A film that got away from me, perhaps because it gave off such an air of discomfort, I watched There Will Be Blood this weekend. The movie is very good, but my instincts were correct. It is a very difficult movie to endure.
Daniel Day Lewis plays a Charles Foster Kane-esque Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of an oil man who rose from a single claim prospector to a wealthy oil magnate through sheer will and a ruthless brutality that destroyed everything in its wake. Whereas Welles’ Kane, obsessed though he was, could enjoy the taste of his success and the fruits of his labor, Plainview cannot. He is a tortured, singular man, made dangerously distrustful the moment he gets close to anyone for fear of what that person will take. Worse, he cannot abide a slight, and when a young preacher (Paul Dano) fences with Plainview, forcing him to endure a humiliating baptism in exchange for the rights to a critical tract of land, the incident burns in Plainview. As played by the spellbinding Day Lewis, it damn near appears to eat his insides out. Anderson’s representation of California – be it the barren oilfields or the lonely mansion Plainview inhabits at the end of the movie – becomes more forbidding and cruel as Plainview descends into madness.
All well and good, especially near flawlessly rendered, and yet, this is a cold, one-note film, devoted near completely to a terrible, monochromatic character. What is Anderson telling us about ourselves, or, is he telling us anything? Many cite the picture as an evocation of the American experience, a “portrait of a young nation struggling to find itself, torn between religious and business values” or “a harrowing cautionary warning to a country with oil pumping through its veins, clouding its judgment and coarsening its soul.”
If only. Anderson’s vision is too personal and too specific to Plainview, and it is a testament to the director’s gifts and Day Lewis’s skill that such a narrow focus remains compelling. The result is a lot of blood and guts but no real heart, which keeps it from being great.