I kept waiting to be impressed by Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, to have some golden token of wisdom implanted in my brain. I wanted to be blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Daniel Plainview. Even more simply, I wanted to feel something—anything, really—other than confusion. Unfortunately, it never happened.
I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me why the story is so captivating, but I have yet to read a positive review that does anything more than throw out perfunctory adjectives like “epic,” “grandiose” or “breathtaking” without really saying anything. I wanted to “get” this film. I wanted to connect. But I just can’t make it happen, no matter how many times I tell myself that I should have been blown away by this film.
The movie opened promisingly. Perhaps my favorite image of the entire film is of Plainview on a train with his newly adopted son. It’s nearly the only chance in the movie to connect with Plainview’s character. For the rest of the film, I was left in the dark as to what motivated Plainview. Sure, greed is the easy answer. The biggest question of the film for me was why his hatred for Eli Sunday (played well by Paul Dano, but more on that in a minute) was so soul-consuming. Frankly, Eli was so similar to Plainview that I would have expected some sort of kinship between them. I think Eli felt that for Plainview, but it was certainly not reciprocated.
I appreciate Mr. Day-Lewis’ immersion into the role. He was certainly unrecognizable, and his mannerisms and voice were completely appropriate and maybe even bordering on iconic. But I couldn’t connect with the character. I was pleased to see at least one other critic out there agreed with me on that point. And that’s why, out of the three 2008 Oscar nominees for Best Actor I’ve seen, I’d put him in third place behind Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen.
On the other hand, I was quite captivated by Paul Dano’s performance as both Eli and Paul Sunday. I’m calling it here and now: Paul Dano is the next Edward Norton. If I could have followed Eli throughout the 2-hour and 38-minute run time, I would have felt my time was better spent. I understood what was driving Eli. And while I didn’t agree with his tactics or even his motivation, I still connected with him. And to me, that’s what acting is about. An actor is a connection between an audience and a story. And Day-Lewis, whether due to the script, direction, acting or otherwise, failed to deliver.