Much-praised director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) ditches his popular ensemble-cast comedy/drama style for a dark, visually sparse single-character study. Borrowing some of its plot and most of its characters from an obscure Upton Sinclair novel (titled Oil!), Anderson’s There Will Be Blood sweet-talks Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis out of yet another self-imposed “retirement” to play the single most vicious, mesmerizing, unforgettable character of the year.
Day-Lewis bites into his meaty role like a starving trucker at one of those eat-the-entire-five-pound-steak-in-one-hour-and-it’s-free restaurants. After that, he chews up the scenery, devours his costars and helps himself to seconds. Fellow actors would do well to just get the hell out of his way at the Oscars because this guy has his eyes on the Best Actor statue and nothing’s stopping him.
The protagonist Day-Lewis gives life to is one Daniel Plainview, a self-described misanthrope who sets out to mine silver on a nowhere plot of Texas scrub land. He hits oil instead and parlays the small claim into a wildcatting empire ’round about the turn of the last century.
Plainview is a raw-knuckled, tight-lipped cuss, who describes his dream as being rich enough to isolate himself from the whole of wretched humankind. (“I see the worst in people,” he explains matter-of-factly.) Creeping in around the corners of this ugly portrait, however, are tiny touches of Plainview’s humanity. When a nameless worker dies on one of Plainview’s early digs, the budding oil baron wordlessly claims the man’s orphaned son as his own, raising him in the newly minted family business.
For the most part, Plainview is a straight shooter, a ruthless, bluntly honest businessman more than happy to stab a guy in the chest instead of the back. “One night, I’m gonna come inside your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and I'm gonna cut your throat,” he tells one rival. Plainview is, however, not above screwing the general population--particularly the people he believes to be morons--so long as it gets him what he wants. In early scenes, we see Plainview traveling across Texas with his young son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) building up drilling contracts with small-town residents desperate to capitalize on America’s budding oil craze. He does so by stressing his “family” business, allowing polite, well-spoken H.W. to serve as his best advertising. Clearly Plainview cares about his son and is bringing him up properly. ... At the same time, however, you get the nagging impression that Plainview is like a primordial “good old boy” politician, telling the people what they want to hear and employing his son as nothing more than a living prop.
There Will Be Blood is classic American mythbuilding along the lines of Citizen Kane or Giant. As Plainview’s fortune grows, so does our nation’s. The birth of the Industrial Age, the growth of capitalism, the steady destruction of the American West: All are charted here. Anderson’s film is an epic, all right, covering a good 30 crucial years of our country’s history. The snapshot taken is so authentic, the sets, characters and costumes so accurate, you can practically feel the dust in your teeth. Despite its wide lens, however, the film remains focused squarely on its single-minded protagonist.
Sharing Plainview’s rise to prominence are his son, a dirtwater Texas town he helps build and--interestingly enough--the church. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) stands in Day-Lewis’ shadow as Eli Sunday, a smarmy, self-appointed man of God who strikes a devil’s bargain with Plainview to grow his congregation. The fundamentalist preacher becomes Plainview’s lifelong frienemy, kicking the oilman when he’s down, begging for money when he’s up and building a prototypical megachurch along the way. Sunday is the Bible-thumping equivalent of a robber baron, and Anderson’s script retains as much scorn for money-grubbing religions as for money-grubbing corporations. And yet, for better or worse, these are the very forces that built America--a partnership that can still be seen in our government.
Ultimately, There Will Be Blood isn’t a cheerful film, heaping tragedy upon tragedy until its main character’s megalomania explodes in the title promise. Despite the length (158 minutes) and the dark depths to which the film is willing to go, There Will Be Blood is horribly fascinating from start to finish. Daniel Plainview is not a nice person, but there’s something grimly admirable about him. He’s a hardworking, self-made bastard who isn’t afraid to admit how much of a bastard he really is. You could take the easy route and say the moral of There Will Be Blood is the old adage that “money corrupts,” but you suspect Daniel Plainview would be a miserable, isolated old monster even if he weren’t so damn greedy. Such is the strength of Day-Lewis’ elemental, Oscar-worthy performance.