There Will Be Blood has both good and bad moments, with the bad being more frequent than the good. The amazing parts come almost solely from Daniel Day-Lewis, who disappears completely into his role as Daniel Plainview. He really is a joy to watch, and if there’s one reason to sit through the 158 minutes of this mediocre film, it’s to watch him work.
The bad comes primarily from the fact that he’s rarely given anything interesting to do with his time, and from a side character — a priest named Eli (Paul Dano) — who is supposed to be a super serious person, but his scenes almost always come off as laughable. Certainly acting alongside an invisible spirit that may or may not actually exist would be difficult, but it’s been done in the past, and Dano doesn’t have the acting chops to pull it off here. Or maybe he just seemed weak in comparison to Day-Lewis. Regardless, there are many scenes where Dano’s character seemed both unnecessary and hilarious, which completely disrupted the serious and unflinching tone of the rest of the film.
The story is one that focuses on 20 or so years of Daniel’s life. He begins the film in a scene exempt of dialogue, where he looks for silver in a well. He breaks his leg, and then the story moves forward a couple of years to him working on an oil well. Another tragedy strikes, he leaves and takes the son of one of the people killed in this tragedy. Then we fast-forward 9 years, and he’s become a big oil tycoon and heads to the town of Little Boston to dig for more. Here his he greeted by the man who serves as his foil, some of the time, the priest Eli.
He does nice things for the town. He builds schools and roads and even helps cultivate the land. And he makes money. He does love money so much. But something bad happens at one of the wells, and his adoptive son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), becomes deafened. He also must have suffered some sort of head trauma, because he starts acting like he’s mentally impaired. (We learn later on that this isn’t the case, and is actually just a job of poor writing, but I digress.)
Now, Daniel is a flawed character — deeply flawed, in fact. He’s a sociopath, as he reveals to his half-brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), who shows up at an arbitrary point in the film. He hates people, but somehow loves his family. But most of all, he loves money, and will do anything, including killing or endangering others, to get it. Is he representing corporate America in his quest for cash and disregard for people? Well, sure, but that only gives the over-long story a small bit of meaning that shouldn’t take 2.5 hours to hammer home.
There are some good moments though. There’s a scene very late in the movie that has Daniel come face-to-face with his now grown up son, and at this moment, there is real intensity and drama. This is easily the best moment in the film, and at this point, I was almost glad that I had sat through the 2+ hours previous. Almost. By the end, it still wasn’t worth it, although the ending did give me glee, even if it might have been a dream.
Most of the film takes place outside, in what could easily be a desert for how barren and empty the scenery is. There are oil wells and rigs, as there should be when one is searching for oil. But it’s not very nice to look at. Oh, some of the long, sweeping shots look good and give our eye something pretty to observe, but most of the time, the grays and browns are visually unappealing, and when the story doesn’t hold your interest, you need something there besides one good actor to keep you wanting to watch. There Will Be Blood doesn’t have this.
Daniel is also an anti-hero, someone who we shouldn’t like but we follow because he’s the protagonist. He has some redeeming moments, like the good things he does for his new money-making town, but most of the time, he’s a jerk. He disregards the feelings of others, refuses to answer anything about his personal life, and is blunt as could be. He also, you know, kills a couple of people, with little regard for them or their families. He wants money, and that’s his sole motivating factor. It’s hard to care much about someone like that, which makes it difficult to care about him as our lead.
Not caring means that his slow descent into madness is a mundane one. He starts out as a hard-working oilman, but he doesn’t stay this way for long. He begins brushing people off, leaving those he previously cared about, and eventually stops caring for his son. He gets angry easily, which causes him to perform actions that a normal person would regret. But we can’t care because he’s given us no reason to. It’s like watching a serial killer film where the killer is our lead. If they aren’t a good person to begin with, or their motivations make no sense, then there’s no reason to sympathize with them when their descent (first killing, usually) begins. While I wouldn’t call Daniel a serial killer, the similarities are there.
There Will Be Blood isn’t a film I can recommend unless you are a big Daniel Day-Lewis fan. Even then, there are other films out there that let him show off his acting skills, like Gangs of New York has him playing a similar character, actually. It’s well-made, certainly, but there’s nothing to care about and not much to hold your interest, save for our leading man. But his character isn’t even one that you will care about, which undermines the entire film.