Paul Thomas Anderson’s journey into the developing wealth and eventual madness of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in turn of the century California tells us a story about one of the most deadly of all the seven sins: greed.
Anderson’s film is based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘Oil!’, first published in 1927. Anderson is best known for his breakout hit Boogie Nights (1997), which revived Burt Reynolds career and made Mark Wahlberg a bona fide A-list leading man. Here, Plainview is portrayed by one of Hollywood’s best actors in the past twenty-five years, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Lewis, who won an Oscar, studied the novel and John Huston’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to prepare for the role. Sierra Madre and Blood have a similar theme; one of greed, paranoia and brutality. Lewis studied the film so much he actually sounded and looked like Huston during the picture. If a documentary feature film is ever made about the famed director (and I’m surprised one hasn’t!), Lewis would be a shoe in.
The movie was shot in Marfa, Texas, not far from where George Stevens directed his oil epic Giant fifty years earlier. The Texas plains represented 1911 Southern California because of their untouched openness and timeless features. Other scenes were shot in the Greystone mansion in Beverly Hills as well as location shooting in Los Angeles.
The film itself was indeed eccentric, but entertaining. I knew this would be an unusual film when I realized that not a single line of dialog was heard for the first fifteen minutes. It was mainly establishing shots and unspoken setup scenes to tell the back story of how Daniel claimed his wealth. Many scenes were long takes and camera moves, which is Anderson’s style. The sets were very authentic and exceptionally well done.
This film is above all a dark comedy, which probably explains why the movie is dedicated to the father of the dark comedy, Robert Altman, who passed away while shooting took place. Altman directed classics like M*A*S*H (1970) and The Player (1992). Altman and Anderson have a close style in that they shock you first then make you laugh about it after wards. Many scenes in Blood have this quality.
The relationship between Daniel and two people are paramount in the movie. The first is with himself and his son, H. W. His son works closely with his father up until his accident on the California well where he loses his hearing. Daniel is unable to cope with this and their bond is broken. He eventually sends H. W. to a school in San Francisco where their relationship is shattered. It is not until the end of the film that we discover that H. W. is not his son, but adopted after an accident claimed the life of one of his workers during H. W. ‘s infancy. Daniel explains to the grownup H. W. that he only used him to get the bleeding hearts to sell him their land. This is a moving scene during Daniel’s twilight of life shot in the Greystone mansion. The lighting in this scene is perfect. It is so dark and ominous, clearly reflecting on Daniel’s mood and demeanor, even though he has riches beyond his dreams. Cinematographer Robert Elswit won an Oscar for his lighting in this picture.
The second relationship is a strange and at times humorous one between Daniel and an aspiring preacher, Eli Sunday (note the last name). Paul Dano was snubbed an Oscar nod for his performance as the twin brothers Eli and Paul, although the British Academy Awards did nominate him. His turn on Eli during both Daniel’s baptism and his exorcism of a demon in an elderly lady’s body where he ‘throws the demon out the door’ is very impressive.
Something that did confuse me on the picture is not the film itself but the rating by the Motion Picture Association. They rated the movie ‘R’ but I did not noticed any indication that it should have been. There is no nudity or profanity to speak of and the violence is tame. I have seen more brutal scenes in teen horror films rated ‘PG-13’.
The film is long and played out and the ending I thought was disappointing, but all in all a very good movie. Lewis is extraordinary as Plainview, giving as good a performance as Bogart in Sierra Madre as a man who had it all only to lose it to greed and paranoia. Bogart lost everything material while Plainview lost everything that mattered most; his family and his dignity. It just goes to show you what money can do. Maybe it is the root of all evil.
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