In his five-year absence from direction, Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't lost a beat. "There Will Be Blood" is his most grueling feature film; a punishing historical drama about the bitter rise of the oil barons, lobbing bile and rage at every hairpin turn of its 2 ½ hours. It's not for every taste, but that doesn't make it any less of a backhanded slap of a masterpiece.
Starting out as a silver miner at the turn of the century, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been struggling to make ends meet. Turing his attention to the oil deposits of California, Plainview uses his cutthroat negotiation tactics to amass a small fortune drilling the soil for liquid gold. When a tip leads Plainview and his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) to an oil-rich ranch and surrounding area, the tycoon convinces the locals to invest in his future, leading to an arduous drilling process that divides the community into those who seek profit and those who follow the religious command of a young, demonstrative preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, "Little Miss Sunshine").
"Blood" showcases a lifetime lost to the insatiable need for control and profit, but it's far from a morality tale. Using Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!" as a starter pistol, "Blood" sprints off to become its own intoxicating vision of greed; a nearly reptilian piece of cinema that crosses epic Western storytelling with powerful insular emoting. It's unpolluted cinema from Anderson, fashioned in a way that speaks incredibly of his patience and gift for observation.
There's no easy way to classify the "Blood" experience. It's like being submerged in oil itself; a suffocating, chilling, slowly sinking viewing event that is spotless in execution and challenging unlike any major American motion picture this year. Following Plainview's greasy, bitter rise to riches, Anderson is vigilant with his main character, capturing every mood and manipulation as though he was making a film about a chess master encountering his greatest opponent in the arid landscape and the dangerous attentions of Eli. Plainview is a cunning businessman with a special gift for placation, and his near silent adventure with oil (it takes 15 minutes before the first bit of dialogue is uttered), from discovery to dominance, makes up the majority of the film.
These sequences, shot with golden meticulousness by Robert Elswit, are the spirit of "Blood." A procedural look at the process of extracting oil from the ground, the details are engrossing and equally horrifying. Seeing these men step down to the bottom of the Earth, risking their lives (and often losing them) is mesmerizing. Anderson allows for these long observational takes, spattered with disgusting black oil that covers every inch of the body, building the tension like a grand opera through feats of hazard and detonation. Boy, if you thought getting oil was tough today, "Blood" is a disturbing description of a nail-biting period of excavation.
Scored with a high-wire percussive momentum by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, "Blood" soars with the oil foraging scenes; dynamic moments of unstoppable American ego and environmental rape that are unforgettable. However, these are purely the precursor to the meat of the matter: the fuming storm that brews in Plainview's head.
A complicated man with a concentrated distaste for others, a violent competitive streak, and a heart he can turn to stone when the moment suits him, Plainview is an extraordinary screen character with tempestuous emotional seas buried under his salt-stained hat and slimy moustache. It's almost needless to write that Day-Lewis tears into the role with hurricane-like authority. This is not acting, folks, it's a demonic possession.
The performances are impeccable in "Blood," but Day-Lewis's take on Plainview's machinations of madness is jaw-dropping. Set aside the watertight authoritarian accent and the full-bodied metamorphosis of corruption, and there are still miles of interpretational magic to be pored over for generations to come. It's a master class on the erosion of a soul, the actor giving in to his every impulse while Anderson's camera sits in awe. This doesn't feel like a performance. No artificiality to speak of. It's Day-Lewis doing what he does best: crawling inside the skin of a character and becoming one with material.
The battle of perspectives and annoyance between Eli and Plainview eventually assumes control of "Blood." It's an interesting parallel Anderson investigates in his script: is there really a difference between a businessman and religious opportunist? Dano and Day-Lewis seem to be having a ball going after each other, resulting in some extreme displays of contempt. Anderson takes the conflict to its logical conclusion in a perfectly diseased cherry of a finale, but it's a wonderful thematic tease that runs throughout the picture.
"There Will Be Blood" is such a strongly made movie that it seems almost unreal to view. To witness Anderson allowed this much breathing room to explore the degenerative effects of entrepreneurship (the venomous underbelly of the American dream) restores plenty of faith in Hollywood. This is an incomparable picture, and as demanding as it looks from the outside, it's worth every second of your time to see filmmaking this poised and individualistic.
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