Top 10 films of our lifetime #6: There Will Be Blood
19th September 2014
It was quite tough to pick just the one Paul Thomas Anderson film for the list. I loved The Master but it feels like it needs a rewatch post Philip Seymour Hoffman's passing to truly appreciate it. There Will Be Blood, on the other hand, feels like it's been preserved in time already: a dyed-in-the-wool classic and no mistaking. Don't just stand there reading this pre-tease: jump right in to read more of me waxing lyrical - Ali.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson / Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier
Writers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Upton Sinclair (novel) / Cinematography: Robert Elswit
|didn't care for There Will Be Blood when I first saw it. I gave it four stars regardless. Like many Paul Thomas Anderson films - note the nomenclature: you wouldn't say he makes 'movies' – it is inaccessible and impenetrable. Light on dialogue. Low on spectacle. Like, three hours long. And, come to think of it, was there actually any blood?
Well yes, obviously there was quite a lot of blood. Famously right at the end. This just proves that the me of 2008 was an idiotic boob, unable to sniff out a classic right under his nose (later that year, I'd give Mamma Mia! the same star rating, without irony).
Subsequent rewatches have elevated PTA's opus to my imaginary list of 'all-time favourites', while a recent London screening complete with a Jonny Greenwood live score inched it ahead of The Master to score a mid-table finish on this very list. Which I'm sure makes its string of Oscar losses to No Country For Old Men that bit more palatable for Paul and pals.
What bold filmmaking this is. What conviction to adapt a relatively unknown book – Oil! by Upton Sinclair: sounds like a musical, actually it's a masterpiece – with such confidence. On the surface, the story of an 'oil man' and his drive for power sounds like pretty arid stuff, but drill through its dusty exterior and the goodness gushes forth. There Will Be Blood isn't just about the allure of power – it's a devastatingly complex portrait of a man warped out of all recognition by his cancerous obsessions, and what happens to him when he runs out of goals.
Daniel Plainview is that monster, and Daniel Day-Lewis is his Dr Frankenstein. The movie's opening scenes play out in near silence as prospector Plainview toils and troubles down a pit mine to dig up a precious metal; before long, and with few words uttered, Plainview is a full-time oil man with an adopted son under his wing after the boy's father was killed on Daniel's watch.
There is no doubt there exists in him a good man, but Plainview does his best to bury him like he does any man who dares oppose him. By the movie's climax, Plainview has conned, scammed, bludgeoned and battered every enemy who ever stepped in his path. "I'm finished," he says, breathlessly, as his last ounce of humanity ebbs away with the blood staining his bowling alley.
Day-Lewis is off-the-chart astonishing in the role, so clearly deserving of his second Best Actor Oscar that bookies stopped taking bets on him winning a good month before the ceremony. It is an extraordinary performance befitting a complicated character. The moment Plainview disappears into darkness comes mid-way through the movie, when he's celebrating a huge business deal on a beach with his 'brother' Henry (Kevin J O'Connor, who I just learned followed this film by playing Dr Mindbender in the first G.I. Joe movie). Daniel speaks of drinking and women. It is the first and only time we see him smile. Henry cannot abide his deception any longer, wordlessly folding and revealing his lie. Daniel, silently observant, instantly drains of all enthusiasm. No actor other than Daniel Day-Lewis could sell a moment this subtle so strongly.
As towering as Day-Lewis is in the role, There Will Be Blood is far more than a one-man show. Paul Dano is wonderful as weasel Eli, unwisely engaging in a psychological battle with a man who will one day kill him. The church scene in which Eli exacts revenge for his mistreatment at the hands of Daniel – by pulling him out in front of his congregation and having him renounce all of his evils – plays out like a comedy, with Plainview's reactions eliciting laughs, but there's a dark undercurrent to the scene which Dano taps into; Eli has sealed his fate and the panic in his eyes is palpable. Nothing Dano has done since has been quite so nuanced.
But then, that's Paul Thomas Anderson down to a tee: why gush like a geyser when you can have your tension bubbling and simmering beneath?
There Will Be Blood features myriad scenes of quiet contemplation, expertly composed by cinematographer Robert Elswit, which say as much in a look than you could fit onto 10 pages of dialogue. Every scene between Plainview and his adopted son HW (Dillon Freasier, now 18, for Christ's sake) aches with sadness and heaves with words left unsaid. Plainview is a man of little words with good reason: an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't need to say much – it's all written in the lines on his face, the furrow of his brow, the arch of his moustache. Try to imagine someone else playing the part. Go on. I'll wait.
Spread across 30 years, There Will Be Blood has a constant in the pulsing, pounding heartbeat of Jonny Greenwood's chaotic, cacophonic score. The movie's centrepiece, the oil derrick fire, is underscored by Greenwood's 'Convergence', written for a documentary four years previously but surely destined to be the soundtrack of the cogs in Plainview's head grinding to a halt.
Having had the pleasure of hearing this score performed live, it has only heightened my appreciation for it; just as it's impossible to picture anyone but Day-Lewis playing Plainview, I can't fathom the film without Greenwood's contribution. Come for the oil man; stay for the Violin Concerto in D major.
The reasons 2008 me didn't necessarily get on with There Will Be Blood now strike 2014 me as positives: long scenes that seem in no particular rush; wordless exchanges; plot threads left hanging and unresolved. It's all part of Paul Thomas Anderson's rich tapestry: the slow deconstruction of a man played out in excruciating detail. There Will Be Blood feels like a film people will still be watching 50 years from now. I mean, it's no Mamma Mia!, but it'll do.
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