Fantastic Fest Report: There Will Be Blood Review
Speculation ran rampant before the final "secret screening" last night as the third edition of Fantastic Fest came to a conclusion. Frankly, when festival director Tim League announced at 6:45 pm that Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood would be the closing night presentation, I was a bit wary. This was a film that even Tim acknowledged was not what most people might think of as appropriate for a "fantastic fest" audience. Yet this year the festival has broadly and impressively deepened the type of offerings on display, forcing people to rethink what exactly constitutes a "fantastic" film.
In several important ways, though, There Will Be Blood was the perfect film to close the festival. First, it is a major stride forward by Anderson. Not only has he left behind the present-day San Fernando Valley suburban milleau of his last three films, he has greatly sharpened his storytelling abilities and broadened his visual palette. Second, this is a tale in which the characters fully embrace their emotions, resulting in sometimes over the top behavior that's familiar to anyone even mildly acquainted with genre fare. Third, the film features a monstrously entertaining performance by Daniel Day Lewis, embodying a man quietly hellbent on achieving success, and you can never have too many monsters at Fantastic Fest.
There Will Be Blood reaches back to 1902 to jumpstart the career of Robert Plainview (Lewis) as an oilman in California. He takes his infant son along on jobs, and that's how we're introduced to him in a mystical sequence that establishes how dirty and dangerous the oil business can be. The opening scenes are suggestive rather than explicit in showing how an oil strike can happen but we see enough to know we've never quite seen any "oil discovery" scene like this before.
We move forward nine years to 1911. Plainview has become successful working oil leases for others as an expert driller. He does all the work for the property owners and then takes a royalty when he strikes oil. His son, H.W. (Russell Harvard), accompanies him, which allows Plainview to present himself as a family man. He's not satisfied, though, because he's been limited in what he can achieve.
One night a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, the sullen teen from Little Miss Sunshine) offers Plainview the location of a ranch where oil is bubbling up on the surface. Standard Oil is buying up tracts of land nearby, and Plainvew is intrigued. He pays the young man off -- the ranch is his family home, but the rest of the family doesn't know about the oil -- checks out the land, meets the family and buys the property. He also enters into an adversarial relationship with Paul's twin brother Eli (also played by Dano), a preacher of the charismatic Church of the Third Revelation. Plainview begins buying up property in the area, sensing that a fortune in gold awaits.
Much more story awaits, but the real strength of Anderson's film is the remarkable melding of visual storytelling and Lewis' powerful performance that chews the scenery at times while staying within character. (Dano, more than by the way, does amazing things as Eli.) The photography looks anything but worshipful of the landscape; it's a harsh and unyielding yet still has a degree of beauty that increases as the narrative drives forward. But it's more a dusky dying of the light rather than golden "magic hour" hues.
Jonny Greenwood's original score often serves as a dissonant counterpoint to the proceedings, lending a distinct, unsettling edge to many scenes. It's completely in harmony with the non-romantic aspects of the tale.
Paul Thomas Anderson has demonstrated tremendous instincts as a filmmaker in his previous four features, but, for me, he's always been more of a promising director with great potential than a master. There Will Be Blood shows that he has absorbed the lessons of those directors that have inspired him -- notably Robert Altman -- and found something new to say, and a new way to say it. He's built on everything he's done before and surpassed his previous achievements. It's definitely not perfect, but it is sweeping and majestic as it moves down a lonely, powerful path.
Anderson was present for the screening and answered three questions afterward during an abbreviated Q & A session.