Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 2, 2016)
Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t make many movies, but when he does, he seems to gather acting plaudits by the bushel. With 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis sucked down his second of three Best Actor Oscars. This one came nearly 20 years after his victory for 1989’s My Left Foot but only five years before he’d earn his third for 2012’s Lincoln.
In Blood, Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview. Around the turn of the 20th century, he discovers oil while mining. As he develops the property, a co-worker gets killed, so Plainview adopts this man’s child.
Eventually Plainview makes himself into a real oil tycoon, and that’s when the film’s main plot kicks into gear. With young adopted son HW (Dillon Freasier) in tow mainly as a prop to sell himself as a good family man, Plainview works to convince western towns that he’s the one to extract their new-found oil from the ground – for a suitable price, of course.
Plainview hears that a hidden spot called Little Boston might have a ton of oil just waiting to be taken, so he connives to control this territory and grab the “black gold” for as little money as possible. Not all goes smoothly, though, as a charismatic young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) manifests some opposition to Plainview because he desires more active support for the church he strives to build.
Eli wants Plainview to give money for this endeavor, but the oilman shows no interest in this or any other spiritual affairs - though he fakes that side of things for the locals. The film follows Plainview’s attempts to fulfill his fortune in Little Boston as well as his personal dealings with HW and the residents of the town.
When one discusses Blood, Day-Lewis’s performance usually becomes the main topic of interest. As I mentioned earlier, he won the Best Actor prize, apparently without much competition. Of course, the Academy never reveals the voting totals, but most feel Day-Lewis won in a landslide; he was the prohibitive favorite and his victory surprised no one.
Did he deserve the prize? Probably. Day-Lewis provides an excellent performance, one in which he truly inhabits the character. While Day-Lewis isn’t the most recognizable actor – he’s no omnipresent Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise – we’ve seen more than enough of him over the years to understand who he is. As Plainview, Day-Lewis submerges himself into the role and really seems to become the character.
Unfortunately, the plaudits heaped upon Day-Lewis may lead some to view Blood as a one-man show, and that’d be a mistake, as the other actors flesh out their parts in a more than satisfying manner. Indeed, excellent supporting actors become especially important when a movie boasts such a standout lead. Otherwise the difference in quality would be particularly noticeable and cause the movie to flop. One man can’t carry a flick, so the solid efforts by the supporting actors ensure that the movie succeeds.
Paul Dano’s work as Eli rivals Day-Lewis’s performance, I think. Indeed, Eli probably offers a more interesting character than Daniel just because he’s not as easy to pigeonhole.
No, Plainview isn’t totally one-dimensional, but we can get an easier grasp on him than we can the slippery Eli. Does Eli really believe in the gospel he preaches or does he use the pulpit as a path to fame and fortune? That’s a good question that Dano doesn’t telegraph; he leaves the character intriguing and tough to read. It’s an interesting debate since the preacher may be just as much of a narcissist and a sinner as the money-hungry lying oilman.
A look at director Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography reveals a heavy concentration of works that look at modern life. Sure, one could consider breakthrough flick Boogie Nights to be a “period piece”, but it didn’t stretch too far into the past. It was set in the 1970s and 1980s, periods that virtually all of its viewers would have remembered well when it came out in 1997.
Both 1999’s Magnolia and 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love stayed in contemporary times, so Anderson seemed like an odd choice to take us back a century or so for Blood.
I think Anderson does pretty well with the material. He makes an unusual – and potentially pretentious – choice to go the first 14 minutes and 30 seconds of the flick without dialogue. This does feel a little artificial, but it works, especially since it startles us when we finally hear Plainview’s deep baritone. Based on his grizzled prospector look, I expected him to sound like Gabby Hayes, not like the white cousin of James Earl Jones.
The movie consistently looks great. Blood submerges itself in its period in a tremendous manner and never gives us vestiges of the modern day. The flick always maintains a great sense of authenticity in the way it conveys its era.
Although I like Blood a lot, I wouldn’t call it a great film. The movie staggers at times and comes with an ending some may view as wonderfully strange while others will take as maddening. (I kind of like it, though I can understand the complaints.) Despite a few faults, Blood creates an interesting tale and tells it well.