Well, we’ve arrived at the final day of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition. Just as with the previous two years, it’s been a lot of fun with a host of fascinating and diverse reviews from across the board. Thanks to everyone who has taken part this year; you are all on my Christmas card list! However, my biggest thanks must go to by fellow blogathon buddy Tom – his site Thomas J is one I have followed as long as I’ve been doing this blogging game and his talent for insightful and engaging reviews has only grown over the years. This year’s blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade and for this final day, you’re getting a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood from yours truly. See you again next year!
Just as cinema became the preeminent art form of the 20th century, there can be little doubt its dominant source of energy has been oil.
As the Age of Oil begins its slow march towards death as the world’s reserves are sucked dry, Paul Thomas Anderson’s complex, frightening and wildly ambitious masterpiece There Will Be Blood shows us how this modern capitalist world came to be.
It also reveals to us how religion has, in turn, allowed itself to be perverted and ultimately usurped by unfettered capitalism and, in its final act reveals to us that, once there is nothing more left to consume, such a system will finally turn on itself.
Based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s satirical 1927 novel Oil!, Anderson’s Mephistophelian figurehead is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a singularly driven man whose insatiable hunger to possess what he doesn’t have and destroy whatever stands in his way are laid bare in the film’s incredible opening 15-minute salvo where nary a word is spoken but the intentions are clear.
Accompanied by an unsettling, otherworldly score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, this first reel is startlingly reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as Plainview helps to usher in the Dawn of (Oil) Man. Just like the black gold he so covets, Plainview is a primordial force summoned out of the ground; in this case a makeshift mine.
At times we see hints in Plainview there is more to him than pure unadulterated avarice. He takes on the guardianship of a baby he names H.W. after the boy is orphaned following an accident, while he takes in a man claiming to be his half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), at one point opening up to reveal to him that: “I have a competition in me; I want no-one else to succeed. I hate most people.”
However, any hope of salvation or humanity is snuffed out on both counts, with H.W. being deemed by Plainview as little more than a prop to sell himself as a ‘family man’. Indeed, when a freak explosion robs H.W. of his hearing, Plainview is more focused on the “oceans of oil” the incident has revealed exist under their feet.
The majority of the film takes place in a small Californian town which Plainview is first drawn to by Paul Sunday’s (Paul Dano) boastful claims of oil. There he encounters Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Dano), an evangelical preacher who understands what Plainview represents.
There is an argument that Eli and Paul Sunday are not twins at all but one in the same character. Although unlikely, there’s a logic to this theory insomuch as while one is a pastor and the other a businessman, both are opportunists.
Eli, like Plainview, is a salesmen, in this case one who hawks religion to a community ripe for exploitation. Plainview is also content to use religion to his own ends, stating that it is “the Lord’s guidance” he has arrived, referencing “the good Lord” as he makes lavish promises of grain, water and shared wealth to townsfolk who seemingly crave God’s love and material wealth in equal measure.
The film ostensibly follows the power struggle between the oil man and man of God. However, in reality the war is over before it begins as Plainview rhetorically enquires to an official “can everything around here be got?” and proceeds to get to work when given an enthusiastic endorsement.
The one time it appears Eli has bested his foe when he attempts to humiliate Plainview in front of his congregation by getting him to kneel and seek the Almighty’s forgiveness for abandoning H.W. is revealed as the hollow victory it is when he realises it’s merely served to shore up the support of the town – the look of anticlimactic disappointment on Eli’s face speaks volumes.
That victory is itself revealed as empty in the film’s memorable final moments, however, when a desperate Eli comes to Plainview’s mansion years later foolishly seeking to sell a plot of land. Plainview’s demeaning taunts (“Drainaggggeee!”) and elaborate milkshake metaphor (“I drink it up!”) may be the final nail in Eli’s coffin, but the cost to a savagely alcoholic, embittered Plainview is plain to see.
Day-Lewis has been criticised for his scenery-chewing by some, but there can be little argument this is a titanic performance; one for the ages and then some. From his magnetic, full-throated drawl (inspired by John Huston so it’s said), to his coiled, wounded gait and full-blooded moustache, Day-Lewis’ Plainview leaves everyone in his wake, including poor Dano who gives it his all but, like his character, is paper standing up to a force of nature.
Anderson’s masterpiece will be studied by generations to come as a hypnotic account of how we came to be and what awaits us as the oil begins to run dry. It’s a work of pure cinema and one we should continue to cherish.