“Never since the world began,” Upton Sinclair wrote in 1927, “had there been men of power equal to this.” That description of a prototypical oil speculator, from the first chapter of Sinclair’s novel Oil!, has seemed in hindsight like an old-school Socialist’s quaint hyperbole. But that hasn’t stopped writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson from taking it very seriously.
A self-styled maverick of major ambition and, until now, minor films (yes, I said it), Anderson has achieved a bombastic breakthrough with There Will Be Blood. Grafting biographical details from the life of California oil tycoon Edward Doheny onto raw material from the early chapters of Sinclair’s book, Anderson’s fifth feature forcefully articulates, most importantly, the filmmaker’s own dark, deliberate vision. It’s thrilling to see his falsely dignified postures stripped away: This is the best work he’s ever done.
The film is by turns a period Western, a gothic horror story, a blackly comedic pop riff, and an unabashedly cruel allegory about the corrosive, competing urges of capitalism and evangelism. It’s intended as an essential treatise on the American character. Never mind the London-born lead actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the Oxford-born composer (Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood), without whose contributions the movie almost certainly wouldn’t work. The principal architect of the thing is, through and through, a Californian; add There Will Be Blood to his overrated standouts Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and finally you can perceive Anderson as a serious, eccentrically discursive cinematic essayist whose great subject is the absurdity of golden-state excess.
Lewis plays the aforementioned speculator, one Daniel Plainview, who starts out, in 1898, as a driven but generally unlucky silver miner who knows enough about oil—and certainly about snake oil—to set himself up for life. That means adopting his dead partner’s boy (first-timer Dillon Freasier) as his own so-called “son and partner,” and treating him like a mascot to seduce simpler people into letting him drill their land. It means, even as an accident leaves the boy with a permanent injury, finding the time and inclination to dance like a demon with greedy delight. And it means contending with a nemesis, a neophyte Holy Roller named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who’s willing to allow the rape of his town’s land in exchange for a fully funded new church.
Daniel is a man willing to pay thousands of turn-of-the-century dollars not to be baptized, so the prospects for their relationship look grim. What’s more, where his roughness contains brutality, so does Eli’s delicacy. Each man picks and scratches at an aspect of the same ambition: Be it from the earth or the heavens, each wants to tear open a seam and profit by whatever riches pour out of it. Their rivalry is one of mutual humiliation (gripping enough that it distracts us from the peculiar lack of real character arcs); the most haunting violence here is horribly intimate—of men shoving each other down into the muck, doing each other in. And so the plot that emerges from this sooty, unctuous and essentially womanless movie is one of opposing erections: the steeple and the derrick.
The actors are superb, if not always ideally controlled. You may have caught one of those tortured, too-long Day-Lewis pauses in the movie’s trailer: “I can’t keep doing this on my own … with these … people,” he says, telegraphing madness and menace in one typically cagey close-up. Day-Lewis is a titan—an actor of such fierce, finely honed instincts that if his vital weirdness and intensity tips too far over the top once in a while, well, what living director is brave enough to have him dial it down a notch? Not even Anderson; not yet, anyway. Dano, for his part, does fine with keeping up, carefully modulating from eerie stillness into rabid preacher-man fury, if understandably, tolerably slipping into actorly inelegance.
The third essential performer is the composer. At its best, the wail of Greenwood’s percussive, discordant score sounds like an angry swarm of cicadas. (In Magnolia, the sky rained frogs, so why not?) It is what this throbbing film needs. What speaks most truly of our self-loathing national disposition in There Will Be Blood, it turns out, is its tone, at once audacious and shrilly misanthropic.
It is a real achievement. In what Sinclair wrote of negotiating automobile traffic in a hard-scrabble frontier landscape, Anderson has found portent, unseemly potential: “While collisions do happen, they leave time enough in between for universes to be formed, and successful careers conducted by men of affairs.”