Viewers who require a sympathetic protagonist for their movies, beware! There Will Be Blood has no such hero for you. Look deep into Daniel Day-Lewis's perfect manifestation of fictional oil tycoon Daniel Plainview and you may not find a heart; in its place, you'll discover perhaps one of the darkest of souls. It may disturb many, but the depiction is successful. By the time you've watched the man's life unfold, you can recognize in him true human qualities -- ones that many of us would never admit to having, but have them we do. We suppress them in the name of civility, but Plainview does not. He has no interest in being civil.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has given us a portrait of a character, and it's tempting to extrapolate that portrait into something bigger and more meaningful about life itself, or, at the very least, the lives of similar people. Plainview is a prospector at the turn-of-the-century; eventually his fortunes lead him to become a successful oil tycoon. Potential for the larger statement about corruption and greed is vast here, and any interpretations found therein are surely welcome and not necessarily incorrect. But I don't see it that way -- I see a character who has found a venue for success, and whose methods for obtaining that success, as well as the evolution of his personal philosophies, have run away with him, turning him into a dangerous human speciman, but human no less.
In other words, no lesson needs to be learned here, but observations can and should be noted because we're so rarely fed such coldly realistic characters. Plainview is an example of the limitlessness of personal self-shaping, the degree of pride involved in it, and the tug-of-war that goes on between rigorous mental training and contradictory emotional forces we don't understand. He's as business-like as they come, and he carries with him a certain set of morals defined not by spirituality but by practicality, the importance of loyalty, and a deep mistrust of people. He can be charming, knows how to talk to a crowd, but more than likely he's direct, he knows how to speak, and no doubt much of this acts as armor for his self-confidence. He's also obsessively goal-oriented, determinedly self-reliant, and seeks success. The easy thing to do here would've been to show how he's in it for money, women, or fame; but instead we slowly realize he may just be seeking success for the satisfaction of obtaining it, and being the best at what he does.
The beauty of this portrait, though, comes from witnessing the holes in the man's outward mode of living. In his mind, he remains cold and practical, but he picks up an orphaned baby and raises him as his own son (Dillon Freasier), and despite the claim he makes to that son in the end, the movie argues, through subtly shown moments, he has affection for him. He awkwardly defends a little girl when he hears she's abused by her father. And he shows genuine companionship to a man who claims to be his long-lost brother (Kevin J. O'Connor).
Plainview can explain away any of this through some kind of Machiavellian logic, but the more likely truth is that he might've thought of those explanations after he's already acted the way he has. He's an illustration of the eternal human tendency to create justifications for inexplicably innate behaviors. He's also the kind of man who might be the first to say that humans create justifications for their behaviors.
Naturally, such a man would take issue with the kind of organized religion that preys on simple minds, and Anderson includes this conflict as Plainview faces off against a young rising community preacher named Eli (Paul Dano). The man becomes his nemesis because Plainview can see they are not so different, but Eli is more disreputable to him because he's dishonest -- at least, in Plainview's eyes, Eli's dishonesty is worse than his own. Eli uses evangelical religious fervor to manipulate the crowds, but his ulterior motive seems to be monetary. His methods and personality create an interesting counterweight to our engagement with Plainview -- we may not like Plainview, but we may be surprised to find we like Eli even less. The contrast measures our values regarding dignity, honesty, and justice.
Much ballyhoo will be made about the movie's ending, but it made perfect sense to me. Plainview has become embittered due to his adopted practice of being an island, a man who trusts no one. In achieving success, he may have scored an empty victory, so when the movie's last event occurs, his rather drastic act gives him something, however fleeting, that he can control, something that brings him personal triumph, no matter how wrong.
Words should be mentioned about Anderson's direction -- not only his decision to dedicate a two-hour plus film to a character exploration and progression, and his approach that seems to be peering almost primally into that character, but also his visual and aural techniques, with haunting cinematography (by Robert Elswit) and a score (by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood) that seems to be illustrating Plainview's very soul. However, further words almost need not be said about Day-Lewis's performance, which solidly speaks for itself -- nothing else matches it within a country full of movie theaters. He not only embodies Plainview, but he makes him frighteningly identifiable -- not because he seems like someone you've met before, but because his behavior and tendencies are ones you've seen in others, maybe even yourself. It is indeed scary to me to be able to say I could relate to him in many ways, but maybe it's not so surprising. We've all got a misanthrope within us somewhere, right? Now, with There Will Be Blood, we can see what it might look like when misanthropic tendencies are honed to their logical, darkhearted end.
(Released by Paramount Vantage and rated "R" for some violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.