Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood literally starts off with a thud. Only a few minutes into the film, set in late 19th and early 20th century California, the protagonist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) loses his grip on a ladder and plunges down a shaft where he’s been excavating for silver.
When Plainview emerges, small chunk of silver ore in hand, Anderson shows us his changing fortunes with a few, quick brushstrokes. We see Plainview lying on the floor of an office, stretching the leg he shattered in the plummet, while surveyors certify his valuable discovery. From there he’s onto oil. He strikes crude with a small crew, and before long he’s making successful, duplicitous pitches to drill all over the state.
But as his wealth and prospects swell, so too does Daniel Plainview’s lust for power, and Anderson continually reminds us that Plainview has had his Fall: a persistent limp marks his gait, a remnant of his tumble that flares up whenever he deceives people with fraudulent “plain speech,” or when he gives in to violence against those who cross him.
With There Will Be Blood, Anderson gives us perhaps the most striking and confounding film of the decade. He credits Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! for inspiring the plot, but the movie’s Old Testament genius is entirely Anderson’s. Sinclair’s book is a thin, socialist commentary of corporate greed; Blood is a mammoth character study, biblically fraught with themes of sin, fratricide and false prophecy. It chronicles Plainview’s rise from wildcatter to oil tycoon, and the slow disintegration of his fallen mind. Along the way he estranges himself from his adopted son, H.W., murders a man who claims to be his brother and wars with a boy preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who demands Plainview build a house for his Church of the Third Revelation in exchange for his family’s oil-rich land.
Some critics have complained that the film loses its impact as Plainview devolves into drunkenness and ever more desperate acts of avarice and cruelty. Timothy Noah (Slate) writes that in focusing on Plainview’s psyche, Anderson misses “a chance to say something big about money and power in America.” That statement is akin to saying Moby-Dick fails to speak to larger issues.
To be fair to Noah and company, the film refuses to explain itself, and after two viewings, I’m still struggling to piece everything together. But Anderson is clearly after something far bigger than mere capitalist critique; the oil hiding beneath the film’s parched earth has been the great white whale at the turn of the last two centuries, and Plainview is its insatiable Ahab.
Anderson’s greatest artistic choice in There Will Be Blood is the casting of the main character. Much has already been made of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, and all of it, every superlative, is justified. There is not a more captivating or savagely powerful actor at work in contemporary cinema. Like his turn in 2003’s Gangs of New York (for which he was sadly denied a second Oscar), Day-Lewis is a glowering, mustachioed force of nature. His Plainview commands and menaces a room with a simple squint, or a subtle exhale through the nostrils.
Anderson brilliantly uses sounds like Day-Lewis’ breathing to heighten tension. Pulleys squeak, gears groan, and pick axes pound the rock face. The noise of machinery is coupled with the film’s haunting soundtrack, composed by Radiohead’s gifted multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood. The music is all white noise, discordant strings, and a pulse-like percussion that peaks during a virtuosic tracking shot in which Plainview carries the injured H.W. away from a burning derrick.
Although Plainview involves H.W. in his schemes, he evinces a genuine, fatherly love for his young adopted son. The relationship represents the oil man’s best shot at redemption, and he falls short only when, in true Ahab fashion, the desire for more actually proves more desirable than any material good.
“I have a competition in me,” Plainview tells Henry, the man who purports to be his half-brother. “I want no one else to succeed.” It’s the most self-revealing we ever see Plainview, and it’s apt that he says it to an alleged blood relation.
It’s also the key to what critics miss about the film’s moral. In addition to Melville, Anderson has been reading his Genesis. The story that follows the Fall (like Plainview’s own), is that of Cain murdering his brother. Anderson aims beyond America for more general truths about greed’s pernicious effect on human fraternity. The film is full of literal and figurative family violence. Eli attacks his father (fittingly named Abel), who in turn beats his daughter. Plainview, who abandoned his real family in Wisconsin, kills Henry and buries him in an echo of the Genesis story. He repudiates H.W. as an orphan (“There’s none of me in you!”) when he begins to see him as a competitor for oil. And he bludgeons Eli to death in his mansion’s bowling alley while the disgraced minister begs for mercy and cries out “We’re brothers!”
This murder puts the final punctuation on There Will Be Blood and its prophetic title. Anderson’s film is almost unprecedented in its brutality, a movie you admire more than you love. But it’s an absolute masterpiece all the same. Lying next to Sunday’s body, Plainview conjures images of another timeless movie about unquenchable ambition: in his nearly empty mansion, Plainview becomes Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Cain), an isolated, dissipated magnate who rejects his role as any brother’s keeper.
“I’m finished,” he proclaims, and with no one left to claim his kinship, Plainview has never spoken plainer—or truer—words.