Paul Thomas Anderson may have had a fallow period since “Magnolia” in 1999—his only picture in the intervening years was 2002’s misguided exercise in peculiarity, “Punch-Drunk Love”—but he makes up for it with this engrossing epic of misanthropy, capitalist monomania and religious quackery. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s muckracking 1927 novel “Oil” (or at least the book’s initial chapters), but with a strong dose of “Citizen Kane” and “Elmer Gantry,” not to mention “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (which Anderson acknowledges as a major inspiration), “There Will Be Blood” serves up a tale of greed and corruption at once savagely bleak from an emotional perspective and incredibly beautiful from a visual one.
Daniel Day-Lewis, looking like a young Sam Elliott but channeling the voice of John Huston (another nod to “Treasure”), plays—with amazing concentration and power—the film’s commanding antihero Daniel Plainview, a honey-tongued California prospector, first (as we see in a remarkable, wordless prologue, set in 1898) for silver and then (as the story proper takes up in 1911) for oil. By the later date, he has a child—a young boy (Dillon Freasier)—but no wife, and is already a successful oilman, searching for promising terrain and then cajoling local landowners to sell him the drilling rights.
Plainview is approached one night by a mysterious young man named Sunday (Paul Dano) who offers to sell him information about the location of a potential field on his family’s farm for a modest sum. He agrees to the terms and soon is off to the remote location with his son, posing as a hunter but actually reconnoitering the site and eventually purchasing the right to drill from its pious owner Abel Sunday (David Willis). Observing the transaction is the Abel’s son Eli (Dano again), a strangely otherworldly young man transformed into a charismatic force when he preaches before the small congregation he’s established nearby—and which he hopes to expand as the income from Plainview’s operation flows in.
From this point the script travels several parallel routes. One involves Painview’s obsessive drive to succeed, and in particular to do so against the meaglithic influence of Standard Oil, which seeks to buy him out after he strikes it big; when he considers himself disrespected by the corporation, he contrives an audacious plan to circumvent their control. Another concerns Daniel’s son H.W., who’s deafened when he’s caught playing atop the derrick just as the strike comes in and is thereafter treated by his father with an aggrieved concern that leads him to send the boy away.(Even a last-act revelation about their relationship can’t alter the fact that his attitude toward H.W. is self-centered in the extreme; indeed, it only accentuates it.) A third traces the arrival, and fate, of Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), who claims to be Plainview’s unlucky half-brother and becomes his assistant. But throughout the most important thread remains the simmering hostility between Daniel and Eli, each of whom seems eager to outmaneuver and humiliate the other. It’s only right that the final scene of the picture—set in 1927 after Plainview has become a reclusive, psychically ravaged baron of the industry—should be a final confrontation between them, a sequence at once absurdly melodramatic yet magnificent, almost Shakespearean in its effect.
“There Will Be Blood”—a promise which you may be sure that final sequence fulfills—is loaded with good things. There’s Anderson’s script, with the sonorous, ostentatiously elevated lines it gives to Day-Lewis, sounding precisely like the rhetoric a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur might have used to sell himself. And the performance of Dano, a turn so strong and assured from this remarkable young actor that it’s incredible that he was actually a last-minute replacement, coming to the film halfway into the shoot (which required scenes to be redone). There’s the masterful production design by Jack Fisk, which, when combined with David Crank’s art direction, the sets by Carl Stensel and Jim Erickson, and Mark Bridges’ costumes, creates a look that replicates in color and widescreen the stills one might encounter of oil fields from the period. And Robert Elswit’s magnificent widescreen cinematography, which captures the huge vistas of Marfa, Texas, where the film was made, with painterly skill. Nor will one easily forget the highly unusual but extraordinarily apt score by Jonny Greenwood, which uses modernistic dissonance to reflect the ragged, torn psyche of the protagonist and driving, almost metallically pulsating rhythms to suggest the drilling that lies behind the entire plot.
And striding across it all is Day-Lewis like a colossus, dominating virtually every frame even when standing beside a towering oil rig. It’s a wonderfully oversized portrayal of a man possessed by overweening ambition, and yet—as he confides to Henry in an unguarded moment—intensely solitary, taking no pleasure in the company of others and even actively despising the rest of mankind. (Hardly surprising there’s not the hint of a woman in his life.) In Day-Lewis’ hands Plainview—an ironic name, of course—becomes the perfect example of a person who can feign bonhomie when it suits his purposes but is by nature but is by nature contemptuous and manipulative, and capable of the most brutal violence. It’s as harsh characterization of twisted humanity as Fred C. Dobbs was, and Day-Lewis plays it as unforgettably as Humphrey Bogart did. And so it’s entirely understandable that Daniel should come so to despise Eli, a man no less duplicitous than he but in a different way, a younger version of Harry Powell—and that in the end they have to face off against one another.
One wonders whether so merciless a depiction of the obsession, callousness and moral depravity that, as Anderson suggests, color the two great pillars of American history—business and religion—will find much of an audience in a society reluctant to give the time of day to anything that might be even slightly depressing. After all, both “Citizen Kane” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” were financial failures. But whether “There Will Be Blood” breaks even or not, Thomas deserves credit for making a picture worthy of comparison to them both. And reviving his promise as one of the great young American filmmakers.