Who suggested the John Huston accent? Daniel Day-Lewis, in the role of oil prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, plays the entire film in the unmistakable voice of Huston, the late filmmaker and actor famed for directing such classics as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The African Queen, and The Night of the Iguana, and for acting in numerous other movies.
One of those other movies was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, in which Huston portrayed an old man named Noah Cross. Cross was loosely modeled on a number of Southern California empire builders, and Huston played him as the epitome of avaricious, incestuous evil. As it happens, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, in adapting Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, seizes on the same basic type of character — a man whose single-minded pursuit of wealth and conquest turned him into a sort of capitalist monster — for the character of Daniel Plainview. If the fictional Cross and Plainview had been actual living persons, they probably would have bumped into each other while carving out their respective fortunes in the Los Angeles area. No doubt there would have been blood.
We can’t hear Day-Lewis’ Plainview speak without thinking of Huston’s Cross and his chilling speech to Jack Nicholson’s “Mr. Gits,” and that detracts from Anderson’s film from the first moment Plainview opens his mouth. One might argue that some audiences may never have heard of Huston, Polanski, or Chinatown — let alone Upton Sinclair and Oil! — and should therefore be able to enjoy There Will Be Blood on its own terms as a tale of a fiercely competitive man in the old days. But let’s not kid ourselves. The audience at whom Anderson’s film is aimed understands all those references well, and Day-Lewis’ Huston impersonation sets off too many alarm bells. We keep expecting Plainview to molest a young niece or something.
I may be putting too fine a point on a character’s vocal performance, but the fact is, Day-Lewis is notoriously meticulous in researching his characterizations, and he must have chosen the Huston accent carefully. It was a big mistake. In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis played a fictional 19th-century Manhattan hoodlum using perfect Noo Yawk tough-guy tones; likewise, his Irishmen in The Boxer, In the Name of the Father, and My Left Foot used the right accents to great effect. So we know he cares. And that’s why his Huston “homage” grates — it looks hasty and ill-conceived, as if he had tried to do Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans as John Wayne. We can’t quite get over that Huston thing, and since Day-Lewis is in every single scene in the film, it’s got a major handicap right from the start.
But let’s put that aside. There Will Be Blood develops a strange and unnerving energy in its story of oilman Plainview and his lonely quest. First as a wildcatter in New Mexico and then in the area around Ventura and the San Fernando Valley, Plainview specializes in going down in dusty holes in the earth, picking and digging, setting off dynamite, and striking oil, and then moving on to the next potential oil well site and essentially swindling the small farmers and townsfolk whose land is sitting on the petroleum as he buys up the rights (“Can everything around here be got?”). Along the way, his rough intensity intimidates everyone he meets, including his young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). Daniel Plainview is definitely heading for a comeuppance — the only questions are where, when, and by whom. In this way, he was the ideal subject for Anderson’s extensive rewrite of Sinclair’s indictment of rampaging petro-millionaires in the early 20th century.
Filmmaker Anderson has a weakness — that’s the only word for it — for dramas that seek to encapsulate the foibles of an era in the actions of a group of characters from that time. In Boogie Nights (1997), this strategy worked perfectly, as a well-knit cast of actors (Julianne Moore, Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, et al.) shed some light on the porno-film industry in the 1970s. Anderson’s 1999 follow-up, Magnolia, was a dud — a bloated, confused allegory about a clichéd subject: the emptiness of lives in the LA basin. And of course, the rain of frogs. As one critic was heard muttering while leaving the Magnolia preview screening: “There are only two words to explain how this piece of shit got made: Tom. Cruise.”
There Will Be Blood ditches the large cast in favor of a small band of family members, gold-digging would-be kin, and those who either exist in the thrall of the ruthless Plainview or who live to regret doing so. Among the doubters is a young local preacher, Eli Sunday, played remarkably by actor Paul Dano, last seen as a disaffected teenager in both Little Miss Sunshine and Fast Food Nation. Dano’s performance is as loose and ecstatic as Day-Lewis’ is mannered and structured. The two characters were born to clash. In the absence of, say, a love story (there are almost no women characters) or any substantial subplot, their head-butting is pretty much the only show in town.
The show gets old fast. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit give Plainview’s world a beautiful golden sheen, fitting for a drama of the age of Manifest Destiny and so-called “self-made men.” We’re variously reminded of Greed, Citizen Kane, Days of Heaven, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and even Werner Herzog’s oil-fire documentary, Lessons of Darkness — all better movies on similar themes. Anderson’s vision is finally too narrow, and that includes Day-Lewis’ Babbitt-with-a-pickax. Plainview is certainly god’s lonely man. But his sufferings leave us unmoved, and the finale, oddly, has the effect of hustling us quickly out of the theater, away from this suffocating story, to go watch The Big Lebowski again, just to get the taste of oil out of our mouth.