There Will Be Blood is a movie that has been garnering such extensive praise by critics it’s a shame that it has gotten such a limited theatrical release; despite this, the film will most likely gain instant status as a classic—and it should. This film is a reminder of a time when the importance of an actor’s performance (not special effects or action set-pieces) could make or break the impact a movie had on an audience.
The film, directed with a firm yet subdued hand by Paul Thomas Anderson (who also wrote the screenplay) is based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Despite the movie’s long running time, the convincing character portrayals by each actor involved are more than enough to keep the viewer’s eyes locked to the screen as the tense story unfolds.
The plot begins by introducing the audience to an unidentified amateur silver prospector, later revealed to be Daniel Plainview.
Plainview, played convincingly and perfectly by Daniel Day-Lewis, is the film’s anti-hero who strives for the American Dream but fuels his greed with a hatred for all people. This hatred allows Plainview to reach the top, ignoring the lives and health of everyone he encounters, even downplaying the injury of his “adopted” son, H.W. Plainview.
After accidentally striking upon oil in one of his silver mines, Plainview accordingly changes his so-called profession and drops his search for silver.
Flash-forward several years and Plainview has established a small oil-prospecting company that earns him a relatively stable income. However, one day he is informed by a somewhat mysterious boy named Paul Sunday (played by Paul Dano) that there is an untapped town in California seeping oil.
Plainview is led to this town of Little Boston and the Sunday family, where he encounters Paul’s twin, Eli, ferociously portrayed by Paul Dano. It is the character of Eli who forms both Plainview’s foil and equivalent counterpart. Eli displays certain amiable qualities as a semi-evangelical preacher and healer for the town, which he uses to hide the greed and anger he shows only to his family. Plainview recognizes Eli’s hypocrisy and capitalizes upon it in several instances, allowing himself to increase his wealth.
Upon arriving at the town, Plainview observes oil leaking through the ground, and he promptly purchases almost all of the land, hoping to strike it rich.
Plainview sets up a rig and begins digging for the oil, encountering several problems along his way. It is one such incident that causes him significant trouble and serves as one of the most intense moments in the film.
One night, upon striking a pocket of air, a stream of oil shoots from below the oil-rig and catches on fire, destroying the rig. This also causes H.W., who was nearby at the time, to hit his head and lose his hearing. Plainview carries H.W. away from the wreckage but subsequently ignores his cries after setting him down. Plainview’s greater concern is for the oil.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction throughout this scene is flawless. He pins Plainview’s silhouette against the backdrop of an “ocean of oil” set on fire. Startling and unnerving, it is at this moment when the audience first becomes fully exposed to Plainview’s depravity and disregard for others.
Plainview’s quest is further hindered by the appearance of his so-called half-brother, Henry (whose existence Plainview was previously unaware of).
Henry’s emergence conveniently comes at the time when Plainview has just started to turn a profit from his oil in Little Boston, and both the audience and Plainview are unsure of Henry’s motives.
The remainder of the film follows Plainview as he hopes to make a deal with Union Oil, which would ensure him insurmountable amounts of money and allow him to live out his days as a reclusive millionaire, drinking away his old age.
Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Daniel Plainview is one that should secure him an Oscar nomination for best actor, if not guarantee him the win. Arguably one of the best actors of his generation, Day-Lewis effectively displays such a wide range of emotion as Plainview that it becomes hard to distinguish the actor from the character.
Day-Lewis is supported by Anderson’s excellent script, which helps convey the intricacies in each of the qualities present in such a complex and subversive character.
There Will Be Blood is a must-see movie, if not for Daniel Day-Lewis’ powerhouse performance then for the experience it provides as a study on hatred; and in the end, it doesn’t forget its promise of blood.