With his fifth film, There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage), Paul Thomas Anderson goes from the brainy poet of new American cinema to its deranged visionary. Even those of us who’ve always admired Anderson’s work (for me, Boogie Nights was one of the best films of the ‘90s) never suspected he had anything like this in him. This two-and-a-half-hour saga of frontier capitalism resembles the parched Western landscape in which it takes place: a vast, craggy, forbidding expanse, rife with potential danger. It was shot in Marfa, Texas, the location of George Stevens’$2 1956 oil epic Giant. Elsewhere, Anderson has cited The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as his favorite film, and no portrait of an isolated, half-mad American tycoon can escape the shadow of Citizen Kane. But influences be damned: There Will Be Blood looks and, especially, sounds like no movie you’ve seen before.
For the first 15 or 20 dialogue-free minutes, the only sound is the bizarre, discordant score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead: a steady crescendo of synthesized strings that sounds like an orchestra tuning up in hell. The year is 1898. We watch as Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) survives a gruesome silver mining accident. He has better luck drilling for oil, but his mining partner dies in another accident. (These early scenes brutally establish the constant peril of mine work.) Plainview adopts the man’s infant son, passing him off as his own. Thirteen years later, Plainview has become a well-to-do speculator, buying up tracts of farmland in exchange for the right to drill.
The main intrigue begins when a soft-spoken farm boy, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), walks into Plainview’s office and alerts him to the presence of oil on his family’s otherwise worthless land. Plainview snaps up the property for a song and begins building a derrick there. Paul Sunday mysteriously disappears, but his twin brother, Eli (also played by Dano), soon becomes Plainview’s nemesis. Eli is an evangelical preacher with big plans for his makeshift congregation, the Church of the Third Revelation. But Plainview’s promise of a large donation to the church never materializes, and when he ignores Eli’s request to bless the well at its opening ceremony, the two men enter into a fierce power struggle that will eventually make good on the movie’s ominous title.
It’s best not to know too much about where this story will take you next: How will Plainview’s taciturn young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), react to his father’s increasing obsession with power and wealth? What’s the real story of the stranger (a superb Kevin J. O’Connor) who shows up claiming to be Plainview’s half-brother? There Will Be Blood demands a lot of the viewer: patience, close attention to the often-sparse dialogue, and an ability to tolerate unresolved ambiguities. But in return, it gives you a whole world, one that’s idiosyncratic yet utterly convincing. Anderson’s camera—wielded by cinematographer Robert Elswit on sets designed by Jack Fisk—moves through the terrain with a preternatural confidence. The spare, gorgeous images can evoke early photographs of frontier America, but they aren’t nostalgic or precious; Anderson’s project turns out to be a resolutely modern one.
The decades-long rivalry between Plainview and Eli Sunday could be read as a battle between capital and spirit—except that Eli, the silver-tongued healer, is not all that different from the Plainview, the ruthless capitalist. Besides, the two men’s escalating spiral of one-upmanship is too funny, and too rooted in character detail, to be reduced to mere allegory. The story is anchored by two mirror-image scenes of humiliation—Plainview’s takes place in the church, Eli’s in a bowling alley—that are simultaneously harrowing and hilarious. But the bowling-alley showdown, which is also the last scene of the movie, feels like the director’s one misstep. It’s so broad, so shamelessly over-the-top, that the movie shifts from stark Oedipal drama to something like Grand Guignol. On a second viewing, the ending still bothered me, but a friend made a passionate case for it over drinks afterward. If nothing else, it’s a choice that will inspire great conversations.
Daniel Day-Lewis is beyond praise as the misanthropic, egomaniacal, desperately lonely oilman. He inhabits this enigmatic character, loosely adapted by Anderson from Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!, with as much authority as if he’d written the script himself. And Paul Dano, familiar as the Nietzsche-reading adolescent in Little Miss Sunshine, establishes himself as a major new actor. Playing the slippery Eli Sunday, he shifts from piety to hypocrisy to menace while rarely raising his voice above a whisper.
Especially as awards season approaches, There Will Be Blood is sure tobe compared with No Country for Old Men, another epic study of male rivalry and violence that was filmed near Marfa, Texas. But to me, There Will Be Blood is the greater film by far. It offers a persuasive critique of the nihilism that the Coen brothers’ film simply (if effectively) re-enacts. For a story that’s all about the harnessing of fateful chthonic forces, Paul Thomas Anderson has dug deeper than ever before, and struck black gold.