But while Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie aspires to be epic and giant, it sprawls until the well runs dry.
It’s the kind of film that critics are supposed to love-and many have. Anderson, no stronger to epics (Boogie Nights and Magnolia being just two of them) has tackled Upton Sinclair’s 1927 book Oil with what looks like painstaking detail.
When an oil well gushes, it spews endless barrels of black thickness, awesome to look at and a tribute to his detail oriented production team. Vast attention is also paid to the small village settings, the way of life and the mannerisms of the day,
Those mannerisms are worth noting, especially in Plainview’s case. Whether or not he’s a conman is open for interpretation. When he strides into a town and tells the townspeople that he can create great wealth for them, he’s certainly believable. And, as certain characters reveal at times, material comforts improve under Plainview’s zeal for oil.
Much of the conflict in the film comes from the quest for oil itself – a mesmerizing wordless sequence in which Plainview digs in a shaft lasts for about 15 minutes. It also comes in the form of a moralistic (or is he?) young preacher named Eli, played with passion and fanaticism by Paul Dano, who grants land to Plainview under certain conditions.
When Plainview backpedals on those conditions, a mesmerizing scene ensues in a church that has lasting repercussions. There’s also Plainview’s young son, who is the source of mixed emotions in terms of his ambitions. When he becomes deafened, repercussions again result from Plainview’s actions.
Yet Plainview himself is so relentless and greedy, that one never really feels empathy for him. While there’s great admiration for Daniel Day Lewis’s performance, Anderson doesn’t offer anybody to root for.
And so it’s hard to relate to Plainview’s ultimate fate, or even truly understand what it is. In terms of it being a parable for the greed of modern society, as some have suggested, well then, obviously, we’re doomed indeed.
Just before his recent Best Actor win at the Academy Awards, Daniel Day Lewis spoke at the Berlin Film Festival about his starring role in There Will Be Blood.
THINK: Why do you only shoot a movie every three years?
LEWIS: The entire process takes three years. Director Paul Anderson very generously included me in the post-production so he fed my habit for that time as well.
The curiosity of the character doesn’t just flip on and off like a tap. Once it’s unleashed, you more or less don’t have control over that and it sustains you as long as the story takes. I feel like it’s only just now that I can separate myself from this piece of work and think about moving on.
THINK: Where did you find the specific voice you used in the film?
LEWIS: The voice is not something you can find too soon. It’s a representation of something very deep in us. It’s very important that you don’t dismember a human being – the more mysterious the more intriguing.
The further away from my own life – the more interesting. But it’s very important not to dismember that component into different parts. I allow that man, whoever he is, to reveal himself in his entirety and don’t work on specific areas to the exclusion of other areas of his character.
THINK: What kind of man is the character of Daniel Plainview?
LEWIS: I hate trying to describe my roles. I prefer to let him describe himself, Rather than hear me talk about something that will mean nothing to you until you see the film. Just as Plainview doesn’t like to explain himself, nor do I wish to explain him. Some parts of his discord with the world will be clear, some not, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
Those men lived like animals in holes in the ground always with the promise of this great untold wealth that was going to rain down on their heads, and many of them were broken and beaten by the experience. Those that survived very often had deadened their souls to the point that the body keeps functioning long after the soul has gone.
THINK: Where do you keep your first Oscar?
LEWIS: My first Oscar is not in a space that is visible to people, I could spend 15 or 20 years just looking at it or I could tuck it away where I know that it’s there. I have no reminders of past work that I’ve done at all. It’s gone, that’s the past. Trophy cabinets are a disaster, I think. Right now it’s time to hand the movie over to the public and with all my films I always feel I had very little to do with it.