The best films should ignite something. Passion, debate, laughter, thought, wonder, thrills, chills, goosebumps, tears, or any other deep-seated emotional, spiritual or intellectual response. A great film should move you, in some way. There Will Be Blood had all the promise of a great film. Yet all it delivers is lost potential.
There are so many stories to tell in this country’s great history. There Will Be Blood, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia and Boogie Nights) and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, promised a screenplay based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which set story and characters during the Southern California oil boom of the 1920’s. Rich with the possibilities of exploring issues and themes such as political corruption, class inequality, excesses of capitalism, and the social and cultural impact of greed, I was giddy with excitement, knowing in the hands of these artists, a truly amazing film should be inevitable.
Instead, There Will Be Blood is an over-the-top, bleak and heavy-handed film, cranked up and sucked clean of any light or life. Anderson turns what could and should have been a story about the coming of age of not only a town but of a society into a childish game of one-upsmanship between oilman and preacher. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an oil man who, along with his son, comes into a small town to harvest the “sea of oil” that lies beneath it. He convinces the townspeople that it’s the best thing for everyone involved to get on board, but he has the hardest time convincing the town’s preacher, Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano. Sunday is skeptical of Plainview’s intentions towards the town and wants assurances, namely in the support of his church. Plainview, for his part, is equally doubtful of Sunday’s selflessness, sensing the preacher is only out for financial support of his parish. The two embark on a mutual distrust and tug-of-war that, unfortunately, becomes the focal point of the film. While I GET the whole capitalism vs. religion thing, the way they use each other for selfish gains becomes stupid after a while. You just want to say “enough, already.”
You pretty much want to say “enough, already” to most of this film. Everything is so heavy-handed, from the intensely morose and minor-key score that could give anyone nightmares, to the final act, which has so many Citizen Kane overtones to it, I almost laughed out loud. But, amazingly enough, the most heavy-handed aspect to There Will Be Blood is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance.
I don’t think you would call Day-Lewis a recluse, but, when you think about it, he doesn’t make many films. Since his breakout, Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot in 1989, he has made 8 films. That’s eight films in 18 years. That’s pretty amazing for an actor considered one of the finest of his generation. (He is so good that of those 8 films, he was nominated for Best Actor for three of them, and almost certainly will win it this year for There Will Be Blood). I am a fan of Day-Lewis, but he is an actor who, when not reigned in by a director, does tend to chew the scenery a bit. And in There Will Be Blood…..scenery chewing does happen. Day-Lewis is so big in this role, so overpowering, he is the entire film. There is no room for anyone or anything else. It almost makes no point in there being a story at all, or any other characters, because all you want to see is how everyone plays against him. It is a tour-de-force in every sense of the word. He is given full reign and makes the most of every second, to the film’s greater detriment. Yes, he will win Best Actor for this performance, but at what cost? It is sad to see that a performance that is so loud, so big, and so over-the-top can be rewarded. His performance in In the Name of the Father was so brilliant yet never got the acclaim that this one is receiving. If you really want to see Daniel Day-Lewis at his best, go out and rent that one.
In the meantime, There Will Be Blood seems to be all the rage. Why? You got me. Critics are easily swayed by films that look and sound different. But just because a film looks and sounds different and has a talented actor dominating every scene doesn’t mean there’s ANYTHING THERE. Bottom line: beyond the larger-than-life performance of Day-Lewis (which is just too much), this film has nothing to offer. Story? Characters? Something to care about? You’re in the wrong theatre. Juno is playing next door.