‘There Will Be Blood’ erupts with intensity

Not a single word is uttered during the first 15 minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s awe-inspiring epic, There Will Be Blood. In an era of American filmmaking dominated by witty dialogue and fast-paced action sequences, such a move by Anderson is defiant, if not anarchistic. It is exactly this audacious self-indulgence that characterizes nearly all facets of the film, which I consider to be the best American movie of 2007.

The film, in many ways, resembles an active volcano. Set against the commanding backdrop of the American frontier, the film’s aesthetic grandiosity approximates a colossal mountain. The plot, like a volcano, is deceptive in its complexity and potential; it is simple only from a distance. Up close, brewing tensions become apparent, foreshadowing the imminent eruption that is the film’s closing scene.

Set in the early 20th century and loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood tells the story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a ruthless yet charismatic oilman who becomes one of the most successful prospectors in California. With his young son H.W. by his side, Plainview buys out the land of an entire oil-rich region, including the family ranch of Eli Sunday. The film traces the hostility between Plainview and everything around him, most notably Sunday, his own son, and his fortune.

Plainview’s social ascent is paralleled by Eli (Paul Dano), a faith healer who applies a similar capitalist spirit to the formation and expansion of his church. The two characters repeatedly collide (often physically) throughout the film, and Anderson poses the fundamental question: how different, or similar, are they?

There Will Be Blood surely brings writer/director Anderson to the cinematic forefront. His previous features, which include Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love established him as an intrinsically gifted filmmaker, but this perfect film, more honest and enduring than his other works, will stand as a classic of American cinema.

In Plainview, Day-Lewis creates one of the most memorable characters of recent film. Day-Lewis compellingly manifests the psychological labyrinth that is Plainview’s mind, which simultaneously includes hate, greed and competition, as well as a heavily veiled need for human contact and a deep love for his son.

There is no doubt that both Day-Lewis’ performance and Anderson’s direction are consciously spectacular. The first lines of the film, for example, find Plainview speaking to a room full of townspeople. Anderson films this entire speech in a medium close-up on Plainview’s face, keeping our gaze fixed upon him and explicitly telling us who in this scene matters. By drawing attention to Plainview’s peculiar rhetoric in the style of iconic director John Huston, Anderson also contributes to this sense of indulgence in the formulation of Daniel Plainview.

Similarly indulgent is the film’s running time, 158 minutes, which is made captivating by the vast Western landscapes beautifully filmed by cinematographer Richard Elswit. Combined with these panoramas, the tremendous set design transports the viewer to this distant place over a century old.

The film is hard to imagine without the imposing score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. A score so confrontational would typically overbear, but the command of Day-Lewis’ performance and Anderson’s directing provide a dramatic battle between all three elements for the limelight.

The conclusion will disappoint viewers looking for a cookie-cutter ending, but no such finale would work in this tragic inferno of a film. Instead of answers, this movie will leave you with questions. With themes like capitalism, religion and oil, it would be easy to make There Will Be Blood an explicit political allegory, but Anderson merely plants the seeds of metaphor for each viewer’s personal interpretation.

A film of this epic scale and creative force warrants, or perhaps requires, the aforementioned indulgence. In fact, it would not be as powerful without Anderson’s obsession with it. Not only does There Will Be Blood take impressive risks, it comprehensively succeeds.