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There Will Be Blood (2007) -vs- Gangs of New York (2002)

There Will Be Blood -vs- Gangs of New York

Mark Sanchez, Featured WriterThe Smackdown

It’s easy to admire virtue and nobility. Possessing either can be difficult. Maybe that’s why our movies seem to feature five Norman Bates and ten Gordon Gekkos for every George Bailey or Atticus Finch. What a roster of film villains has evolved: Hannibal Lector, Nurse Ratched, Freddy Krueger, Noah Cross, Travis Bickle. Daniel Day-Lewis lengthened that list in 2002 as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Bill is tough, mean and extreme. This portrayal earned Day-Lewis an Academy Award-nomination and a place in the Hall of Movie Horribles. Now, he’s back with another villain of nightmare proportions — as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. That’s our Smackdown: Can this newcomer hold his own against an established monster in long pants, Bill the Butcher?

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The Challenger

Daniel Plainview’s fortunes turn around when he strikes oil while mining silver in California at the end of the 19th century. Oil and the accumulation of land and power feed the hatred and greed that motivate his life. “I hate most people,” he says and means it. Plainview will do anything to serve his ends, even adopting a boy orphaned in a well field accident. Young H.W. is an effective, sympathetic prop Plainview uses to low-ball the locals out of their land, oil and mineral rights. He joins a local church congregation to gain an oil lease on a choice piece of farmland. It is here Plainview meets his nemesis, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Preacher Sunday is avaricious and manipulative  –  but no match for the sheer madness that motivates Daniel Plainview. Other characters learn this volatile lesson. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Boogie Nights) directed a script he loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel, “Oil!.”

The Champion

Desperation, squalor and gang-warfare dominate the Five Points section of lower Manhattan during the mid-19th century. This is not the sort of place where you look to the police for help. Often, the “crushers” answer to gang bosses like Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). He controls this mess through violence and bloodshed. Lots of both. Bill runs the virulently anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Native Americans gang. Another gang, the Dead Rabbits, inhabits Five Points. These are Catholic Irish immigrants and a clash is both unavoidable and drenched in blood. The chief Rabbit Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) dies at the hands of Bill the Butcher and the Rabbits disband. Vallon’s young son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) flees the area, but returns after 15 years with revenge in mind. During the interim Bill tightens his grip and no longer kowtows to the likes of William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and the uptown families who control Manhattan. By now, Amsterdam has wormed his way into the Native Americans and becomes Bill’s assistant while regrouping the Dead Rabbits. They clash again, only to be interrupted by cannon fire during the Civil War Draft Riots. As before, their differences are settled in blood.

The Scorecard

Daniel Plainview and Bill Cutting live at the far edge of the human continuum. Their methods may vary, but there is nothing either man  will avoid to impose their will. Maiming, intimidation and death come with the territory. Both show human dimensions — although very rarely  — and both are the marvelous creations of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Plainview and the Butcher operate within the broad sweep of epic story lines. Gangs of New York fictionalizes real events and several real people in a screenplay written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. Bill the Butcher is loosely based on butcher / barkeeper William Poole. Day-Lewis gives Bill a glass eye with an eagle in it and a ferocious persona that leaps from the screen. He’s so effective it dwarfs standout perfomances by DiCaprio, Neeson, Broadbent, John C. Reilly and Cameron Diaz. Not surprising, Gangs earned ten Academy Award nominations, while winning 33 other awards and compiling 59 nominations.

There Will Be Blood is piling up nominations and has earned 13 awards as I write this. Much of the acclaim centers on Day-Lewis and he’s given enough storyline to expose a heart of stone. His character is more identifiable to modern audiences and as such, Daniel Plainview seems like someone we could actually meet. On another level he can be interpreted as a walking commentary on capitalism on manipulation (the same may be said of preacher Eli Sunday). Plainview is a monster with a mustache and you approach at your own risk. It is a great performance enhanced by a jarring score from Jonny Greenwood. Blood is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most ambitious film by far.

Do we have enough to choose between a pair of memorable monsters in long pants? Yes.

The Decision

Gangs of New York plays to Martin Scorsese’s love of vivid characterizations and big stories that sweep across the generations. It is one of his best. This is strong stuff and Bill the Butcher is so damn bloody you’re tempted to look away.

If you do, you’ll be staring into the disturbing face of Daniel Plainview. His proportions seem human-scale, but the depth of his resentments and greed go well beyond that. As Blood vividly shows, anyone who doubts that learns otherwise to their eternal regret. There Will Be Blood is a fine movie made even better by the power of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance.

Bill the Butcher keeps his place in the Villains House, but now he shares it with Daniel Plainview from our winner, “There Will Be Blood.”

About Mark Sanchez 81 Articles
Oregon based media and communications consultant Mark Sanchez is on the fifth or sixth step of his recovery program from his career as a television news reporter. And that’s the way it is. Mark has been an Oregonian since the Reagan administration and shows no signs of leaving. He lives in Portland — a city that is famous for its transit system, its rain, its independent film community and, lately, for the TV series Portlandia, which Mark notes is about half-true, but to protect confidential sources he won’t say which half.

1 Comment on There Will Be Blood (2007) -vs- Gangs of New York (2002)

  1. The Oscars went out a few minutes ago. It’s no surprise There Will Be Blood made an indelible impression on audiences everywhere. Not for nothing did Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic metaphor about personal corruption and corporate greed hit a creative gusher: Oscars for Best Actor and cinematography. Blood now has 36 awards worldwide and another three-dozen nominations.
    It began with an unforgettable performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. You cannot escape the resentment and manipulation that motivate his character, Daniel Plainview. When he says “I hate most people,” you believe it. This man thinks nothing of adopting religion or a boy orphaned in a well-field accident to flam-flam people out of their land and mineral rights. Daniel Plainfield has the dead stare of a shark about to strike. He is truly a monster with a mustache.
    One performance alone doesn’t make this film. Paul Thomas Anderson adapted Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Oil!” and gave the screenplay enough air and elbowroom to allow the story and characters to fully develop. Blood has the look and sweep of an epic tale and rightly earned its Oscar for Cinematography. Other elements stand out, like Paul Dano’s possessed performance as the corrupt and destroyed preacher Eli Sunday. One of the film’s many pleasure is the jarring score from Jonny Greenwood. Ironically, it is one of the few elements of Blood without an Oscar nomination. Onscreen, characters and events are not given short shrift — you’ll see more mining and vintage oil drilling technique than you ever expected. In fact, some viewers wondered if Blood ran about a half-hour too long. I’m not sure it does. I’m certain it fits the sweep of Paul Thomas Anderson’s creative vision.
    There Will Be Blood will live forever in film history. We all wonder when we’ll see another film character as riveting and disturbing as Daniel Plainview.

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