I once had an actor friend of mine tell me he thought Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood is the best acting performance he’d ever seen. So obviously there was a sense of hype built up for me. Despite not usually being a fan of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, I’ve loved Day-Lewis in everything I’d seen him in, so I was excited.
Beginning in 1898 and running into 1927, Day-Lewis plays oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, a stogy businessman who catches wind of new oil discoveries in California and decides to capitalize on them. He undersells the people of Little Boston, CA who are just excited to see their struggling town thrive.
Meanwhile, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) who is a pastor at a Christian church sees behind Daniel’s charismatic facade, likely because Eli, too, is a showman who knows how to put on an act. Both men succeed because of their popularity in a time when people were more naive and less worldly.
Daniel also has a son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who he takes in as a baby after his father was killed in an oil shaft. Their relationship over the course of the film attempts to bring the only sense of humanity to an otherwise terrible man.
Daniel’s motive isn’t money itself, but competition and being able to afford to seclude himself from society, which he hates so much.
While Day-Lewis does give a consistent performance, we mustn’t confuse consistency and memorability of character with brilliant acting. He nails the facial expressions and the conviction, but his delivery is almost too calculated and robotic. Too idiosyncratic amidst simple, salt-of-the-earth characters who surround him to where his voice sounds like a narrator for a wild west audiobook. Often times performances like this are so antiquated they can’t be related to. Maybe there were people who sounded like Daniel, but we simply have no way to tell how accurate the performance is.
Like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies, this one is just as self-indulgent, filled with characters who don’t ever change. And if this is so, why do we need to watch 158 minutes of them not evolving as people? Just to prove that they don’t evolve? Not interested.
There Will Be Blood is at least somewhat engaging all the way through, more so than some of Anderson’s other endeavors. There are some pertinent points to make regarding greed and capitalism, but the setting makes it so we’re only distanced from the events and unable to relate on any level. We watch this film for the promise of what’s in store, when ultimately we don’t get anything redeeming at all.
I should’ve known something was off when the two main leads have the same first names as their characters.