The plot is simple. Plainview is a quintessentially self-made man; we first see him alone, swinging a pickaxe in search of silver in 1898. In time, his effort switches to oil, an alluring but dangerous new industry that takes the life of a colleague, whose infant son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) Daniel assumes as his own. Within a few years Plainview is a successful oil man, not, as he frequently repeats, “a speculator”: he facilitates his own drilling and knows the nuts and bolts of derrick building and maintenance better than any rich middleman in a suit. His empire grows to include Little Boston, California where a young preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), hopes that the town’s newfound prosperity will benefit his equally self-made Church of the Third Revelation.
Plainview has little time for God (“I like all faiths…I like everything,” he perfectly evades questioning of his religion), preferring instead the tangible work-to-success ratio of something like oil drilling. After the initial rush of oil -- in an explosion that deafens H.W. -- Eli comes to ask for his commission of the profits and Plainview can only respond by mercilessly beating him and begging to know when God would give his son back his hearing. He smears oil in Eli’s face and threatens to “bury [him] in the ground.”
Another subplot emerges when a man claiming to be Plainview’s half-brother shows up midway through. Kevin J. O’Connor plays this man, and his passive, wounded performance is one of many note-perfect small parts in this movie. This is largely a one-man showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis, but it says a lot about the cast that no one gets overpowered or acted out of the movie.
In addition, There Will Be Blood is beautiful. It is dirty and grimy, placing the audience uncomfortably in the deepest, dankest oil wells imaginable, and its characters look unflinchingly like relics from an earlier, less hygienic time. But “beautiful” is the only way to describe a movie with such realistic-looking costume and art direction, or one with such appreciation for its landscape. Sweat beads glisten and facial hair looks startlingly unkempt throughout, but the evocation of a distinctive time and place is so impressively captured by actors and filmmakers that when the theater lights went up I felt nearly disoriented.
Relatedly, director Paul Thomas Anderson continues his unparalleled preoccupation with mechanics and systems. Just as Hard Eight functioned as a master class in gambling and casino theory, or Boogie Nights was as much about filmmaking as its characters, There Will Be Blood captures the process of early-20th century oil drilling with unbelievable meticulousness. Anderson’s movies, particularly Magnolia, frequently reach moments of almost unbearable emotional pitch, but he avoids melodrama because his attention to machines and procedures is unlike any director I can name. You leave this film feeling qualified to enter the desert and build your own derrick.
This is fitting for a director who is without doubt a technical master. His earlier films all relied on fluid long takes in claustrophobic environments, as well as his encyclopedic references to canonized movies and directors. But as insular as the story in this new film may be, Anderson smartly pares down his more showoffy tendencies and allows the vastness of his setting speak for itself. We still get the bravura scenes, particularly one in which Plainview strikes the “ocean of oil” in Little Boston, but this is a movie that could only be made by a mature filmmaker with nothing left to prove. It moves forward with stately, confident pacing, immersing us in a time and place rather than calling attention to the ample talent behind the camera.
Plainview’s rise to immense wealth and his subsequent loss of emotional perspective are nothing new to American movies, but the depth of character in There Will Be Blood make this particular rise-and-fall story more than a simple cautionary tale. And while only one man “wins” in the battle between Plainview’s capitalism and Eli’s religion, any viewers looking for an obvious moral stand will be left wanting. Because while Plainview dismisses Eli’s devil-baiting sermons as merely “a goddamn hell of a show,” his own downfall is the result of a complicated man who falls prey to the worst parts of himself. Call it greed, call it misanthropy, or like Eli, call it the Devil – the origin of Plainview’s “sin” is something internal. Unlike the protagonist of Citizen Kane, Plainview’s wealth doesn’t distract him from his important relationships because he has few to begin with. Despite his obvious love for H.W., he claims to hate all people, and therefore necessarily himself as well. For a while, he is able to channel that hatred into an unbeatable competitive streak, but that sentiment means nothing once he trounces all competition and has no fight left to distract him from self-loathing. He eventually denounces whatever love he has, the only possible outcome for this story.
That the story of such a bitter, complicated man could be so engrossing is ultimately a testament to Daniel Day-Lewis. In a recent year-end list, The New Republic’s Christopher Orr gave Day-Lewis “The Roger Federer Award for Being So Much Better than Anyone Else It's Like I'm Playing a Different Sport,” and I can only enthusiastically second that title. What Day-Lewis does here is less like acting and more like complete immersion. Even though he spend much of this film in tight close-up, he rarely feels like the same actor that appeared in The Age of Innocence or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or any of his other compelling performances. In its portrayal of a desperate, sad, successful man, There Will Be Blood is closer in tone to Raging Bull than Citizen Kane (no less of a complimentary comparison, as far as I’m concerned), and it is an incredible film, the kind of experience we hope for whenever the lights dim in a movie theater.