Paul Thomas Anderson’s prodigious filmmaking talents have always been somewhat compromised by his more show-offy tendencies, as his gift with both the camera and actors has at times been hindered by a self-conscious, look-at-me flamboyant streak. That friction, however, almost completely ceases to exist with There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, which finds the director exhibiting newfound maturity and restraint without sacrificing any measure of artistry. One can sense this shift in intent and approach from the very first shot, in which scraggly 1898 California hills stand against a crystal blue sky as Kubrickian howls flood the soundtrack, immediately establishing a mood of dread pitched somewhere between the frightening awe felt by the apes upon discovering the monolith in 2001 and the empty malevolence of the Overlook Hotel’s hallways in The Shining. Cut quickly to a darkened figure alone in a tight, constricting mine, viciously pick-axing the surrounding earth (shades of Jack Nicholson’s psycho-daddy Jack Torrance hacking away at the bathroom door) in search of oil, and the tone—aided by the apt horror-flick title—is now firmly, masterfully established. Madness and hell await, in the guise of an ordinary man possessed.
That man is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and as he says in a business proposal to locals interested in procuring his services, he is “an oil man.” But before that introductory speech—shot in a rapturous long take in which Anderson’s camera glides with ghostly grace into a close-up of Daniel, along the way taking a brief detour to gaze at the face of Daniel’s son H.W. (Dillon Freasier)—the film has already decisively captured the essence of its protagonist. There Will Be Blood’s first 15 to 20 minutes concentrate on Daniel solitarily toiling in a mine, escaping it after suffering an accidental fall that results in a (lifelong) leg injury, and then starting his drilling operation, into which a wrench is thrown via the untimely death of a worker that leaves Plainview in charge of the deceased’s infant H.W. Staged without any dialogue, this inaugural passage may be the single finest work of Anderson’s career. Never before has the writer-director’s hand seemed so assured and attuned to the rhythms of his material, his gorgeously poised compositions and elegant narrative-advancing edits not only clearly setting up the themes (religion, family, deceit, self-interest) that will come to dominate his tale, but also conveying a formidable level of technical expertise and slowly building volcanic tension.
Such authorial command doesn’t waver once Daniel and those around him begin speaking. Having defined himself as a self-made “family businessman” and a no-nonsense straight-shooter, he’s visited by a young stranger named Paul Sunday (an exceptionally creepy Paul Dano) who, for a $500 fee, agrees to reveal the location of a stretch of California land known as Little Boston—upon which the Sunday family’s sheep ranch is located—that won’t grow crops but is literally oozing oil. Paul peppers his speech with religious remarks but his goals are clearly of the self-serving kind, just as Daniel’s veneer of frank honesty masks more egocentric urges, with his cunning suggested by their meeting’s opening shot—in which Plainview’s right-hand man Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds) is gradually shown to be in the room—and his self-interest expressed by a prior glimpse of him hungrily breathing in oil fumes (ah, the aroma of money and power!) down in a dank well. A deal is struck: Paul gets his cash and disappears, and Plainview, along with H.W., ventures west to Little Boston, posing as a father on a trip to teach his son how to shoot quail.
At the Sunday homestead, the duo is met by Mr. Abel Sunday (David Willis) as well as by his devout son Eli (Dano), who endeavors to be a preacher and appears to be Paul’s twin brother. I say “appears” because Anderson leaves the issue of whether Eli is actually Paul in some doubt, though a definitive answer on the issue isn’t really necessary given that the film quickly reveals Eli to be a thoroughly two-faced rival to Plainview, who is determined to purchase the oil-rich ranch at discount prices. Their clash becomes, in one way, the heart of There Will Be Blood, a standoff between the dueling greed of a cold, stern entrepreneur and a self-serving, egomaniacal evangelical. Having arranged this adversarial dynamic, however, Anderson only partially follows through on it, casting Eli not as an equal opponent to Plainview—who is granted nothing less than epic stature by the film—but as something more along the lines of a reflective twin, an avaricious little guy who helps complement and aid the overall portrait of Plainview as a big guy whose drive to succeed is rooted in a more fundamental craving to always, in any social or professional circumstance, wield the upper hand.
