Paul Thomas Anderson can easily be accused of being a ‘critic’s director’; his films are never populist, usually entirely lacking in easily-understandable narrative structure, and stylistically innovative enough to be labelled ‘arty’ by the majority. There Will Be Blood is no exception; always seemingly on the verge of being fully comprehensible, yet daring and complex enough to still demand the greatest attention in the viewer.
There was a time when P.T.A. was being bandied around as the ‘new Robert Altman’, but this film should be the final nail in that particular label’s coffin (though this film is dedicated to the late director). The influence of his mentor could be felt in Boogie Nights and Magnolia: both ensemble pieces, with large star casts masterfully rotated. But Anderson was also developing his own signature style, which perhaps became more obvious with Punch-Drunk Love, his superlative 2002 dark comedy, whose hugely distinctive visuals and use of sound left a great impression from what was a surprisingly straightforward tale.
There is, on the surface of it, quite a conventional storyline here too: Daniel Plainview is a self-labelled ‘oil man’, who as a young man digging for silver comes across a large crude oil deposit, inspiring him initially to amateurly extract the oil, and later to set up his own drilling company with proper equipment and hired hands. As he becomes more and more successful, his ambition grows and he sets about trying to build a larger and larger oil empire, distancing himself from the larger companies by claiming himself a ‘family man’ running ‘family business’.
We quickly learn, however, that this is bogus; his ‘son’, whom he parades in front of potential investors, is not his, merely a prop to improve his image. When a young man, Paul Sunday, tells him of his family’s oil-rich land, Plainview travels there to purchase the property under the pretence of wanting it to hunt quail on. We begin to see what kind of character we are dealing with: selfish, a compulsive liar, Machiavellian to the point of inhumanity, driven only by the prospect of more oil, and more money. Plainview reckons without Sunday’s twin brother, Eli, who fancies himself as a Churchman and faith healer, and immediately cottons on to Plainview’s plan, demanding a much larger sum of money for the land, in the knowledge that Plainview will cough up.
This is the basic setup of the film, and to describe further narrative points may be to spoil the real joy of watching, since it is almost impossible to outguess where it is leading the viewer. Like Punch-Drunk Love, what seems like a simple, conventional story takes enough twists and turns to constantly wrong-foot even the most perceptive of watchers. This is, in large part, due to the strange presence at the centre of the film: Daniel Plainview. He is a man with no past, and seemingly no future other than one of relentless financial expansion. Seldom does he refer to anything in his life, and when he does it seems to be a fiction of convenience: inventing his ‘wife’s’ death in childbirth to garner sympathy, for example.
Citizen Kane comparisons have been made by other reviewers elsewhere: it has been pointed out that the theme of the corrupting infuence of money at the expense of a character’s soul happens to Daniel Plainview as it does to Charles Foster Kane. The film does share a common timespan with Welles’ classic, starting around the turn of the twentieth century, and ending with its protagonist as an old, lonely man in his empty mansion, taking in the Great Depression of the 1930s. But Plainview is no tragic figure like Kane, as he is entirely devoid of any redeeming qualities; he has no time for family, for friends, for women, for leisure or enjoyment, for anything other than the pursuit of oil. There is, thus, no Rosebud – no crack revealing the human underneath the skin of the monster.
Daniel Day-Lewis once again gives a bravura performance in the central role, less over-the-top compared with his extraordinary turn in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, but his quiet pent-up rage is all the more terrifying for being more hidden in Plainview; when he finally does explode, you feel it hit you all the harder. In his finest moment in the film, he delivers a monologue where he shows his contempt for all other people, and his desire to see himself succeed while everybody else fails – and finally we see the grotesque monster in its true form; entirely devoid of compassion, life, love. His performance is so overpowering that Paul Dano’s excellent turn as preacher Eli Sunday appears to have been largely ignored.
There has been much praise heaped on the film, and Day-Lewis’ performance in particular. But great acting demands a director capable of controlling it, and once again Paul Thomas Anderson has shown that he is one of the finest actor’s directors working today. But he is also one of the great contemporary visual stylists, too. His composition of shots can be quite breathtaking, and the slow, languid movements of the camera, frequently only revealing the spatial dimensions of a scene piece-by-piece, are especially daring, recalling not just Welles but by turns Kubrick, Scorsese, Fellini even the granddaddy of them all, Jean Renoir. There are noticeably long takes, but also frantic fast cuts, elegant pans – Anderson, with DP Robert Elswit, seems capable of executing them all with ease.
One reason Punch-Drunk Love was so distinctive was the fantastic percussive score, composed by frequent collaborator Jon Brion. Here, the music was composed by Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, who seems to have taken his cue from Anderson’s prior work, whilst adding his own touches. The film opens with an abrasive screech of strings, and the first reel plays to pizzicato violins, giving an unsettling air to proceedings. The score then is a mish mash of Brahms quartet, percussion, and more abrasive string parts. It is a truly outstanding soundtrack, and, like Brion’s work, gives Anderson’s film its rhythm and feel. It is a shame that it will not be eligible for the Oscars, as it would surely win.
It is tempting to label There Will Be Blood as a masterpiece, and it already has by some noted critics. But I have my doubts; I left the cinema in a daze, illustrating just what an extraordinary experience to watch it is. But the Coens’ No Country For Old Men, Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and even David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE gave me more of a feeling of satisfaction, that I had watched something truly great. P.T. Anderson may well be the best director in the US, Daniel Day-Lewis the best actor working in English, and There Will Be Blood a fine film, but it is perhaps too difficult a film to be a bona-fide masterpiece. But it is such a demanding watch on first viewing, that maybe I just need to see it again….