It opens with a scorching contrast of light and darkness. Alone at the bottom of a dark pit, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) stubbornly scratches and claws in the mud. High above, a pitiless sun bleaches a remote desert landscape. Plainview goes back and forth between the dark and the light, repeatedly returning to pick away at the earth. He is as flinty and unyielding as the rocky terrain itself, a man of ferocious resolve seeking something of value deep inside the rock. For almost 15 minutes, there is no other person but the resolute miner, no other sound but his relentless attack on the wall of stone. Finally, it begins to yield tiny bits of previous metal. Plainview falls. He is badly injured. But he perseveres, dragging himself to the assay office.
When we see him again, he is just as focused, just as intense, now seeking another kind of treasure. Plainview supervises a small group of men, digging for oil. To make sure there is no doubt about the nature of the forces that have been unleashed on the earth, it all becomes powerfully clear when one of the wells ignites, creating a vivid scene from Dante’s Inferno, belching fire and brimstone into the night, killing one of the men, leaving his infant son an orphan.
From this elemental, stark beginning, a larger and more varied cast of characters and relationships slowly emerges. The arrival of oil causes additional life forms to spring up around the circumference of the well, like new life forming around a tidal pool at the beginning of time. Helpers arrive with equipment to assist with drilling. Pack mules bring food. A woman. A baby. Houses. Speculators. Before long, oil has spawned a massive corrupt enterprise with trains and cities and pipelines and overseeing the whole process are the conniving oil barons who scheme and plot against each other like lords of the underworld.
“There Will Be Blood” is more than a parable of heaven and hell. It expands into a sophisticated work of art with a brilliant score (from Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead) and cinematography (Robert Elswit) but with no obvious symbols or easy answers. Greed and corruption are not limited to any one group; they seep into the story like the oil seeps out of the farmland. When the young father is killed, Plainview takes the baby to raise as his own. He insists that the boy is just a prop to make it easier for him to gain the confidence of the farmers whose land he wants to plumb for oil. We see him kiss the boy’s head with tenderness and look at him with pride and we see his fury when he is not able to protect (or control) him. In a decades-long feud between Plainview and an ambitious preacher played by Paul Dano, we cannot tell whose side we are supposed to be on. Is one representing God and the other representing Mammon, or is it something more complex? Writer/director P.T. Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”) based the film on the first section of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil! saying that the transition from westward expansion to the industrial age was terrible but inevitable?
This epic film contains many struggles. Man struggles with earth, air, fire and water. Plainview struggles with raising his son; and outsmarting his cut-throat competitors; and understanding. Director Paul Thomas Anderson asks a lot of his viewers, but he gives a lot in return. This is a richly rewarding film, with appropriately incendiary performances by both Dano and Lewis and especially fine work from Dillon Freasier as Plainview’s adopted son.
Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drinking, smoking, some brutal and graphic violence, industrial accidents that cause injury and death, and an injury involving a child. The movie has themes that some audience members could find disturbing, including angry confrontations and abusive behavior.
Families who see this movie should talk about the meaning of the main character’s name, Plainview.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. This movie takes up only the first section of Oil! by Upton Sinclair; families who appreciate this film may want to read the entire book.