Tuesday 18th January 2022

There Will Be Blood (12A)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Reviewed by: James Smith
They made their own entertainment in those days
They made their own entertainment in those days

As the last two awards of the 2008 Oscar ceremony were about to be announced it came down to a battle between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Each had won an acting Oscar (Daniel Day Lewis and Javier Bardem), and No Country for Old Men had also garnered a writing award. With Best Director and Best Picture to go, it could have gone either way.

In the end, No Country for Old Men won both, and having only seen that one at the time, it seemed like the right decision to me. After all, how could any film be better? Well, it turns out I was wrong. When I finally managed to see There Will Be Blood (these films take quite a while to come to European cinemas), it blew me away. I can think of only a handful of other films that have affected me in a similar way, most notably Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, and I feel it is no exaggeration to declare this a genuine masterpiece and perhaps the best film I have seen this decade. No Country for Old Men, while a brilliant film, pales in comparison.

There Will Be Blood opens in 1898 with a lone man, Daniel Plainview (Day Lewis), digging for treasure in a mine shaft in the American West. When he finds a nugget of silver he is delighted, but his journey back to civilisation is severely hampered when his ladder collapses and he breaks his leg. Plainview, though, is not the kind to give up – and this is reiterated time and again in the film – so he drags himself out of the pit and across the desert with sheer willpower. Shortly afterwards, he is back to the shaft, this time with a team, and they hit on an even more valuable find: oil. Once again, the joy of discovery is tempered by misfortune, as the rigging breaks and a man is killed, leaving an orphaned son behind.

The next thing we see is Plainview with the boy eight years later – he is now a self-declared "oil man", travelling small towns in the West to dig for oil and using his charisma and son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) to help him buy promising land for a cut price. Up to this point in the film, there is no dialogue: twenty minutes of pure cinema which establish the whole tone of the film – dark, uncompromising and radically different from most of the stuff that appears on the big screen.

The remainder of the film charts the rise of Plainview as he comes to the oil rich small town of Little Boston, California following a tip off from a former resident and then his ultimate downwards spiral as his hatred for the rest of humanity is reinforced by misfortune, charlatans, business rivalry and his own paranoia and psychosis. Chief among those he hates is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the charismatic preacher in Little Boston, who, in his own way and for his own ends, charms and swindles others just like Plainview. This is a relationship which can end only as the title suggests.

The parallels with Once Upon a Time in the West are, to me, quite striking. Both turn fairly slight tales into epic ones – the story of building a railway in Leone's film is given grandeur and majesty that at first it doesn't seem to merit and Plainview's quest for oil here is similar. Indeed, judging either film on the plot alone would not qualify either as great movies, but cinema is about much more. In both cases, it is the direction that turns them into spectacular films. In addition, both have superb scores, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography. Jonny Greenwood's musical composition is magnificent and should allow him to be recognised as an artist in his own right rather than simply the guitarist in Radiohead. Daniel Day Lewis gives a masterclass in how to disappear into a role and become the man he is portraying, becoming a character of such depth and complexity that you believe he has actually lived that man's life. Even the director of photography Robert Elswit puts some incredible images on the screen, including a burning oil derrick as the standout moment.

Paul Thomas Anderson has made good films before: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love each showed that he had real vision and skill, although each was flawed. With There Will Be Blood, he has graduated to making a great film; one that will be remembered for a long time to come. He is lucky to have had such a brilliant actor to work with in Day Lewis, but much of the credit must also go to him. It is he who has made this small story about oil into an epic that explores the good and the evil that men do because of ambition, greed, selfishness, love and hatred.

This is not a film for everyone, being quite dark and bleak and defying usual comforting cinematic conventions such as having a hero. If you found the ending to No Country for Old Men slightly disturbing because it didn't give the traditional conclusion to a thriller, then this may be even tougher as it deviates from expectation throughout. However, if the idea of a film that will haunt you and make you think about it for days afterwards is appealing, then you must make time to see this.

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Length: 158 minutes
Certificate: 12A
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IMDB Link:
Release Date: 15th February 2008

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