Graeme Robertson on why There Will Be Blood should have won Best Picture at the 80th Academy Awards…
The Oscars celebrating the best that 2007 had to offer were something of an oddity, in that nearly every film nominated in the main categories dealt with rather dark and complex themes, with the only light in this cavalcade of darkness being teenage pregnancy comedy Juno. Also, it was odd in that unlike most Oscar line-ups most of the films were actually quite good.
While the Coen brothers triumphed in the major categories winning Best Director and Best Picture for their dark neo-noir western thriller No Country for Old Men, and I while do think it’s an excellent film, I’m going to be a contrarian again for the final time in this series and argue that the top prize should have gone to another film.
In my view, the film that should have been named as the Best Picture of 2007 is Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful drama There Will Be Blood, a film that has not only established itself as one of the best of the 2000’s but also quite possibly one of the best of all time.
In the early 1900s, Daniel Plainview has established himself a very successful oil baron and is always on the lookout for new wells to drill. Receiving a tip-off about a possible plentiful well, Plainview travels to California to buy up land from which he can drill, coming up against Eli, a charismatic young preacher who quickly becomes locked in a psychological battle with Plainview who becomes increasingly ruthless and greedy in his ambitions.
Daniel Day-Lewis leads the film as Daniel Plainview, the greedy unscrupulous oil baron who will do whatever necessary to succeed. Day-Lewis brilliantly creates a two-faced persona for Plainview that is a master class of how an actor should tackle such a complex role.
Plainview comes across as charming and likeable when he adopts the plain speaking rather warm salesman persona, eager to promote his “family man” image with his son H.W. and talk about the importance of education and helping communities with the profits from the oil found in these communities.
However, the real highlights are when we see his true face, a greedy tycoon, effectively using his son (adopted from a dead colleague) as a prop to help his sales pitch, a man who “looks around at people and sees nothing worth liking” and only sees others as a means to help him make more money. Day-Lewis brilliantly conveys the ruthless and greedy nature the character, with him often coming across as a truly monstrous, terrifying and evil individual.
Words are not enough to describe the brilliance of Day Lewis’s performance and his commitment to the part, with the actor effectively disappearing into the character; he is not merely playing Daniel Plainview, a terrifying and complex personification of greed that made modern America that towers above all those around him.
Daniel Day Lewis’s performance is definitely one of his best and truly cements his reputation as one of the greatest actors alive.
The very talented Paul Dano throws himself into the role of Eli, the youthful preacher who makes it his mission to try and save Plainview’s soul. Dano while not quite managing to match the level of brilliance of Day-Lewis makes a valiant effort nonetheless, tearing his voice to pieces with his fiery preaching. A fine performance that really should have received more praise than it did at the time because Dano does a damn fine job and the scenes where he locks horns with Day-Lewis make for some of the film’s best moments.
Dano should also be commended for his performance given that he had to step in at the last moment, replacing another actor who left the project after filming started, allegedly because he was intimidated by Day Lewis’s habit of staying in character on and off the set.
The film is a feast for the eyes with Robert Elswit’s beautiful cinematography capturing the beauty yet unsettling emptiness of the vast desert all the while creating terrifying beauty with the stunning images of shooting fountains of oil and fire that illuminate the night sky. Also brilliant is the film’s magnificent score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood with creates an eerie and ominous atmosphere in the film’s quieter moments and adding intensity to the faster-paced scenes such as the oil fire sequence.
While the acting and technical qualities of the film are great fun to talk about the story and characters also make for some brilliant discussion, so please forgive me as I go into full pretentious self indulgent film nerd mode to examine these aspects.
Based loosely on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, the story is a relatively simple one about a greedy oil baron who wants to become ever richer. But the brilliance of Anderson’s skill as a writer and director is to successfully make this relatively simple story feel truly epic, with the clash between Plainview and Eli, in my view, feeling like more of a clash between two versions of America that were locked in conflict at the turn of the 20th century.
There is Eli’s old America, one where people worshipped at the altar of God and religion was a controlling force, where the most important person in these small communities would often be the local priest or preacher. Yet this old America is being quickly overtaken by the more modern increasingly industrialised America where people worship at the altar of money and capitalism, with its high priest in the film being Daniel Plainview, a cold calculating individual who grows to loathe all those around him and becomes consumed about becoming rich.
The character of Daniel Plainview himself is a deeply fascinating one to analyse and discuss. There are two moments that stick in my mind, and I imagine many people’s minds when they think back on this film, that shows the complexity of the character.
The first, is when Eli attempts to make Plainview confess his sins so he can be baptised and cleanse his soul, berating him and calling for him to say “I am a sinner” and to make him admit to his abandonment of his son which he angrily admits to, perhaps showing that he genuinely feels some guilt for it.
Yet listen carefully after he has the water poured over him and shakes himself dry, he quietly says to himself “There’s the pipeline”, showing him willing to endure a personally humiliating ceremony, but he knows that it’s all part of his plan to gain more access to more oil and wealth.
The other is, you’d think would be the now iconic “I drink your milkshake” scene, which is indeed a brilliant and darkly hilarious moment that shows the extent power shift between Eli and Plainview, with the latter towering over the other and berating and insulting him for his foolishness.
Yet pay attention to all the scenes that come immediately before in which Plainview dismisses his son as a “bastard in a basket”, and how that despite acquiring all the wealth he could want, he simply spends his days as a vile drunk. Plainview is a man that loathed most people and really only saw them as means to help him gain wealth mainly so he could get away from them. Yet now that he is able to hide behind his money he is alone and isolated and miserable.
As much as I admire the Coen brothers work in No Country for Old Men, which is an excellent film in its own right and makes this article incredibly difficult to write and it’s likely to lead to many angry comments from readers who will likely send a terrifying Spanish hitman after me.
However, I simply find There Will Be Blood to be a more fascinating and rewarding film. The story of Daniel Plainview’s quest for power and wealth in the early 20th century is a brilliantly simple, yet complex tale that can be studied and analysed from numerous perspectives.
The character of Daniel Plainview has become one of the most iconic of 21st-century cinema and Daniel Day Lewis’s is arguably one of the finest of the century thus far, (even if it is really funny at times).
There Will Be Blood is simply a brilliant film directed by one of the greatest directors of our time, led by one of the greatest actors of our time giving one of the greatest performances of our time.