There Will Be Blood is a brilliant, if at times difficult, film about greed, vengeance, and the loss of faith that comes with the overwhelming, burning desire for success. The power that emanates from Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic epic has as much to do with the intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis’ enthralling performance, as it does with its remarkable depiction of an America on the brink of industrialisation. Set in the early decades of the last century, it follows the sweep of the California oil boom, which helped transform the pristine, almost innocent landscape into an oil-blackened scar.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the archetypal self-made man, a silver prospector named Daniel Plainview, whose discovery of black gold in Texas leads to an enormous and corrupting change in his fortunes. Plainview builds an empire to rival the corporate giants at Standard Oil, with the help of his young adopted son, H.W., who is pivotal in helping to soften his father’s grizzled image and win over their potential victims (the charismatic H.W. is played by Dillon Freasier, a first-time actor who delivers a perfectly attuned performance). Anderson contrasts Plainview’s blood-and-grits determination with the polished capitalism that presides over America, but his tremendous success leaves only a desolate and bitter legacy.
As his fortune grows, Plainview travels to Little Boston, California, after receiving a tip about a vast, unexploited oil field. His attempts to secure a concession are challenged by the local preacher, played by Paul Dano, virtually unrecognisable from his role as a sullen, angst-ridden teenager in Little Miss Sunshine. Dano is superb as Eli Sunday, the young evangelical minister determined to bring Plainview and his oilmen into his flock. Many of the film’s best moments unfold in the confrontation between the bible-thumping Sunday and the cynical, unbelieving Plainview, who’s forced to humiliate himself in front of the preacher and his congregation in order to gain access to the ocean of oil seething below the surface of the frontier town. Their tempestuous relationship courses through the film, their hatred and contempt for each other driving them both towards the mutually-assured destruction that closes the film. Through the characters of Dano and Plainview, Anderson pitches spirituality against profit in what is essentially a study in the nature of power.
Along with the quality of the cast, much of the film’s strength lies in its iconic imagery, captured brilliantly by Robert Elswit’s fantastic cinematography, and its excellent score, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. From the entirely wordless fifteen-minute opening, the music drives the action, as we’re introduced to the filth and brutality of the silver mines and early oil-pits, and the poverty and tragedy that accompanied the gruelling work. The riveting music perfectly complements the transcendent images of a wild west: the dusty, scorched desert almost burns your eyes, while the oilmen and their rigs exist in brilliant silhouette against the enormity of the Californian sky, evoking the pioneering photography of American artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
Though epic in scope, There Will Be Blood is a lengthy character study of a vile, often despicable and alienating man. Corruption wrought by success has been an enduring theme in American cinema, from the classic Citizen Kane to the tepid Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. Day-Lewis’ riveting performance at times risks veering towards caricature, while Anderson also struggles to avoid the usual clichés. But despite its flaws, There Will Be Blood is the most evocative, visually stunning portrayal of ambition to emerge from America in decades.