Sun 26 Mar 2017
I have somehow avoided seeing There Will Be Blood for ten years despite its success, and despite having as lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis who got his second Academy Award for this role. The reason is that I was under the impression that this is one of those Big American Sagas which make great impression at the Oscars but seldom have convinced me to jump on their ship of emotions. This is true to some extent, as the film deals with the period of the beginning of oil drilling in the United States, the very important difference being that this saga has not an American Hero but and American Anti-Hero as main character. Which probably makes the film even more interesting.
The story takes starts before the turn of the 19th to the 20th century and ends in the late 1920s, following the raising of an oil magnate from his first discovery of one oil pit to his taking over a small empire of oil fields and the building of the pipes that ensure the transportation. Daniel Plainview, the character played by Day-Lewis seems to come from nowhere and grows from being nothing to the status of a millionaire. Achieving this takes not only luck and a complete lack of any scruples in dealing with competitors, friends or his very close ones – it also takes his soul. The story is kind of Faustian, it’s just that Satan never shows up, or maybe he is there during the whole story under the form of the black gold. The script is loosely based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, with the difference that while in the Socialist writer novel the emphasis is on the social aspects with a critical view of the Capitalist system, in this adaptation it’s the moral aspects that prevail, with Planview’s character finding a counterpart and nemesis in preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). It’s the material world faced with the possible spiritual salvation, another Faustian theme if you wish, but the preacher character eventually proves to be as corrupt and empty in substance as its arch-rival, which makes it unable to fulfill its goal. The destinies of the two are interleaved and they both end in damnation. Director Paul Thomas Anderson opens here a theme which he will continue in his next great picture The Master which offered Philip Seymour Hoffman the opportunity of incarnating one of his last greatest roles.
At the end of the day, telling the story of an American hero or of an American anti-hero does not look that different. It is still one of these sagas starting in the days of the rush for gold and ending when the rush for the black gold – the oil – stabilizes into the big corporations consolidations. The lead hero does not seem to have real roots in history or a specific place, and he needs none as most of the attention is focused on its deeds, mostly evil, with the exception of the personal survival story that is being told in the first 15 minutes. As any saga that respects itself it’s long, which in cinema today means more that two and a half hours, which according to tastes and attention pass more or less easy. Daniel Day-Lewis‘s performance is superb, he fills the screen with his personality to the point that the balance between his character and the one played by Paul Dano is broken in his favor. Dano acts well but he just cannot raise to the height and intensity of Day-Lewis. There Will Be Blood is one of those movies which cannot be really placed in a specific box, or in more than one – they just build to themselves a category and a name of their own.