There Will Be Blood, recently nominated for eight Academy Awards, is a film about greed, capitalism and the consequence of absolute power. But power not so much in distribution of oil at the turn of the century America, but in the distribution of ideas during that time.
It is a film filled with scenes of breathtaking scope. It has all the makings of a sweeping epic. But it doesn’t have the morally-centered or three dimensional-character development that would have made it a truly great film.
The film opens with its protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), chiseling his way though an underground mine in search of silver. He ends up stumbling across a supply of oil that would provide him a means of building wealth. After hiring a workforce and successfully selling the oil to distributors, he becomes an early 20th century entrepreneur.
He finds other potential oil sites and pays a finders fee to those with information about them. He also brings his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), into the fold to give the business a “family feel.”
One day, he is visited by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who assures him that there is oil on the property surrounding his father’s farm in California.
Reluctantly, Plainview treks to the family’s farm, finds evidence of “Texas tea” in the fields and purchases the drilling rights cheaply.
The deeply devout Sundays gives him their trust – trust that he shamelessly exploits as he and his crew begin mining the site.
Later on, Plainview meets Eli Sunday, also played by Dano in a keen switcheroo the film never explains, since Paul is never seen again. He is an evangelical minister who wants Plainview to finance the expansion of his church.
At about this time, the film becomes less a character-study on Plainview’s greed and more a look into the motivations of two men needing one another for his own benefit.
Plainview wants to extract the oil, build a pipeline to avoid paying to ship it, and live off the profits, eventually living a life in isolation. Sunday is equally unconcerned about little else beyond his commitment to fund his congregation.
Eventually, the men will begin to realize their goals are mutually exclusive. They’ll also wage a physiological struggle over control of their own destinies.
In perhaps the film’s best scene, Plainview agrees to a church baptism performed by the reverend just for the sake of obtaining a contract to extend his pipeline. It is a moment where we realizes how far Plainview will go to achieve wealth. It is almost horrifying in its honesty.
The movie is filled with other scenes of heart-wrenching gloom. The film’s ending, which has become quite controversial, involves a final showdown between the two men, one that sees all of the themes -ethics, moral decay and madness – intertwined.
Some may feel as though it’s too bizarre to justify the substantial build-up after more than two hours. But in some ways it works because by the time it comes, each man has sunk into his own inner madness.
Day-Lewis gives a great performance. He’s calculated and hot tempered, and his eyes stare up from his derby like those of the most vicious doberman.
The movie succeeds on a technical level and the cinematography is superb but the true motivations of the characters remain unclear.
A pretty good movie but not a great one.