There Will Be Blood begins with silver prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) deep inside the earth. His tools are a pick ax and his own saliva. The rigor of his task can be seen in his filthy hands and the crop of stubble growing from his strained face.
Plainview emerges in the wordless opening scenes in There Will Be Blood like a burrowing beetle, operating from some dark, primal place. Soon the lust for oil has overtaken him. His empire grows and his fortune accumulates. But that feral drive never deserts him over the course of Paul Thomas Anderson’s astounding American epic.
Anderson draws from muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair’s 1927 Oil!, which exposed the greed of a California oil tycoon and the decadence that can spring from great wealth. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) has siphoned off Sinclair’s quiet sense of outrage at a value system founded on money. Out of that source material, he has crafted a virtual masterpiece.
Awe-inspiring in its scope and ambition, There Will Be Blood centers on Plainview’s transformation from a grimy prospector into a tailored and efficient businessman in turn-of-the-last-century California. Despite Plainview’s rise from dungarees to crisp white shirt and necktie, his demeanor remains frighteningly hell-bent. Something icy and mercenary moves beneath even the man-of-the-people charm he uses on the farmers whose oil-rich plots he covets.
Plainview wheels into the stark town of Little Boston on a rickety jalopy, just as Robert Mitchum’s demonic preacher did in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter. Even the eventual eruption of oil from beneath the town provides no release from his manic ambition. Underscored in a frantically churning soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Plainview’s hunger for power spews with unstoppable fury, like the oil from his company’s derricks.
It inundates Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a vain, covetous evangelist who believes his spiritual empire is greater than Plainview’s earthly one. Plainview will tolerate no competitor or competing ideology. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed,” he confides in a moment that illuminates but never explains the gnawing at his soul.
Anderson skillfully toys with our desire to empathize with and rally around his antihero. For a time, there’s a hint that a life beyond the oil field might be possible; his adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), offers the tantalizing prospect of human companionship. But even when Plainview professes his love for H.W. or weeps over a photograph of a lost relative, we wonder at what point his connection to human beings was broken, if it ever existed in the first place. We long for the clue that will explain him, but his unhappiness and his ambition defy simple explanation.
There Will Be Blood satisfies as both a character study of the tortured Plainview and an indictment of the American dream. Joining the California dystopias portrayed in Chinatown and Citizen Kane, Anderson’s film imagines something other than youth, promise and the scent of orange blossoms wafting on the wind.
Like the Coen brothers’ more recent No Country for Old Men (also shot in Marfa, Texas), There Will Be Blood sees the West as a place different from the source of valor and nobility it has often been in the American cinema. There Will Be Blood isn’t merely a triumph in its own right, but a herald of Anderson’s maturing skill and vision as a director. The cynicism that trickled through Boogie Nights and Magnolia was diminished by those films’ reliance upon pop soundtracks and self-conscious, derivative camera work. There Will Be Blood is virtuoso filmmaking of a different sort, founded not on flash or a grandiose treatment of contemporary malaise. It rests instead on brilliant performances, subtle observations of human nature and a long view of the American character as applicable to our era as it was to Sinclair’s age of World War I and the Great Depression.
Anderson has acknowledged the inspiration that the fatalistic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provided for his film. And Day-Lewis’ growling, ornery performance undeniably draws from the acting style of that film’s director, John Huston.
What keeps Plainview from becoming utterly unlikable is Day-Lewis’ desire to find meaning in his character. It is Plainview’s enigmatic nature that renders him not merely evil, but tragic. And Day-Lewis delivers a wrenching performance hovering between monstrosity and existential anguish. There Will Be Blood is a look into the black, sorrowful pit of a sociopath’s heart, as empty and ordinary as the pit where Plainview’s story begins.
We have grown used to tales about what is won in conquest. What still shakes the American character at its core are tales such as this one, about what is lost.