There Will Be Blood ★★★★★

This feels like the rare case of a performance being genuinely essential to a film working at all; not merely enhancing or elevating the experience but being structurally integral from the first moment to the last. This is impossible to prove but the complexity and strength of Day-Lewis' work here cannot be oversold. It's a performance of a man constantly performing for others; pretending to be a father, a benevolent businessman, a man of faith and at times a human being. His struggle to convey humanity are noticeable, emerging like cracks in his armor as his voice chokes or his demeanor involuntarily shifts. This is a clash of spirituality and rugged individualism; all of American history boiled down to the dueling forces of manifest destiny and duplicitous greed. How these things have shaped our complex ideologies, and how Eli and Daniel both manipulate these belief systems to coerce and supplant the agency of the desperate townspeople.

Though I do think the thoroughness with which Plainview is presented lends itself an emotional reading rather than a thematic one. His life can be reduced to two distinct elements; his oil and his son. Plainview loved his son; maybe more than he did his oil. But where he thrived as a businessman, he failed as a father. This makes Plainview bigger than a mere stand-in for capitalism; he desperately wants to be a good father and that is what makes him human. The shimmer of success dims as their bond falters and his "performance" as an opportunist oilman cracks only when he claims his son was a prop. If you look closely at what Daniel Day-Lewis is doing, the enormity of what his son really meant is clear. The boy's deafness bluntly showcases Plainview's inability to meaningfully communicate, and the barrier that ascends between them severs the final tether between the oilman and his only real confidant.

So what is the film trying to say? Is it strictly a character study? An epic probing of American ideologies and the forces at work behind our myth? A look at the violent collision between opportunism and morality? A movie about power and greed and the dangerous mythologizing of "the self made man"? A pissing contest between two assholes seeking dominance? Undoubtedly the movie is interested in the madness of capitalism and everything else, but this time around (my third or fourth viewing?), my mind has settled on the image of the darkened face of Plainview desperately gazing into the geyser of flaming oil. His injured son sits frightened and alone. His workers frantically scramble. Eli looks on in horror from afar. But Daniel just stares into the flames, barely visible within the blackness of the night sky. Hardly more than a pair of eyes and some glistening sweat. Fletcher asks Daniel if his son is alright. Daniel flatly replies "No he isn't." Meanwhile the monolithic fire rages, captivating everyone. And you just wonder if Plainview truly does feel some joy or relief in that moment, or if his thoughts dwell on his son. If he realizes that this moment would simultaneously mark his demise as a father and his emergence as an industry leader. If he truly does worship the oil beneath his feet, or if he just wished he could. Absolute commitment is glimpsed here as a poison; be it to god or to money. Eli's faith promises peace and serenity. Daniel's promises power and freedom. Both prove to be delusions that ultimately manifest as self-destruction. Eli professes to be a slave to morality. Daniel seeks to master it. Both long to forge their own futures, but history would indicate that power was stripped from them by forces out of their control. One of the most depressing movies I've seen.

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