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There Will Be Blood

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

IT WOULD be easy to run out of superlatives for an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s undoubtedly one of the modern greats and his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s oil epic There Will Be Blood is yet another astonishing achievement.

He plays Daniel Plainview, a turn of the century American prospector, who exists for no other reason than to make his fortune from oil. Together with his adopted son HW (Dillon Freasier) he eventually finds the possibility of building an empire in a small Texas frontier town overflowing with the black stuff.

But once there, he crosses paths with a Bible-bashing preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who threatens to undermine his progress both spiritually and physically. It’s only a matter of time before their rivalry spills over into blood.

Day-Lewis is one of a rare breed of actors with the ability to inhabit each role. Meet him in real life and this congenial, quietly spoken man is a million miles removed from the brutish, gravel-throated businessman that exists on-screen.

His Daniel Plainview is a terrifying force of nature, a single-minded prospector whose capacity to commit evil is driven by his self-serving desire for success. Anderson first introduces us to him during a near-wordless 20-minute opening sequence in 1896, as Plainview first sets out to find his fortune in the unforgiving Texas mountains. It’s a bravura piece of physical acting that tells us everything we need to know about the character for the remainder of the picture. The sequence itself is also one of the best of the year.

Thereafter, Plainview sets up camp in the frontier town and patiently waits for oil – all the time wary of Sunday’s growing threat as a rival figurehead for the townspeople. It’s tribute to Paul Dano’s strengths as an emerging actor that he can go toe to toe with Day-Lewis and hold his own, for their shared scenes positively crackle with an underlying intensity that’s born from resentment. Anyone anticipating a traditional battle of good versus evil, however, had best think again, for Sunday is a false prophet and every bit as manipulative as Plainview.

And if there’s a fault with the film, it’s that the lack of a genuinely decent character makes it difficult to warm to emotionally.

That said, Anderson keeps finding new ways to keep us enthralled and drops in some stunning set pieces to leave jaws on the floor, with the burning of an oil rig, in particular, standing out and marking a watershed moment in the relationship between Plainview and his son, HW. The emergence of one of Plainview’s family members also takes the story into an interesting new direction later on.

Anderson’s screenplay is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! but it’s not really concerned with exposing the origins of the American oil industry so much as examining the individuals at the centre of the story. That said, it still serves as a timely parallel to current events (oil versus religion versus capitalism), not to mention a searing exposition of fractured family relationships. Audiences aren’t spoon-fed, though, and must do a lot of their own digging.

In this regard, the film underlines Anderson’s own reputation as one of the most intelligent and brave directors of the moment – one who could well join the ranks of Scorsese, Kubrick and Malick as an all-time great if he continues to exhibit this type of form.

So, while There Will Be Blood won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes and is frequently a cold, brutal affair that leaves you feeling drained, it’s also powerhouse cinema at its most daring that really does prove they can still make them like they used to.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 38mins
UK DVD Release: July 7, 2008