Epic in scale and theme while intimate in cast, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the writer/director’s fifth and finest feature, is something fiery and looming, controlled and eccentric, and fully deserving of the superlatives it continues to attract. Based, rather tenuously, on prolific muckraker Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, the film zeroes in from the start on a single, fascinating figure whom it will monitor for the entirety of its mesmerizing two-and-a-half-hours, one Daniel Plainview, a capitalist of fearsome, tireless ambition and great daring, seeking power for its own sake, setting upon a thrilling trajectory that will inevitably lead back to a hollow center.
Set at the dawn of the 20th century, the shape of the still virginal American frontier in There Will Be Blood is being dictated by pretty much the same forces that will dominate American life at the dawn on the next: oil and religion. Perhaps we should add family into the mix. Rest assured the film’s title foreshadows the spilling of blood, but the place from which it springs is a wounded psyche where genuine blood ties are sorrowfully lacking in this tale of obscurely formed and violently broken families.
The opening scenes are precariously compelling. Plainview, solitary, with everything still ahead of him, is found burrowing deep into the earth, carving the first niche in his tunnel to hell. Ostensibly mining for silver, he strikes black gold. Soon after he’s seen working his first derrick where a fatal injury to a co-labourer makes Plainview the unexpected father to an orphaned infant. Years after that, we encounter Plainview the established oilman, his little boy H.W. beside him in dark suit and parted hair, the quiet, attentive partner in his father’s estimable enterprise.
The extensive sequence that yields these developments sucks us into the tale with raw, muscular physicality, virtually no dialogue, and music provided by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, alternately drawing tension to a single unnerving point or creating an ominous insectile flurry of activity with low strings. Rarely are so many components so much of a piece, the space and texture evoked in the production design by Jack Fisk (Days of Heaven) beautifully lining Anderson’s catalogue of striking images: the exploding geyser that blasts H.W.’s hearing away, the vast puddle of crude that reflects the desert sky, which itself represents the limit of Plainview’s potential wealth. While the barren landscape on display in There Will Be Blood might seem to limit Anderson’s palate, the film never falls short on arresting spectacle.
The dramatic core takes hold with the coming of Paul Sunday, a goat farmer’s son who approaches Plainview one night to announce the discovery of oil on his father’s otherwise worthless hardscrabble. Plainview offers a trifling up front and Paul thence vanishes for the rest of the movie, only to be replaced by his far more imposing twin brother Eli once Plainview arrives on their land under false pretences. Plainview acquires the property for a song, but Eli, whose aspirations are to become a charismatic preacher and founder of The Church of the Third Revelation, has Plainview’s number. A line is drawn in the sand between these opponents, one representing business, the other religion, each eventually needing to align however uneasily with the other.
Both Paul and Eli are played by the terrifically unlikely star Paul Dano, who made a distinct impression as the nihilistic teen in Little Miss Sunshine. He has a girlish manner that props up the considerable rage he generates here as a slight, chinless youth easily underestimated. His Eli is a talented performer, shaking the arthritis from an old lady’s shriveled hands and tossing invisible Satan out on his ass before an admiring rural congregation. He works himself into impressive fits of hysteria, which will pay off intriguingly in the film’s bravura –if somewhat overcooked– finale.
But the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, lording over the proceedings as the brilliant and monstrous Plainview. I can’t come up with another actor who could do quite what Day-Lewis has done here. Larger than life, yet so very tangible a presence, his Plainview has a sparkle of the dreamer in his eye, and a lovingly protected ruthlessness that only fully falls away when he no longer has anyone left to convince, when accident and destiny determine his absolute loneliness. (Among these determining circumstances is the arrival of a mysterious half-brother, marvelously played by Kevin J. O’Connor with the weathered calm of a weary chameleon.)
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Day-Lewis’ performance lies in his voice, its folksy oratorical nuances marked by an overt homage to the memorable modulations of John Huston. And like Noah Cross, Huston’s wondrously evil cameo in Chinatown, Day-Lewis’ Plainview has tethered himself like some mad proprietor to a natural resource. His hubris writ-large is a symbol of American arrogance, avarice and a sort of appalling beauty, a personality so grand and weirdly inviting, even as it festers the basest of needs. If anyone can sell our earth’s riches to us as though he invented it in his basement workshop, it’s this guy. And for the duration of There Will Be Blood, we are his stunned, happily bamboozled customers.