50 years, 50 films: There will be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic of religion and money brings all the boys to the yard
Way back in the 12th century, when I foolishly began this series, I made it clear that we were not seeking to identify the best film in each year. The idea was more to give an impression of the times through its cinema. That said, it would be a little odd if I passed by 2007 without selecting the film that — after tossing many coins and gutting many chickens — I put at the top of my chart for best of the 2010s. There was much competition this year. We could happily have picked I’m Not There, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Eastern Promises, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or You, The Living. But we didn’t. We selected Paul Thomas Anderson’s Biblical epic There Will be Blood. We’ll draw up some comparisons below, but there is, in truth, nothing quite like it.
The film is, in theory, derived from Upton Sinclar’s Oil! But there’s less of that book in the final film than there is of Citizen Kane, East of Eden or Greed. The story has twists, but remains reasonably simple. An obsessive (almost certainly mad) man named Daniel Plainview begins life as a prospector for precious ore, but soon drifts into oil and becomes a very wealthy fellow. In his attempts to acquire further claims, he ends up alienating a young religious lunatic (Paul Dano, obviously) and causes his adopted son to be deafened. Many years later, chickens come home to roost.
If we were inclined to talk the film down, we might point out that its criticisms of capitalism and religion are not overflowing with nuance. The crazy man who digs the oil would cause Mr Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life to hold his nose. Paul Dano’s character is infected by religion in the same way that junkies are infected by addiction. Indeed, There Will be Blood is almost as philosophically shallow as a Stanley Kubrick film. None of that really matters. Anderson’s intent is to tell an Old Testament yarn in the most captivatingly cinematic way imaginable. To that end, he begins with (for once the cliché is apt) a bravura wordless sequence that leads us from Plainview’s first efforts to eventual noisy success. Every aspect of the film-making art is exploited to overpowering effect. Jonny Greenwood’s score makes abstract noises that remind us of the György Ligeti pieces at the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, the very beginning of the film really could be taking place on another, even less hospitable planet. The shots are long. The cinematography is saturated. Then there is the central performance by Daniel Day Lewis.
When writing about acting, it is customary to praise the “subtle”, “nuanced” and “understated”. Quite right too. Awards season has an awful habit of awarding the biggest performance over the best. But, from time to time, we really are entitled to savour a turn that goes up to 11. It is not overstating it to suggest that nobody else could get away with a performance as huge as the one Day Lewis gives here. Comparisons were made with John Huston in Chinatown — DDL denies that was a conscious influence — but the vocal stresses are far more eccentric and the movement more pointedly theatrical. It remains a puzzle as to why the performance isn’t ludicrous. A step to the left or a shimmy to the right and we could have been saddled with Donald Sinden multiplied by Brian Blessed. What anchors the turn is, I suppose, basic humanity. Day-Lewis gets at a burning sadness within Plainview that almost makes him pitiable. It’s quite a piece of work.
Anderson followed up There Will be Blood with the extraordinary The Master and, later this year, we will see his take on Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Rather astonishingly (even accepting the difficulty of his work) this will be the first ever film made of a book by that great novelist. The mouth waters. I’d better have a milkshake.