“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.”
Rated R. Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Daniel-Day Lewis & Paul Dano.
This season, the New England Patriots became the first team in NFL history to finish a season 16-0, largely on the strength of a record-breaking offense led by quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss. Before this season, Brady, who had won 3 Super Bowls, was already on the short-lists for best quarterback of his era and best of all-time. The addition of the mercurial Moss led Brady to have perhaps the greatest season ever by a quarterback, but did Brady really get better this season? Or are the improvements in his numbers attributable to Moss, who also had his finest season? Or, do they make each other better? How can you really know?
Now, what does this have to do with There Will Be Blood? Well, substitute director Paul Thomas Anderson for Brady, and star Daniel-Day Lewis for Moss, and you’ll see the situations have a lot in common. While I’ve only seen 1/2 of one Anderson movie (Boogie Nights, and I didn’t like it very much, but it’s tough seeing only the last half, I would imagine), coming into this film, he was considered by a lot of people to be one of the best filmmakers of his generation. Day-Lewis is also considered to be one of the greatest actors of our time, perhaps of all-time, but has only appeared in 4 movies in the last 10 years (kind of like Moss and his tendency to play hard only every now and then) and is well-known for his unorthodox ways of preparing for roles. Combine the two together, and you end up with what many critics are saying is Anderson’s best movie and perhaps Day-Lewis’ best performance.
Here’s the thing about There Will Be Blood — the entirety of movie rests on the strength of Day-Lewis’ performance as aspiring oil baron Daniel Plainview, which will almost certainly net him the Best Actor Oscar this year, and deservedly so. He is given the task of playing a character who is menacing, ruthless, heartless and cruel, but Day-Lewis makes him believable rather than a caricature and injects him with enough humanity to make him sympathetic. He hits every note to pitch-perfection and is riveting throughout. This movie simply would not work with another actor in the lead role, and it is impossible to even imagine it.
So the question is, who deserves the credit for the performance and the film it supports? Anderson? Day-Lewis? Is it their collaboration that makes both of them better? Given Day-Lewis’ track record, and the fact that he has carried nearly every movie he’s ever been in, I tend to give him more credit. As for Anderson, there are some very well directed-sequences, particularly in the nearly dialogue-free opening, and the movie is visually strong (but then again, how much of that is the cinematographer?). However, the pacing of the movie is uneven, and ultimately, Anderson’s biggest contribution to the film may be convincing Day-Lewis to star in it.
There Will be Blood, which is being portrayed as an ambitious, sprawling, Western epic, is really more of an intimate character piece, and as strong as Day-Lewis’ performance is, it does not entirely cover up the flaws in the film, particularly in the script. The plot is thin, predictable, and somewhat weak overall — the story of what effect greed has on a person’s humanity is territory that has been heavily mined (most recently in No Country For Old Men) and There Will Be Blood adds nothing revelatory to this genre. The story of Daniel Plainview is a story often told and has been told better before.
There is one scene, part way through the movie, that is jarring and comes pretty much out of nowhere, and illustrates the overall weakness in developing the character to keep his transformation realistic. Additionally, while the final scene is a solid scene standing alone, it was unnecessary as it did not tell us anything new about Plainview and ending the film one scene earlier would have been more poignant.
Overall, There Will Be Blood is worth seeing and probably one of the better movies of the year, almost entirely due to Daniel Day-Lewis (Paul Dano is also good, but overshadowed). It is a flawed story elevated to greater heights by the acting, the cinematography and the excellent score composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. So the question remains, how much credit should Anderson get? Perhaps the best directors are the ones who surround themselves with the best people and just try and stay out of the way. Maybe Anderson isn’t really Tom Brady — maybe he’s Trent Dilfer.