That Plainview and Eli are imbalanced foes, and that Eli is written as an obviously sneaky, duplicitous, and one-dimensional cretin from the get-go, slightly undercuts There Will Be Blood’s aspirations to be a classically styled allegory about the corrupt treacherousness of modern America’s twin foundations: capitalism and religion. Yet if such ambitions are not, in the end, wholly realized, it almost never seems to matter, given that Anderson’s series of cinematic set pieces (and, to a certain extent, that’s what the entire film is) are so rapturously orchestrated, and that he so fiercely and fully considers the twisted, contradictory, self-destructive stimuli at work in the heart and soul of his protagonist. Plainview becomes a case study in disintegration wrought from all-consuming desire, and Day-Lewis mesmerizingly embodies the character with a gruff hardness that can be gleaned in his calculating eyes, his contemptuously deliberate comportment, and his semi-condescending tone with all those he speaks to. His oil baron is at once upfront about who he is and yet willing, when the situation suits him, to bend the truth in service of attaining what he wants, a bastard alternately honest and devious whose bullheaded determination is amplified by Day-Lewis’s rigorously controlled—and yet somehow still wildly unpredictable—modulation of expression and action.
During an awe-inspiring sequence in which H.W. is seriously injured during an oil derrick catastrophe, Plainview’s love for his “son”—and, by extension, for family (a recurring Anderson preoccupation)—is exposed as secondary to his ambition, as instead of tending to the injured child, he sits staring at the column of hellfire engulfing his operation. Turned deaf by the accident, H.W. is soon shipped off by his father to a distant school for the disadvantaged, an act perhaps necessary but one born mostly from Plainview’s pragmatic wish to remove any obstacles that might interfere with his aims. This abandonment of H.W. affords Eli the ammunition to damn the businessman, which he does during Plainview’s baptism at Eli’s Church of the Third Revelation. An unreligious man, Plainview consents to this rite to solidify a land purchase, and it’s here that his willingness to go to any lengths to achieve his ends is most strikingly illustrated, as he suffers denunciations and slaps to the face from screaming-mad Eli with a crazed smile on his face. Money and stature are what matter to Plainview, but so too is an internal compulsion to feel superior to others, and it’s this latter fact that’s responsible for his maiden crime, spurred by his friendship with, and trust in, a gentleman (Kevin J. O’Connor) claiming to be his half-brother.
Once again collaborating with cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson shoots with a grand stateliness (full of arid, sun-burnt hues and inky shadows) that both reverently conveys the rugged beauty of his landscape, as well as hints at impending fire-and-brimstone chaos. Symbolism—a shot of heavenly clouds reflected in a pool of oil, a baby given an Ash Wednesday forehead mark with the valuable liquid, crucifixion imagery—is lightly handled. And the director’s trademark tracking shots and long takes, such as when his camera assumes the position of an evil spirit being expelled from a woman’s body and out a church’s front door by Eli, are always subtly employed in service of a given scene’s dramatic and thematic concerns. The sight of Plainview’s oil-splattered face being slowly, eerily engulfed by the black night encapsulates the film as a whole, though it’s ultimately Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score (to a degree even greater than was true of Jon Brion’s work on Punch-Drunk Love) that gives There Will Be Blood its throbbing, pulsating soul. Heavy on discordant Psycho-ish strings that shriek with otherworldly terror and percussion that clangs with jittery, explosive anxiety, Greenwood’s musical accompaniment is a thing of dark majesty, brilliantly in sync with the omnipresent forces—anger, resentment, jealousy, covetousness, insanity—trying violently, desperately to bubble to the surface.
As cemented by the story’s concluding chapter, Plainview ultimately embodies the notion (also explored by predecessors ranging from McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Deadwood) that individualism created this country one frontier at a time and then, having done so, was deemed to have no place in the nation’s communal social fabric. Wealthy beyond his dreams, Day-Lewis’s former titan—having forever craved escape from society—is transformed, by 1927, into a Howard Hughes-style alcoholic recluse, his contempt for mankind now free to consume him in the empty corridors and opulent rooms of his tomb-like mansion. This diminished form of Plainview is vile and pitiful in equal quantities. Yet There Will Be Blood doesn’t allow him to simply fade away, instead providing him—via a seethingly vitriolic showdown at his residence’s bowling alley with Eli, now a popular radio preacher—with a batshit-crazy blaze-of-glory climax that detonates with the force of an erupting geyser. While watching, the sequence struck me as so unexpectedly out-there that it felt like a last-second misstep, but, in retrospect, this bizarre, nasty, hilariously horrifying denouement now seems the ideal exclamation point for a film this focused on the suppression of grotesque inner impulses. “I’m finished,” declares Plainview after his final, gory “triumph.” On the basis of the ferocious There Will Be Blood, however, Paul Thomas Anderson appears to have just begun.