Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
"Uncompromising vision" is frequently a term of praise for me and "crowd-pleasing" one I use with some disdain. Paul Thomas Anderson has the same initials as the discerning analyst of American tastes P. T Barnum, and in "Boogie Nights" showed that "uncompromising vision" and "crowd-pleasing" are not necessarily mutually exclusive. "Boogie Nights" had a lot of cinematic brio and delighted audiences: it was a very good movie as well as an example of outstanding cinema.
"Magnolia" had some very flashy cinema while being IMHO a bad movie. After taking a subordinate position with Robert Altman on Altman's last film, "Prairie Home Companion," Anderson directed what must be a big-budget production, "There Will Be Blood." He dedicated it to the memory of Robert Altman, but it is strikingly un-Altmanesque. It lacks the Altman trademark of overlapping dialogue and ensemble casts With its large assortment of prominent characters, "Boogie Nights" was far more "Altmanesque" than "Blood" is.
The screenplay Anderson formed with some tangential basis in Upton Sinclair's Oil! (I'll return to that) focuses almost exclusively on one character, the sadistic, misanthropic Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) who is intent on ripping a fortune out of the ground. Daniel is onscreen at least two and a quarter of the two-and-a-half-hour film. I don't recall him smiling or relaxing at any time (though it could be that he smiles, but with such bitterness that it didn't register as a smile).
Daniel Plainview has great determination and resiliency. These are qualities usually admired in screen protagonists. Daniel works hard and succeeds, but is nowhere in the vicinity of being a sympathetic character. In my view, he ranges from sociopath to psychopath. Anderson provides nothing for viewers to understand how Daniel turned into what we see: a man who sometimes mimics human relationships, but whose only interests are in getting rich and showing those whom he uses that they are his inferiors, Were the sensibility that of the first part of the twentieth-century, I would suspect an influence of Nietzche's proclamations of the Overman being beyond good and evil, but I doubt that Nietzche influenced either Upton Sinclair or Paul Thomas Anderson.
Daniel is utterly lacking in the sense of play of Charles Foster Kane in "Citizen Kane." "Blood" also lacks the key -- and any search for a key -- that a sled called "Rosebud" has in "Citizen Kane." Kane ends up isolated, but isolation was never his aspiration. It is Daniel Plainview's. And Kane has exuberance about succeeding, where Daniel Plainview has only a cold, sadistic pleasure in humiliating those whom he has outsmarted.
Daniel does not have a "worthy rival," that is, any competitor for whom he has some respect. He does not joust (which is what often makes dubious characters interesting in movies), he steamrollers. As it happens, I stopped to watch a steamroller last week (resurfacing Valencia Street). I was less interested in it than in its effect. I might have been interested in seeing what makes Daniel operate as he does. Anderson provided nothing to illuminate this, so what sympathy what he showed generated went to two characters who have little screen time: the half-brother who shows up asking for nothing and the Standard Oil representative. That the Standard Oil representative is a candidate for being the most sympathetic character in this long movie shows that Anderson's "adaptation" must be far from Upton Sinclair's novel. I have not read it, but I know enough about Sinclair to know that anyone negotiating for Big Oil has to have been shown unsympathetically in a Sinclair novel.
Given how nastily he is treated by Daniel, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano [L.I.E., Little Mary Sunshine), as the son of the rancher whose hospitality is returned by being denied any reasonable share of the fortune made from draining oil under the hard-scrabble goat ranch, would ordinarily draw sympathy. Eli is not a match for Daniel in monomania or sadism or in the ability to outsmart the other, but he preys on credulousness too much himself to garner my sympathy. Rather, I wondered why Daniel gratuitously made Eli an enemy and humiliated him when it would have been easy enough to co-opt him (specifically, accede to Eli's request to bless the start of drilling).
MAJOR plot-spoiler alert
The ending in which the "promise" of the title is delivered also seemed to me to show a very cold pleasure in humiliating Eli eclipsing Daniel's usual subordinating any stirring of feeling in himself to maximize his profits. Having humiliated Eli yet again, the character of Daniel of the rest of the film would want Eli to live with the knowledge that he had been outmaneuvered again and humiliated even more than in previous encounters. The aged Daniel may feel impunity, but this is a murder not easily covered up and thereby threatening imprisonment (or at least so it seems to me.
End plot-spoiler alert
The owlish eleven-year-old Dillon Freasier is excellent as HW, the son-partner of Daniel, though he says practically nothing and mostly watches Daniel negotiate. For a while, he seems a candidate for "sympathetic character," but throws it away. I felt sorry for the adult HW (Russell Harvard), but there is no character there, only a situation (one laid out by someone I have no reason to believe, BTW).
Daniel Day-Lewis received many awards, including his second best-actor Oscar, for his ferocious portrayal of the oil man. (Actually, the start of the film has him trying to make his fortune from mining silver -- like George Hearst, the father of William Randolph Hearst, and like the father in "Citizen Kane" based on the Hearst saga.) Day-Lewis disappears into the role and commands the screen (and all the world his character espies...), but I think that the performance is monotone. I fault the role, which is to say the screenplay. When finally Daniel begins speaking (there is not a word uttered by anyone in the first fourteen and a half minutes), he has an accent I found puzzling. It's definitely not Wisconsin, the place where Daniel Plainview grew up. It strikes my ears as having traces of Irish. Day-Lewis maintains it, but why?
Anderson's usual cinematographer Robert Elswit also received an Oscar. Elswit's cinematography is outstanding, though I don't see that it is superior to that of Roger Deakins (also mostly in west Texas) for "No Country for Old Men."
I am very dubious about the (Oscar-nominated) editing of Dylan Tichenor and the (Oscar-nominated) Anderson screenplay. I think the film is too long for what it shows, but begs many questions of motivation (Daniel's) and in not having any antagonist with any chance of prevailing is dramatically unsatisfying. Daniel Plainview has the soul of a steam-roller and everyone else has about as much chance of prevailing as the asphalt in the path of a steam-roller.
The long movie shows a malignant entrepreneur succeeding. He does not lose his heart on the way: he never had one. (What seemed to suggest human feeling was artifice to soften up those whom Daniel needed to soften up and/or overcome.)
"There Will Be Blood" seems to have made some money ($40 million in theaters on a cost estimated at $25 million with DVD profits yet to be tabulated; it did not turn a profit until it received multiple Oscar nomination), but was not a hit with audiences. (Without equating box office success with cinematic quality) I can see why! The film makes as few concessions to drama or character development or entertainment as Daniel Plainview feels compassion for other people.
BTW, I am rating "There Will Be Blood" as a movie. I gather that there is a two-disc special edition. The DVD I watched has a commentary track by Anderson, but I have no wish to spend more time watching the film again to find out what he thought he was doing--though I don't wish a plague of frogs to fall on him and hope never to meet anyone remotely like Daniel Planview.)
BTW2, I think that the title is very peculiar. Can it have been aimed to attract bloothirsty viewers? When I tried to find the movie title in the wonderful, wacky epinions search engine spewed up "Blood Simple" first (this has the irony that the Coen brothers rather than Anderson won directing and best picture Oscars in compatition with "There Will Be Blood") and "There Will Be Blood" did not appear on the first of the hundreds of pages of titles that include the word "blood." (I found the slot by searching for "Daniel Day-Lewis," knowing that he has not been in very many movies.)
© 2008, Stephen O. Murray
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Viewing Format: DVD
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age