"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, February 2, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Savegely Stirring

The opening scenes of There Will be Blood are like a preview for the superb Daniel Day-Lewis performance to follow. For the movie's first 15 or so minutes, there is not a bit of dialog — only silence interspersed with the dissonant, deep-stringed musical score. The action focuses solely on the grueling labor at hand. It's a striking way to start a story and also a metaphor for Day-Lewis's portrayal of Daniel Plainview, whose outbursts are as sinister as his silence and who lives for nothing but the pursuit of oil.

Based loosely on Upton Sinclair's Oil!, this movie is strange and hard to pigeonhole, and that's one of the main reasons I enjoyed it. It's a tale of two megalomaniacs, representing capitalist and religious greed, that at times has the feel of a horror film. The other big reason to savor There Will Be Blood is for Day-Lewis's eerie performance, which is hands down one of the year's best.

The majority of the movie's action takes place in the early 20th century in a small California town where Plainview has come to prospect with his 10-year-old son, H.W. If Plainview and his men find oil, he pledges to fund the local church, run by a weaselly little preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Though the town eventually strikes it rich, the wealth comes at a cost, including disasters and family drama, failed attempts at religious conversion, and one heart-breaking accident.

Dano, who I loved in Little Miss Sunshine, is great as the politely manipulative Eli, a pre-TV version of a televangelist. And Day-Lewis is one of those rare actors totally consumed by a character — not because he puts on an accent or grows facial hair (although he does) but because everything about his manner and psyche seems transformed. With Plainview, he perfectly illustrates the struggle between greed versus compassion, creating a man so misanthropic, he cannot even bring himself to care about the people he longs to love.

The problem with There Will Be Blood is that it lacks a unified, tension-building plot and instead feels more like a series of interlocking conflicts. Director Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to focus more on the struggle between capitalism and religion than that of greed versus compassion, but by the shocking and riveting final scene, it's not clear which side he wants to win.

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