Daniel Day-Lewis is the key ingredient in this sublime piece of cinema, writes Michael Dwyer
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Kevin J O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds 15A cert, gen release, 158 min
THERE isn’t a word of dialogue in the extended opening sequence of There Will Be Blood. To introduce the protagonist, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson relies entirely on the language of cinema – the facially and physically expressive presence of the star, the production and costume design, the camerawork, the use of sound and music, and the editing, all of which are of the highest order.
And so we get to know Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) before he ever speaks. At the end of the 19th century, Plainview is prospecting for silver in the California desert, and we realise that he is a driven man of unstoppable determination. Turning his attention to oil, he is willing to exploit anyone in his path as he ruthlessly pursues power and money.
When a young goat farmer, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), tells him that there is oil on Sunday family land, Plainview could easily strike a deal with him. But, being a compulsive cheat, he chooses to swindle the Sundays.
Adopting the baby of a miner who dies in an accident, Plainview embraces the boy, HW, as a surrogate son, but he uses him to project the image of a family man to the Sundays, claiming that God sent him their way. Plainview’s god is Mammon, and he finds his nemesis in Paul Sunday’s brother Eli (also played by Dano), a self-appointed religious preacher who is just as manipulative as Plainview.
In its twin themes of religious zealotry and greed for oil, There Will Be Blood, which spans the period 1898-1927, inevitably strikes a resonance with the conflicts of the modern world. While Anderson and Day-Lewis have denied that they intended an allegory, the film’s contemporary relevance must have been in their subconscious, at least.
Devised with a sharp intelligence and directed with tremendous accumulating power, this bold, utterly assured achievement marks just the fifth film from Anderson. To say that it builds on the rich promise of his earlier films (including Boogie Nights and Magnolia) would be an understatement. This is pure cinema.
There are echoes of such classic films as Citizen Kane, in its picture of a tycoon’s all-consuming empire-building; and Chinatown, in exploring the building of America and the rot at its foundations. And at its core is an extraordinary character study. Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview as a man who is as seductive and sinister as the voice he finds for him, and a self-made, hands-on businessman who admits at one point that he wants no one else to succeed.
It is a performance of staggering complexity, as Day-Lewis brings this misanthrope vividly to life in all his sly charm, steely determination and volcanic ferocity. This is one of the finest performances in the history of cinema and in the history of acting, and Day-Lewis well deserves all the many awards it has brought him, including an Oscar last Sunday.
For all Plainview’s coldness as a character, and his apparent lack of any emotion, he is humanised – to a point – in his relationship with HW (played by Dillon Freasier, a wonderful 10-year-old newcomer), and when that point is reached, the film becomes heartbreaking.
Dano (who was in Little Miss Sunshine and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, the latter of which also starred Day-Lewis) gives a revelatory performance, investing Eli Sunday with a beatific yet creepy smile. When he and Plainview clash, the intense, riveting drama unfolds to a richly imaginative, aptly discordant score by Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
It is a disgrace that neither Dano nor Greenwood was recognised in the Academy Award nominations, and while There Will Be Blood received two Oscars (the other for cinematographer Robert Elswit’s masterly compositions), this fascinating, strange and original film ought to have received many more and to have been voted best picture. It is a modern masterpiece.
Black gold: Daniel DayLewis in There Will Be Blood