Movie Review – There Will Be Blood (2007)
by HELEN GEIB
There Will Be Blood aspires to classical tragedy in its portrait of a man defined by obsessive ambition. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Daniel Day Lewis, it is an ambitious film with many impressive scenes, but also one that dissipates its intensity in repetition and excess.
Day Lewis is Daniel Plainview, a self-described oilman. His business is identifying and developing California oilfields. He is single minded and ruthless in his ambition, which is directed less at wealth than at power. That his business will make him rich is almost incidental. Money is merely a means to success and success is prized not for what it confers or buys, but as an end in itself. It is emblematic that his grand vision is to bypass the big oil companies and the railroads by building a pipeline from his oilfields to the Pacific, and thus direct to his buyer. His dreams are always about control, even in their means of execution.
Although the film spans a long period of time, about 30 years, most of the action falls within the year or two that Plainview acquires and develops his biggest field and builds his pipeline. The early scenes of the film are set about ten years earlier and function as a prologue and the final scenes of the film are about 20 years after and function as an epilogue to the main story.
The film opens with a long, wordless sequence that follows Plainview as he takes mineral samples from a crudely dug shaft in the desert. He climbs down into the shaft to set a charge; climbs out to blow it; a rung of his ladder breaks as he is climbing back down and he falls to the bottom; as he pores over a rock sample he seems hardly to notice that one of his legs was broken by the fall; he pulls himself back up and out and starts to drag himself along the desert floor. He is alone and for most of this passage has a rifle slung across his back. He moves between the harsh sunlight of the desert floor and deep shadows inside the hole to the accompaniment of a discordant orchestral score. It is a brilliant introduction, perfectly encapsulating Plainview’s character and prefiguring the story’s trajectory.
As Plainview cultivates the seeds of his own destruction, the tone of the movie gradually moves away from the spare rigor of its opening until it climaxes in operatic intensity. It’s a conceptually interesting approach, but a difficult one to execute successfully in that it risks becoming ridiculous if the audience is not completely emotionally engaged. It did not succeed with me. By the time the film reached the epilogue it had already outlasted my interest.
The great flaw of There Will Be Blood is that it doesn’t know when it has already made its point. The film is about 2 hours and 40 minutes long. This is an inordinately long running time for a simple storyline with only one fully developed character.
The other characters are little more than ciphers who move in and out of the story as they are needed to illuminate aspects of Plainview’s personality. Even the most important supporting characters– Plainview’s son, who if he loves anyone is the only person he loves and Eli, the charismatic preacher who is a constant thorn in his side– are given only superficial characterizations. Plainview is an intriguing character, but the film’s dedicated focus on him has the unfortunate result that it becomes increasingly repetitive in its second half. The plot continues to move forward, but it no longer teaches anything about Plainview that the audience has not already learned.
There are many things to admire about There Will Be Blood. The technical aspects are highly accomplished. The period re-creation is flawless and the setting, particularly the scenes of digging and working the oil wells, is unusual and interesting. The performances are vivid. But it is more a movie of good parts than a compelling whole.
2 1/2 stars