There Will Be Blood looks like it might be ridiculous, with its death-metal title and menacing gothic font on the posters. And it is ridiculous, but in a half-drunk, judgment-of-Jehovah kind of way. It's a rugged bruiser of a movie, with a central role that Daniel Day-Lewis turns into a physical soliloquy. His performance feels monumental. It's like watching a mountain range that can act.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director and writer, has made a string of pretty good movies, but nothing like this. For all the assurance of his filmmaking in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he seemed to be sort of absorbing and practicing. He showed flashes of Scorsese, Altman, Spielberg, De Palma, even, in his last film, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch. All stylish and skillful, but not quite distinctive. There Will Be Blood is something else. It still has its touchstones—Sergio Leone, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola—but it's an unflinching original. There are flaws in its grandiosity, but who cares? It's not a perfect film, just a great one.
It opens with shots of imposing desert hills, set against tense, shrieking strings (the score is by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead). Day-Lewis is a silver miner, working solo in the middle of nowhere, drenched in sweat and covered in mud, attacking the earth with shovels, picks, dynamite, and his bare hands. A little later we see him again, with bigger machines and a new goal—oil—and even more determined in his assault on the landscape.
His name is Daniel Plainview, and his pursuit of riches in the scrublands of early-20th-century California brings him into contact—and then cahoots, and then confrontation— with a young preacher named Eli Sunday. Eli has a brother named Paul, a sister named Mary and a father named Abel. They live in a dusty nothing clapboard town called Little Boston, which happens to sit on top of a lake of untapped black crude.
The names have a theatrical clarity, a conflation of Biblical and American archetypes, and it's clear from the start that Anderson is aiming for myth: an infant's forehead is smudged with oil; a gusher turns into a pillar of flame. There is no subtlety in the overloaded symbolism, but objecting to it is like objecting to a large rock that is rolling right at you.
The movie was inspired by Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, and it lends itself to easy contemporary parallels. You can read it as a creation tale of the age of petroleum, one century's angry history of the previous one, an indictment of a national morality. But a step past that, it reads like Shakespeare or the Greeks, with the broad events of the world just amplifications of jealousies, family rivalries, and lusts (of capital rather than carnal nature—there's barely a woman in sight). You can also take it as a very grim comedy about corruption of the soul. There isn't much outright humor in the movie, but the tone is sly and the last scene is sort of hilarious.
Anderson's last movie was called Punch-Drunk Love, but really any of his movies could be. He specializes in the intertwinement of attachment and violence. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview is a product of unspecified hardships, completely cut off from his family; he is at a loss when it comes to expressing affection as anything but artifice. His adopted son (nice acting by a kid named Dillon Freasier) learns first to admire him and then to distrust him. Eli Sunday, meanwhile, is angry at his own father, and at the limitations of his small, isolated, fundamentalist community. He finds stature the only place it's available to him: in church, as a charismatic faith healer. (As Eli, the young-buckish Paul Dano is working well out of his weight class, but he is game. He keeps coming at Day-Lewis all through the film.)
It's inevitable that Plainview and Eli will recognize each other's gnawing needs. They use each other, warily, and with effects that are also inevitable. The ending does sort of break down, but it makes sense mythically. The last section is just too short to be really effective. It's like trying to tack a condensed Godfather II onto the end of The Godfather. Or the end of Apocalypse Now onto the end of 2001. Or all of the above onto Citizen Kane. It's actually pretty entertaining.
And that's the thing. As an indictment of American ambition but also a roaring example of it, There Will Be Blood is constructed of its own contradictions. It knows what it's up to, but believes in it anyway. There is something exhilarating about that, which is probably also part of Anderson's point.