Whilst there’s a sense of deference to the likes of “Citizen Kane” and “Giant” in its bones, “There Will Be Blood” is otherwise a grim and daringly original flick that finally pushes Paul Thomas Anderson into the true visionary filmmaker territory that so few directors these days occupy.
His sheer relentlessness at showing every detail of the rise and fall of a self-made emperor of industry, in this case a misanthropic and increasingly sociopathic Californian oil tycoon in the early 20th century, displays so much gumption that many will be turned off by the dark roads this drama travails.
A shame really as those who can appreciate it will thrill to the quality of filmmaking on display and its exploration of some very American themes like the destructive and sadistic nature of pure capitalism, the false hope and corruption of organized religion, and the awkwardly tragic and almost pitiable self-isolation that comes with real power and unremitting obsession.
Its recreation of the period is practically flawless, from the brilliant production design to the mellifluous dialogue its characters spout, it brings an unflappable air of authenticity to the locations and people that inhabit the grim and unforgiving Southern California long before the days when spray-on tans and Krispy Kreme became ubiquitous parts of that landscape.
Jonny Greenwood’s deeply unsettling and never predictable score haunts the many dark vistas and fire-lit scenes and only strengthens some deftly compelling moments such as the dialogue-free opening segment.
At times Anderson’s wanderings become too obsessive, most notably in the last hour as, much like Scorsese’s “The Aviator” or last year’s “The Last King of Scotland,” the fascinating rise of Daniel Plainview becomes a not as compelling fall, one that gets drawn out for far too long before rallying around a superb punchy ending.
Whilst Day Lewis does channel his over the top Bill the Butcher routine from “Gangs of New York” in some of those latter scenes (his notable milkshake monologue for instance), he gives an otherwise absolutely compelling performance of an often contradictory and always fascinating creation that he has so inexorably sunken into that it’s hard to separate the character from the actor.
With his almost theatrical line delivery, he dominates the picture in spite of a truly compelling supporting performance from Paul Dano as a young preacher who swaps between the rabid ramblings of a true believer to the soft-spoken but apologetically cynical tones of a secular realist. It’s a performance for the ages and will no doubt give Lewis a well-deserved Oscar.
The film itself is too caught up in its marginal obsession to be truly emotionally engaging, but its nevertheless one of the most fascinating character studies the cinema has seen in years and worthy of the many accolades that are being heaped upon it. If you’re prepared for the rough and demanding journey it demands of you, you’ll find it hard not to warm to its heart of black gold.