If you thought this whole oil and religion thing was a new problem, think again. Socially conscious author Upton Sinclair wrote Oil! in 1927. In it, an oil baron does mental battle with a revivalist preacher who holds the key to a plot of land with oceans of crude bubbling underneath the surface. Both want control of the gusher, because both are looking to line their coffers.
Eighty years later, and Paul Thomas Anderson has turned Sinclair's novel into a film, ominously retitled There Will Be Blood. If that title doesn't make you thirsty for liquids to be spilled, nothing will. A little of that blood comes from humans, but most of it comes from Mother Earth. In the hands of P.T. Anderson, oil is the fuel for everything. It powers cars, it invigorates communities, and it compels men to trade their souls for its reward.
This is Anderson's first movie since 2002's Punch-Drunk Love, and I'd call There Will Be Blood his first real masterpiece. I know there will be plenty of people out there who will accuse me of heresy, but I've always seen him as less of an original troubadour and more of a cover band. Boogie Nights would have been great had Goodfellas not come before it and provided the director with his story outline.* Likewise, Magnolia felt to me like an interpolation of another great Los Angeles picture, Robert Altman's Short Cuts, wherein numerous disparate characters are eventually thrust together by a cataclysmic act of nature. Even Punch-Drunk, the first P.T. Anderson film I truly enjoyed, was an admitted homage to Jacques Tati.
There Will Be Blood has been compared by others to Citizen Kane, and I can see that. Both are epics about American tycoons and how their drive for fortune became their undoing. The movie I felt it was more closely in league with, however, was Erich Von Stroheim's silent magnum opus Greed. Even so, that is merely in subject and theme. In terms of style and mechanics, Paul Thomas Anderson has at last made something entirely original and completely his own.
Daniel Day-Lewis is Plainview, a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his bootstraps selling a little snake oil in order to get his hands on a lot of crude oil. He's a solitary man, meticulous in his endeavors. The film opens with him alone in the wilderness, digging in caves looking for a trickle of black gold. All on his own, in the middle of nowhere, he has no one to turn to when calamity strikes, and yet he has the will to overcome that calamity in order to stake his claim. He doesn't speak a word while out there, doesn't feel the need to talk to himself. In fact, the first fifteen minutes of the film rides by without anyone uttering more than single syllables. Anderson only uses music (supplied with a delicate, yet dramatic touch by Radiohead's wunderkind guitarist, Jonny Greenwood) and the sounds of a budding industry. This choice forces the viewer to pay attention, and whether you're in or out likely depends on whether you're willing to invest right away.
The story kicks into high gear, though, years later. Plainview has multiple wells, and they have made him a rich man. He also has adopted a son, H.W. (first-timer Dillion Freasier), who was orphaned as a baby when a collapsing rig killed his father. H.W. is unaware that Plainview isn't his real pappy, and Plainview exploits his mini-me so he can call his enterprise a family business.
One night, a mysterious young man named Paul (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine) appears and tells Plainview he knows where there are untapped oil reserves. For $500, he tells Plainview the location of his family's ranch. Lickety-split, Plainview is on the scene and trying to cheat the old farmer (David Willis) out of the property under the guise of wanting a quiet place to hunt quail. The farmer's other son, Eli, suspects the real motivation for the purchase, and so their clash of wills gets underway. Eli is the Pentecostal preacher at the local church, and he wants to make sure his congregation--and their spiritual leader--are taken care of.
Eli is also played by Paul Dano, and Anderson creates some doubt as to whether there were really two brothers at all. One of the recurring themes of the movie is good ol' fashioned American reinvention. Money can change who you are, and so too can salvation. This is just one of the many mysteries, one of the multiple clashes of the material and the spiritual, that ripples through There Will Be Blood. Are the accidents that plague the endeavor the result of Plainview slighting Eli's blessings? Can a renunciation of his sins, real or imagined, make Plainview's risky business proposal work? Will karma catch up with him, or will the Earth itself rebel?
Shooting mostly outside on a vast, rocky landscape, P.T. Anderson imbues There Will Be Blood with a palpable atmosphere. The sun burns hot, washing out the colors and forcing us to squint as the story climbs out of the dark interiors. You can almost feel the wind on your face and the grit of dirt between your fingers. More importantly, though, the oil itself is a real, tangible entity. The look of it, the way it coats the men, their gasps for fresh air, Anderson is practically working in Sense-o-Vision. You'll swear you're choking on the smell!
At the same time, for as good as the direction is, I can't help thinking that this movie would not be nearly as excellent as it is had a different actor been cast in the lead. It's like trying to imagine Raging Bull without Robert De Niro. The entire cast is fantastic, including Ciaran Hines as Plainview's right-hand man and Kevin J. O'Connor as a skeevy grifter. Dano falters a little in trying to play a convincing older version of himself, but as the awkward and often sinister preacher, he's able to sell the man as both a righteous lunatic and a scheming con artist.
Even so, it's Daniel Day-Lewis' picture. Now making a movie once every three years or so, any time Day-Lewis returns to the screen, it's an event. I'll go out on a limb and say this is his best performance since his restrained turn as Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence. He plays Plainview in multiple stages of life, from a determined young man to the over-confidence of middle age and on into old age, broken and alone with his ego. Though Plainview has the gift of gab when it comes time to pitch his sale, he is most often a man of few, carefully chosen words. Day-Lewis conveys more with his eyes and posture than even the best dialogue could express. By the time he reaches the denouement, the weight of all he has done has broken him, and yet the way he struggles to walk speaks volumes for how this stubborn old bastard will never give in.
Some will find the very ending of the picture and how Day-Lewis plays it a little shocking. I see it possibly inciting similar debate as the one that has been swirling around the conclusion of No Country for Old Men. For my money, it's right on target. It's what Paul Thomas Anderson has been promising us from the very beginning of the movie. It's the dogpiling of opposing forces and circumstance, and a last tenacious, cynical gesture. Certainly in this day and age, we shouldn't be too surprised by who triumphs and how, because we already know where that triumph has gotten us.
It's also Paul Thomas Anderson's victory lap. He hits the finish line with full force and the flag he flies shows just what kind of a race he's been running. He promised us blood, and he gave it.
* Given that Ted Demme's Blow and Andre Niccol's Lord of War also used that same exact blueprint, I will give Anderson credit for establishing a whole new genre of telling stories about men with less-than-legal jobs. At least he was the first to pilfer from Scorsese.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.