Daniel Day Lewis is one of the finest actors of our time, without a doubt. Watching him play oil prospector cum tycoon Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is one of any film reviewer’s rare pleasures. The character is so ingrained into Lewis’ acting it’s as near to being as acting can get. This performance will be studied for years to come in acting workshops around the world. Still, there’s something to be said about making a movie that’s just plain entertaining. There Will Be Blood is not that movie.
From the get-go, the movie smacks of pretentiousness. As the screen fades in for the opening scene, we’re assaulted by the blaring soundtrack for no apparent reason. Then we’re forced to experience the daily toil of an oil prospector in the early 1900’s, watching Plainview swing his pick and dynamite walls for uncomfortably too long. Sure, it’s interesting to see what an oil prospector went through back in the day, but the interest wears thin when you have to watch it in real time. What’s worse is that there is no dialogue – or inner monologue, for that matter – to complement the scenes. There’s just silent observation. It’s an interesting directorial choice at first, but then becomes silly when there are multiple characters on screen for extended periods, working with each other in complete silence. Even when there’s immediate danger, no one yells, “Look out!” or utters, “Uh oh.” Nothing. Just sweet, serene silence as someone dies. Style over substance. Style over entertainment, too.
Still, it’s hard not to appreciate the commitment to detail when it comes to the actual rigmarole oil prospectors went through. Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson makes sure to devote plenty of screen time to that end. He shows the same patience with his actors, as well, giving them ample time to really flesh out their characters on-screen. Unfortunately, this same patience also spills over into the writing, forcing us to watch scenes that don’t necessarily move the plot along.
The story actually takes a backseat to everything else in the film. Plainview is tipped off to “an ocean of oil” beneath a stretch of plains in California and he has to contend with the local opposition, which includes an eccentric young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The problem here is that there is no real opposition – or at least no opposition that isn’t easily circumvented or resolved. Sure, Plainview is tested time and time again, from having his adopted son losing his hearing to dealing with a Johnny-Come-Lately half-brother to finding a way to transport his oil without the railroads, but these crises are quelled with seemingly little effort.
The character arc for Plainview is also rather shallow. From the very beginning we see that he is a very driven man as he literally drags himself an insinuated great distance with a broken leg to an assayer’s office. That kind of sacrifice-everything-for-profit mentality and behavior doesn’t change much throughout the film. Only towards the end do we find a change in Plainview’s character, as he’s grown older and more vicious. Unfortunately, this revelation comes directly after a title card pops up telling us it’s several years later. We have no idea what caused the change or if this is just more of the same character we had yet to see. Despite the colorfulness of Daniel Plainview’s character, he amazingly still comes off flat.