When the question “Was that supposed to be a comedy”? floats to mind after a film is concluded, there is no answer that bodes well for said flick. Such is the case with THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Paul Thomas Anderson’s robust, and fitfully manic piece of work that takes Upton Sinclair’s classic novel, “Oil,” and reconceptualizes it with Daniel Day-Lewis’ eccentric performance inspiring as many raised eyebrows as kudos. Day-Lewis swallows the screen whole for two hours, forty minutes, channeling the body language of Walter Huston and the vocalization of John. The rest of the cast seems to be keeping a wary eye on him, either because of the character he plays or the curious choices he has made playing him, and the question of which is the case also bodes ill.
He is Daniel Plainview, an oilman, as he tells rapt listeners who are pinning their dreams of wealth to his drilling company. He’s made a fortune and then some, but greed keeps him going and so when an earnest-faced boy from a scrub ranch in California tells him of an untapped oil field, he is off. He buys the ranch, owned by the propitiously named Sunday family, and then all the land around that he can get. In a foreshadowing of the conflict to come, Eli (Paul Dano) the quietly determined and decidedly cunning son of the family, forces Plainview to pay more than he wants for the property. It’s a skill that Plainview does not appreciate. Money isn’t his only motive in life, though it signifies much, but it’s getting the better of an opponent, scrub rancher or big oil company, that makes it so sweet.
For the first 15 minutes there is nary a line of dialogue. Heavy breathing, mood music, a squalling baby, but no dialogue. For the most part it is Day-Lewis suffering manfully as he forces the earth itself to render up to him her treasures. And this is fitting because this is strictly Day-Lewis’ movie, in which he gives a striking, deliberately plotted performance, but one that is wholly self-absorbed, leaving little room for anyone else on screen.
He twinkles his eyes at the camera, he strides with the purposefulness of Caesar taking Gaul, he doesn’t so much speak the dialogue as declaim it as though reading it from stone tablets. When Plainview commits murder, it’s neither an act of passion nor of retribution, but rather a sort of perfunctory cussedness. It inspires tedium in the viewer rather than horror or fascination of any sort. It’s the microcosm of Anderson’s macrocosm. For all the angst and violence, emotional and otherwise, that is splayed across the screen, the film itself is lacks any sort of discernable energy. The plethora of long tracking shots become endurance tests.
Dano, the self-appointed preacher of the Church of the Third Revelation, gives a performance just as studied as Day-Lewis’, but far more engaging, one to be enjoyed as well as admired, unlike Lewis’, which is only the latter. He has a wonderfully pinched look about him, as though his character is at all times biting his tongue, keeping the deepest, darkest part of his soul in check so that he can present the gentle shepherd to his potential flock. It is a performance of much power, but no one and nothing to play off of. The nexus of Eli’s meeting Plainview, his counterpart in the world of commerce, who recognizes him for the power-hungry opportunist that he is and vice-versa is similarly inert. The great tension, the subsumed competition as each uses the other to fulfill baser needs, never quite clicks into place. Part of this is Day-Lewis’ complete self-absorption. He is so busy impressing himself with how very clever, how very sophisticated, his performance is that it becomes technique, not art, and shuts out the very audience it is intended to bowl over.
Hearkening back to the German Expressionism of the 1920s, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a ravishing curiosity. Passions are quelled in favor of an arch artificiality. Anderson has created a cleverly engineered diorama, rich in detail, but static.