Another film-school-in-a-box by Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood is a triumph of vivid, overly assertive aesthetic minutiae—crammed to its oil-slicked rafters with highly stylized forms of art direction, cinematography, performance, dialogue, and music. All that’s missing from it is a sense of humanity. Though he worked a song from Popeye into his last movie and spent a good part of 2005 on the set of A Prairie Home Companion, Anderson has been fraught to drag his artistic vision into uncharted terrain—away from the shadow of his great muse. We may diagnose this struggle as Not Being Robert Altman, but while Punch-Drunk Love actively defied expectations of an Anderson film (and an Adam Sandler role), and There Will Be Blood is notable for not being made in the image of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the man’s empathy seems to be retarding as his artistry matures.
Big, lumbering, and shrieking, Boogie Nights and Magnolia bear the stretchmarks of Anderson’s overwrought style, but neither film can be dismissed as Altman tapestries that cater to a young audience’s attention deficit. There’s a thrilling keyness to character that marks even Anderson’s more exhaustive shows of technique, like the great diner scene from Boogie Nights. Even as one is distracted by the style of the scene, which is about a boy’s initiation into an adult world, the constant shift in focus conveys how faces, like images, seduce us, and so the action functions both as drama and meta. Because Anderson is less casual than Altman and more conscious of the way we react to film, he begs comparisons to Kubrick, and There Will Be Blood is, in a sense, his Clockwork Orange, less misanthropic, ambitious even, but fascinated by the captive relationship between audiences and movies. Anderson might say his images are like church and There Will Be Blood is his sermon, though one wonders if he’s just preaching to his choir.
There Will Be Blood begins in a hole. Pick tirelessly meets rock, but Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) doesn’t strike gold. Oil makes him a rich man, and at the behest of a mysterious young man, he travels to the town of Little Boston, California looking for more. Daniel plumbs the earth as Anderson surveys landscape and people, searching for purpose: The body equals earth and blood equals oil and There Will Be Blood is built around all sorts of fiery, fierce eruptions of emotion between a businessman and a man of the cloth. Whose greed is more grotesque and who’ll spill the other’s blood first? (Stay tuned!) There’s a hint of Carpenter in Anderson’s use of widescreen and scavenging pans, the way the camera’s attention ingeniously slips from Daniel’s face to that of his surrogate son and back again, evoking a shaky familial legacy, and the manner in which people are dragged from secret corners of the frame, staking threatening ground. A western with the texture of horror, but Anderson never hits paydirt, using a thrilling but go-nowhere show of artifice to disguise a contrived parable of cultural friction.
Anderson’s style is no less ostentatious than Orson Welles’s, but no Welles film has so flagrantly strived for importance as There Will Be Blood does throughout its epic running time. No less than Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the film, a lose adaptation of the great Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is a grandiose succession of meticulously orchestrated set pieces. One, in which oil finally explodes from the ground beneath impoverished Little Boston, catching fire and popping a young boy’s eardrums, is a disturbing evocation of creation as apocalypse, and the cinematography, like the soundtrack, fuels a certain phantasmagoric master plan. But where is the human interest? Anderson wants There Will Be Blood to be the millennium’s Citizen Kane, but when he plops Daniel inside a Xanadu-like manse during the film’s ridiculous coda, he forgets to toss in the Rosebud.
Though less obnoxiously postmodern and preciously aestheticized than The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood is more flippant about capturing an era’s social temper. Anderson works overtime to build a mood of bibilical doom and gloom, beginning with a man rubbing oil on the forehead of his young son, suggesting the initiation of baptism. Crosses appear everywhere, sometimes cannily, and when chaos strikes Daniel, his arch-nemesis, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), happily chalks it up to a vengeful God’s handiwork—plagues on his house for not allowing the crazy minister to bless the town’s oil well. If movies mattered only as technical objects, There Will Be Blood would be a masterpiece for the way a pool of oil reflects a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, or how Daniel’s oil-covered body disappears into the heat of the night, or how the brilliant dissonant score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, along with the borrowed classical pieces that also fill the soundtrack, work to enhance the perpetual mood of terror. But There Will Be Blood is also a moral object, and Anderson builds his narrative on a foundation of shaky, condescending characterizations.
