distant from other people, intellectually, he knows what they require and expect from him. He has no more problem erecting an acceptable persona than he has erecting a well. And, there are even a few ironic laughs produced by what we know about him which newcomers haven't had a taste of yet.
His passionless soul is apparent and he meets repulsion and disagreement with pure and certain contempt. Despite that, fascination for this self-made figure is as certain to compel the attention that an alien invasion would. And, in a rare demonstration of storytelling craft, the two hour forty minutes you spend in this man's thrall feels like the length of a normal movie.
What Day-Lewis displays here, as he did in "Gangs of New York," "The Last of the Mohicans" and other performances that distinguish him from his many peers, is his extraordinary theatrical genius for the cinematic frame, which he's not reticent to make use of to its deepest dimension when the moment calls it out. If the low angle full-frame shot of him raging at his adversary in the final act doesn't remind you of Welles as Citizen Kane, or if his raging presence doesn't bring the indomitable spirit of John Huston to mind, you'd be entitled to your money back.
Paul Dano's evangelistic nemesis in the Plainview landscape is suitably played as a tragically stubborn naif who can't accept that his celestial inspiration is no match for his sinner "friend's" visible dismissals. Dano's look of country simplicity makes him an ideal choice for the underestimated foil.
The marvels of this novelistic saga don't end with performances. The rocky grit of the field, the sweep of the acreage and the living conditions of the period are rendered in warm and textural natural light by cinematographer Robert Elswit. Composer Jonny Greenwood of "RadioHead" commands the landscape aurily and insistently with one of the more remarkable soundtracks since James Horner's "The New World." Boldly loud dissonances act as a gut warning of the dispassionate forces that are moving over and into the destiny of an unsuspecting community. (The score incorporates material from two orchestral pieces Greenwood created as Composer In Residence for the BBC Orchestra -- see soundtrack link below.)
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," they say. What auteur Anderson's message seems to be is that the road to riches is greased with the schemes of the unscrupulous. In the end, Plainview has little idea how to use his fortune other than making his one fond wish come true: to get as far away from people as his money and his morbid trail of vengeance makes possible. And, while we may never admire him, we can respect him -- not for his success but for the thoroughness of his amorality.
~~ Jules Brenner
B/W silent film chronicling the oil business in the 1920s
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