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With: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard, Randall Carver
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson, based on a novel by Upton Sinclair
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Running Time: 158
Date: 27/09/2007

There Will Be Blood (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Oil Flushed

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is certainly impressive, but also a step back into the all-too conventional, and the least of his five films. It's based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, which was published in 1927. Sinclair was more of a political writer than a creative writer; he apparently sent copies of some of his books to members of Congress. Because of this condescending, soapbox quality, his work has inevitably fallen out of fashion. Why dust off this creaky source material in 2007? Anderson undoubtedly found something resonant about it, which must invariably be political rather than personal. Perhaps he saw a connection between Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), scooping up all the oil in the Midwest and swindling anyone who gets in his way, and a lot of the suspicious oil activity that still goes on today.

Yet Anderson never once lets on that he's making a message movie, and his main focus is on the clash between the twin churches of greed and piousness. In the main section of the film, Plainview drills on the family farm belonging to the Sundays, with grown son Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) as the hell-and-brimstone preacher of the local church. Eli and Plainview often go head-to-head, each craftily trying to out-maneuver the other, and it's mesmerizing to watch.

But there's another main problem with There Will Be Blood, and it's Daniel Day-Lewis. Normally an exceptional performer, Day-Lewis has opted, either through Anderson's direction or of his own accord, to channel John Huston -- and probably Noah Cross in Chinatown -- into his character, speaking with the same educated, growling, snakeskin drawl. In Anderson's Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, the director found something deep and truthful within Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler, and both actors gave the best performances of their careers. Day-Lewis' performance, on the other hand, is all tricks and impenetrable surface. Moreover, it's useful to look at Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002), in which Day-Lewis played a similarly monstrous character. He was seen through the eyes of the Leonardo DiCaprio hero, and thus he appeared sinister in a captivating, alluring way. We had the option to look away, but we didn't want to. In There Will Be Blood, he's our one entry into the film. (We don't have the option to look away.)

When his young son (Dillon Freasier) gets caught in an oil derrick explosion, Plainview leaves his side for several hours to deal with the oil fire. When he learns that his son is irreversibly deaf, he sends him away. He may be vaguely fascinating, but there's no way to understand him, and that's just too much to ask for a 2 hour and 40 minute film. Despite all this, Day-Lewis' antics have so far impressed many award committees.

Those two major complaints aside, There Will Be Blood is miles ahead of the normal "message" or "award" movie. Though it's Anderson's soberest work to date, it still contains moments of craziness, like his mysterious pianola or the falling frogs, most notably in the baffling ending. It's also possible that the film's failings are merely part of its oversized, insane charm, like the "folly" films that Pauline Kael described years ago. Anderson's other films have all improved since my initial impression, and I expect that this one will too.

DVD Details: Paramount's special double-disc set comes with the movie by itself on one disc (with optional language tracks and subtitles), and extras on the second disc. These include: a 1923 silent short documentary, The Story of Petroleum (26 minutes), produced by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the Sinclair Oil Company. 15 Minutes is a look at old photos as compared with stills from the film, deleted/extended/alternate sequences: "Fishing" (5 minutes), "Haircut/Interrupted Hymn" (3 minutes) and "Dailes Gone Wild" (3 minutes), and trailers. These extras come with optional subtitles. All in all, it's a superb disc, atlhough with a noted lack of any appearance by Mr. Anderson himself.

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