Daniel often calls himself a family man, but he’s no better at caring for his son than Eli is at serving God. And because he’s very much a man, he ludicrously spikes young H.W.’s goat milk with hard liquor and threatens to slice a big-oil representative’s throat for telling him how to raise the boy, but there’s never a sense of what the character is compensating for, running from, or what emotional void he may be trying to spackle when (spoilers herein) he adopts H.W. after the boy’s father is killed inside one of Daniel’s wells. The film’s understanding of surrogate family values is half-assed and strange, especially when you consider the depth of feeling with which Anderson details Dirk Diggler’s rejection by his mother in Boogie Nights and later acceptance by Amber Waves. As such, Daniel remains a cipher—which is not to say he’s ghostly. For that, Day-Lewis’s calculated performance would need to haunt, when more times than not it feels like an expert impersonation of Sean Connery. Day-Lewis is a great actor, but his thesping, like Anderson’s style, settles for technical virtuosity, rejecting pathos.
When Daniel connects with a derelict, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), who claims to be his brother, Anderson gets a little intuitive, and a beautiful shot of the two lounging on the beach, during which they strike a similar pose of uncertainty, maybe even resignation, bespeaks to a bond that very much exists between the two—if not in blood, then in spirit. But when Daniel kills Henry after learning the truth about his identity, the murder feels as if it should sting Daniel on some level, or at least challenge his concept of family. But the moment never feels tragic because Anderson only uses it to fuel the tired concept of men whose pathological business savvy alienates them from the world and the people they’re supposed to love. Anderson doesn’t invigorate this moth-eaten cliché: Daniel talks about how his hatred of men has built over the years, but the story never gives an example of why he should see the worst in people, and when the action awkwardly shifts to 1927, with Daniel holed up inside his mansion, Day-Lewis simply puts on a Howard Hughesian drag act, the bowling pins in his hand a crazy symbol of his egregious luxe—like the fireworks-lobbing Asian boy Rahad Jackson keeps in Boogie Nights.
There Will Be Blood is made of fierce sounds and images, but also overwritten words and a contentious relationship between two men: Daniel and Eli, whose brother Paul—a twin or alter ego, maybe even a spirit, also played by Dano—is responsible for luring Daniel to California. (Note how the “milkshake” speech at the end of the film absurdly brings to the fore how Daniel, whose contempt for religion is never justified, has been sucking Eli dry—like the boy’s land—for much of the story.) Both are hucksters, but so is Anderson, who easily presents their vicious power plays as symptomatic of the culture war—then and now—that pits individuality against groupthink. This might have been interesting if Eli was more richly characterized, but he remains as vague as Daniel, and Anderson’s understanding of the character hinges on that sort of religious derision that’s always struck me, even as an unrepentant atheist, as cheap and vulgar.
Like Day-Lewis, Dano calibrates his performance to Anderson’s technique, and in the wonkiest shot of the film Eli expels the Devil out of one of his sheep as Anderson’s camera travels into, then out of the preacher’s dinky, makeshift church, simultaneously evoking possession and exorcism. The shot seems to have less to say about the role and sway of religion within society or the fanatical nature of Eli’s preaching than the grip Anderson’s style can have on audiences, and though the filmmaker appears to be copping to aesthetic fanaticism, his confession isn’t meaningful—just another form of braggadocio. Eli is just a vessel of pure crazy, a lunatic showman like Carnivàle’s Brother Justin Crowe, more caricature than human. If the great Deadwood is one of the film’s antecedents, you would only know it from Daniel’s son sharing the Christian name of Deadwood’s tragic minister, a man whose passion, belief system, and descent into madness was considered with a level of compassion Anderson denies Eli. But There Will Be Blood doesn’t even evince David Mich’s impeccable understanding of social customs. Anderson’s soulless capitalism-versus-religion death match only bleeds style.