Land, oil, blood. There will be lots of all in Paul Thomas Anderson’s stunning new movie. The first two are manifest in the first moments, a long view of Texas plains and mountains, backed by a pulsing, percussive string crescendo. A cut from this imposing outdoors to a shot deep inside a hole barely reveals Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), digging for silver in his one-man mine. It’s 1898, and Daniel means to make his mark.
His resolve is almost painful to see. It racks his body, contorts his expression, and in Day-Lewis’ grand, unnerving performance, sucks up his voice into a growly murmur too. Rendered in severe, dark close-ups, Daniel’s tools and limbs are of a piece, worn and dirty. When an accident leaves his leg broken, Daniel gasps and moans, then begins the grim process of climbing out. His face hard, it’s as if he can’t imagine he won’t escape, and yet, his triumph takes place offscreen. Instead, the film cuts to a next chapter, four years later. Daniel has a crew of men digging, one of whom has brought along a baby in a case. When the well yields oil but also kills the father, Daniel feels it, literally: his hands smeared with black, he reaches over to daub the baby’s forehead, initiating his new, crudely adopted son into a new life.
That life is harsh. Based on Sinclair Lewis’ Oil!, There Will Be Blood indicates in nearly every scene that Daniel’s experience is comprised of privation and perseverance. Traveling to locations where oil’s been found, he pitches his expertise to locals, enticing them with promises of wealth and trustworthiness. “I’m an oil man,” he announces, “I’m a family man, I run a family business.” Here he gestures toward “my son and my partner,” now 10 and identified as H.W. (Dillon Freasier), absorbing the boy into his interest and energy. “I’m fixed like no other man,” he says, asserting his knowledge of “the field” and possession of the equipment. “No matter what the others promised, when it comes to the showdown, they won’t be there.” As the assembly begins to caucus and complain, he loses patience. Like no other man, he brooks no quarrels. Plainview leaves, the neatly suited H.W. keeping pace.
The father-son partnership forms a potent center for the film. (And while Day-Lewis’ performance has been praised to high heaven, young Freasier is remarkable in his own right, his keen freckled face intimating adoration, fear, and an increasingly pained awareness). Their travels are determined by Daniel’s brutal speculations, from Texas to California (the film was shot in Marfa, Texas, same location as George Stevens’ Giant, another epic melodrama about land, oil, and blood, though its CA setting suggests Anderson’s abiding interest in the state’s entwining commercial histories). Daniel receives word of the field that will consume him from an enigmatic young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano). When Daniel and H.W. arrive at the Sundays’ ranch, however, they find not Paul but his twin Eli (also played by Dano), a nascent fire-and-brimstone preacher who resents Daniel’s usual deal, that is, his purchase of surrounding acreage and installation of his team, all in the name of corporate progress. (Whether or not Paul and Eli are the same man is left indefinite though the possibility offers another layer of deception, one of many.)
Set against this stark landscape and more brilliant orchestration by Jonny Greenwood, the conflict between Eli and Daniel turns simultaneously explosive and subterranean. Daniel promises schools and infrastructure to get access, and soon the wells rise up from the dusty earth, tilting as twilit silhouettes (once, dramatically backed by a fierce fiery accident). The wells are set across a huge pond of oil from Eli’s church, also rising up, as part of his own infernal deal with Daniel. Such bleak, gorgeous, long views, showcasing the men’s vast and angry difference, call up memories of previous movie iconographies, desert expanses and flailing opponents (Anderson has cited Treasure of Sierra Madre).
Neither man is “complete,” a point underlined by Eli’s missing twin and the sudden appearance of a half-brother for Daniel, Henry Brands ((Kevin J. O’Connor). Claiming he wants only to help Daniel manage his increasingly difficult business in California, Henry is cadaverous and creepy, distrusted immediately by H.W., who tends not to articulate his instincts, but to share a remarkable, almost permeable connectedness with his dad. At this point, however, following an accident at the wells, H.W.’s relationship with Daniel is strained, and each is falling more intensely into himself. The brother might seem an answer, a liaison to the outside world or at least a buffer against it, but Henry’s hardly up to it, his own social skills premised on deviousness, despite his earnest supplications to the man who owns everything.
Daniel’s wealth is a function of his industry, and he remains stuck inside that initial dedication as if he never emerged from that mine hole. On the day of H.W.’s injury — symbolic in its own way — Daniel refocuses his grief and guilt by keeping watch on the wells instead of the boy, letting his “right-hand man” Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds) see to the boy’s immediate welfare. As son and father mirror one another in their separate withdrawals, Daniel is increasingly unable to voice his needs or insights and instead states his distrust, as if repeating it helps him somehow to master it. “I have a competition in me,” he confesses to Henry. “I want no one else to succeed.” H.W. might understand, or at least appreciate such sentiment, having watched it all his life. Henry pretends to get it.
H.W. finds solace elsewhere, specifically in Eli’s little sister Mary (Sydney McCallister). Early on, she’s revealed as a victim of evangelical fervor, confessing to H.W. that her father beats her when she doesn’t pray; horrified, he reports to Daniel, who ends it with a threat that makes him seem simultaneously right and dreadful, a power poised to destroy. Later, Mary appears the film’s sole emblem of empathy, selfless in ways the men can’t imagine.
Such moral arrangement is schematic, even conventional. But it’s also surprisingly effective (at least until a final, thudding encounter between father and son). Obviously, Daniel and Eli compete as archetypal and ongoing American forces, religion, and commerce (with apt allusions to current crises). But they also reflect and become one another: they engage in three knock-down fights, each a punctuation, operatic and captured in impressive mobile frames (Daniel’s assault on Eli, pounding and smearing him into a pool of oil, is no less compelling for its ostentation). Of course, there is blood, sticky and odious, but there is also little H.W., terrified, trusting, and enduring.