Tuesday, February 18, 2020

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood examines two powerful forces in American history - Christianity and Capitalism. Spanning the early decades of the 20th century, the film follows Daniel Plainview as played by Daniel Day-Lewis who earned an Oscar. Anderson takes the audience on a kaleidoscopic journey into the 20th Century, like Travis Bickle, Plainview appears to have arrived from the depths and confounds everyone around him.

The story begins in 1898 with a young Plainview prospecting in California. He falls and breaks his leg in the middle of nowhere yet somehow survives in a Jack London survival scenario. The lonely and unforgiving wilderness will only allow those with strength and determination to survive. Daniel rises in the oil business and adopts a boy whose father died in an accident. He gets a tip from a Paul Sandy (Paul Dano) that large oil deposits on his family's land, setting up the central conflict in the story.

At first Daniel appears to be an ambitious businessman getting getting a jump on the emerging oil industry in the West. He offers to buy the land from the Sunday family, but one of the sons Eli, also played by Dano, wants Daniel to fund a revival church in return for use of the land. While Eli and Daniel appear to be at cross purposes, yet both are not above using deception to achieve their goals. Both are consumed with greed, but their methods are different. Daniel uses know how and intimidation, Eli manipulates the emotions of his congregation through dramatic healing rituals.

As Daniel and Eli began to prosper, other complications enter into the story. Daniel's son and constant companion HW loses his hearing after an explosion and cruelly sent away by Daniel to a boarding school. A man who claims to Daniel's brother proves to be a negative influence and continues to push him over the edge into madness.

The second half of the film continues to follow Daniel's descent into self-destructive and violent behavior - culminating in the unforgettable final confrontation between him and Eli. I view Daniel as a symbol of American capitalism - sociopathic and motivated. At first he has a sense of mission, but greed starts to intrude on all his decisions as he becomes something monstrous. By the end, the entrepreneurial spirit has mutated him into a fire breathing dragon, only content when all his enemies are vanquished.

Like Citizen Kane, another allegory on greed, there's nothing too complicated about idea of wealth leading to an empty life. It's an often told story. But Anderson creates a unique cinematic experience of period detail and stunning composition in each frame. Jonny Greenwood's music adds a layer of even more heightened reality, providing a science fiction ambiance. 

Anderson also reverses the trajectory of a typical tragedy, starting out serious, but letting humor slowly creed in until the story ends in farce. Daniel Day Lewis, speaking in a John Huston cadence, deserves credit for creating a remarkable character, an all knowing destroyer. Dano was equally effective as the corrupt evangelist. An unblemished portrait of American standing beside The Godfather and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, There Will Be Blood leaves a vivid impression. 


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