Pilot at the Movies

Thursday, February 7, 2008

'Blood' boils with intensity

Someday, we're probably going to look back at "There Will Be Blood," Paul Thomas Anderson's epic about greed, lies, manipulation and insanity, and call it his masterpiece.

Which is incredible because, except for the inescapable intensity, it's nothing like his previous films; if Anderson's name weren't on it, you'd never know it was his.

Gone are the film-school tricks he made his name with in "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" (and this critic loved those movies). Anderson has moved out of contemporary L.A. and away from the histrionics of the carefully orchestrated ensembles he set there. He now seems more interested in storytelling and character development.

What a character he's created in Daniel Plainview - and what a performance he's gotten out of Daniel Day-Lewis.

As a turn-of-the-century oil man, Day-Lewis gives one of the more terrifying turns of his long and eclectic career. He just completely dominates. He can be charming and cruel in the same breath, and with an accent reminiscent of John Huston, he says and does whatever he must to get his way.

That includes taking over a chunk of the central California coast and building a town there so that he can drill. (Anderson based his script very loosely on Upton Sinclair's 1920s muckraking novel "Oil!") A one-time silver miner, Plainview accidentally finds gold one day and sets his sights higher; this all takes place at the film's start, which stunningly lasts 15 wordless minutes.

"I hate most people," Plainview eventually confesses in a rare moment of introspection. The only one he connects with is his young son, H.W. (confident newcomer Dillon Freasier), who travels with him from town to town and tries to soften up the locals to get them to sell their land.

One person in Plainview's latest target of Little Boston who sees right through his tactics is the fresh-faced, seemingly innocent preacher, Eli Sunday, played with unexpected volatility by Paul Dano ("Little Miss Sunshine"). Eli comes off as soft-voiced, pious and ingratiating. He offers to give a blessing when Plainview opens his first derrick, for example, and won't take no for an answer. But once Eli is on a roll, preaching in the town's crowded, makeshift church, he turns into a wildly charismatic evangelist - and right then and there, Plainview knows he's met his match. And the ensuing, humiliating game of one-upmanship in which they engage is raw and riveting.

The more money Plainview makes, the more his mind and morals deteriorate. The film delivers a jaw-dropper climax.

The result is a character study of a fascinating and deeply flawed man during a time of great change in our country.

One quibble: "There Will Be Blood" feels a bit too long, but it'll knock you out.

* "There Will be Blood," now showing in the area. Rated R for violence. Run time: 158 minutes. 3 and a half stars out of 4.