This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium.
When we first meet the ambitious prospector, Plainview is trading silver for surveys and supplies. His ultimate goal is oil, and he soon strikes it rich. Hoping to interest the big companies in his land-based pipeline ideal, Plainview targets a small town. Thanks to a tip from a disgruntled member of the destitute Sunday family, the mogul gets what he wants. But it comes with a price that he may not be willing to pay. Local preacher Eli, brother of the betrayer, wants Plainview to support his fledging church. With lip service and lies, the two come to a cautious accord. But as money begins to blur the ethics of all involved, both sides start to suffer. Plainview’s young son is injured in an accident, and Sunday uses the issue to blackmail the man. Even worse, an important piece of land stands between the tycoon and his ambitious dream. As usual, Eli holds all the cards - or at least, that’s what Plainview lets him think.
When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism. Both dogmas are offered in their most perverted, unsavory versions, each one championed by an icon seemingly forged directly out of the individual ideologies’ darkest heart. Plainview is the most obvious in his subversion. He may play protector and beneficiary, but the only good that will ever come out of his speculation inures to his bank account only. On the other end of the spectrum, spiritually if not in principle, is Eli Sunday. The original flim flamming man of God, this unholy holy roller wants everyone to believe in his noble, church going purpose. But again, we soon discover that there’s more to his motives than Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Indeed, between the two, Eli is more evil, since he can’t differentiate between the congregation and his own personal coffers. For Plainview, it’s always about his own pockets.
The war that Anderson sets up plays out against a blistering backdrop of the West as untamed wilderness. Forget the cowboys and their Native American enemies. Ignore the gunslingers and the main street High Noon showdowns. This is how the new frontier was won (or better still, overthrown), and it’s more cutthroat and depraved than any exchange of gunfire. By using the indomitable pioneer spirit against itself, by showing that everyone has an agenda when it comes to land, money, and the fine art of the double cross, Anderson lifts the story beyond its patient, personal components. In some ways, it’s like watching human incarnations of philosophical opposites striving for karmic control. Both men here are despicable and self-centered, but only Plainview lives up to his name. Even with his Cheshire Cat grin and down home palaver, the man is one mean SOB.
Sunday is the harder component to get a handle on, and it’s to actor Paul Dano’s credit that he never lets Day-Lewis overwhelm him. A last minute replacement on the film (apparently, Anderson was not happy with his first choice), he brings an unnerving quiet to what could have been a scenery chewing caricature. Religious fervor often brings out the worst in a performer, letting the spirit overtake any sense of subtlety. Here, Dano is all underplayed menace. He seems weak willed and self-righteous, but the minute Plainview tries to trounce him, the wily preacher shows his hidden horrors. Sunday is easily the oddest element in the film, a figure that some may mistake as minor. But in truth, he supplies the most important facets of the film - a barrier begging for our sly industrialist to confront and conquer. And it’s not an easy campaign.
Naturally, all the buzz that’s built around Day-Lewis and his work here may seem like nothing more than massive media blitzing, but for once, the hype is actually under-serving the work. The English thesp is absolutely spellbinding, so good that his mere presence in a room creates untold levels of character complexity. Some have likened his voice and manner to late filmmaking legend John Huston, but that’s not all together true. Instead, Daniel Plainview is the very essence of the self-made man, a human carved out of the various personalities and perspectives he’s gained in a world filled with business-oriented observation. He’s a master mimic and manipulator. Anderson makes this a physical as well as emotional reality by having the first act of the film play out in pantomime - no dialogue, just Day-Lewis in all his 49er regalia, endlessly toiling for that next scrap of the dream. He is building who he is as he systematically stakes his claims.
As a director, Anderson does a sensational job of assembling his story, He starts small - closed in caves and small ranch shacks. Before long, we see Plainview literally traversing the distance between his claim and the Pacific Ocean. Every so often, the plot throws our emblematic anti-hero an issue (complex son, long lost brother, obstructionist land owner) and we watch as our auteur devises interesting and insightful ways of having Plainview overcome them. By the end, he’s so indestructible, so completely devoid of inherent human kindness that a chance for reconciliation and redemption are avoided for one last game of one-upmanship. Within a design centered more on individuals than ideas, it’s amazing how deep Anderson manages to get. Add in the stellar look and texture of the film and you’ve got one mesmerizing masterpiece.
In fact, the funny thing about There Will Be Blood is that it has the kind of narrative resonance that drives a wedge into your subconscious. As you sit around, days…even months later, your mind wanders back to certain symbolic items: the burning oil rig; Plainview passed out on the floor; Eli’s ethereal services; the last line of dialogue - “I’m finished”. It all gels into the kind of monumental motion picture experience the artform has been missing for far too long. If this movie is ignored come awards time, it will merely be another sign of its lasting classicism. True cinematic greatness eventually gains critical consensus. For Anderson, Day-Lewis, and Blood, the time is clearly now.