Black gold: Oil epic a dark masterpiece |

Black gold: Oil epic a dark masterpiece

It’s no surprise that the obtuse, intense and violent “There Will Be Blood” is a Best Picture contender, but it turns out it’s a black comedy as well.

If that sounds like another one of Oscar’s darlings this year – “No Country for Old Men,” it’s because Hollywood’s lights are shining on some pretty dark places. “There Will Be Blood” isn’t the bloodbath its title suggests (and that “No Country for Old Men” achieves), but it’s just as dark; a glance into the black places of a man’s soul.

And I say “a man” on purpose: Unlike his earlier ensemble pieces (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”) director Paul Thomas Andersen focuses on one character: Oil baron Daniel Plainview is the latest result of actor Daniel Day-Lewis’ meticulous preparation, which included studying the dialect and mannerisms of John Huston. “There Will Be Blood” also evokes mention of another movie, “Gangs of New York,” not only because of Martin Scorsese’s influence on Anderson but because Plainview is an awful lot like Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, the character Day-Lewis played in that movie. Only Bill the Butcher didn’t have the time and the money – and the career focus – that curdles Plainview.

“Back then men would get the fever,” Day-Lewis said on “They would keep digging, always with the idea that next time they’ll throw the dice and the money will fall out of the sky. It killed a lot of men, it broke others, still more were reduced to despair and poverty, but they still believed in the promise of the West.

“I read a lot of correspondence dating from that period. Decent middle-class lives with wives and children were abandoned to pursue this elusive possibility. They were bank clerks and shipping agents and teachers. They all fled West for a sniff of cheap money. And they made it up as they went along. No one knew how to drill for oil. Initially, they scooped it out of the ground in saucepans. It was man at his most animalistic, sifting through filth to find bright, sparkly things.”

Day-Lewis plays Plainview as an animal who can put a sufficiently human or godly face on to charm land out of others’ hands, employing his adopted son, H.W., until the boy becomes of no use to him. But Plainview is no fan of his species, as he admits in a rare moment when he drops his guard: “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.”

Plainview finds his foil – and archenemy – in a man of God, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, who also plays Eli’s twin brother, Paul Sunday), whose choirboy looks and pious demeanor gloss over the fact that he’s as ambitious and opportunistic as Plainview. The fictional California town of Little Boston isn’t big enough for the minister and the oilman, each of whom gets to bitch-slap the other in the squabble for supremacy. But Day-Lewis inspires a twisted faith that Sunday won’t be able to descend to the depths of Plainview’s animal intelligence to get the final, upper hand on the diabolically twisted oilman.

Despite Day-Lewis’ glowering intensity and the ever-present specter of death lurking in the mines and oil fields, “There Will Be Blood” isn’t as violent as its title – or the comparisons with “No Country” – suggests. But it does deliver on the promise of its title in a final confontation.

Critics have hailed the soundtrack for “There Will Be Blood,” by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, which builds the mood off the sound of the drilling machinery. But that prompted at least one person in Friday’s showing at Heavenly Village Cinemas to exclaim, “That was the worst soundtrack ever!”

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