There Will Be Blood, a nerve-racking American epic written and directed by P.T. Anderson, is so remarkably self-assured, so fully realized — hell, it’s such a flat-out masterpiece — that it’s surprising to think that this Anderson, this ferocious, uncompromising genius, is the same pastiche artist who made Boogie Nights and Magnolia. I preferred his grittier debut, Hard Eight (well, it was gritty as any movie that stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a cocktail waitress can be) partly because it was more vague in its numerous antecedents. What it didn’t have was any indication of Anderson’s ambition, which started to bubble up through the ersatz Scorsese set pieces in Boogie Nights and the character-driven melodrama of Magnolia, which culminated in a galvanizing meteorological event that stretched too far to infuse the film with a literally Biblical gravity. Punch Drunk Love, casting Adam Sandler in a semi-serious role, seemed at the time like an Altmanesque trifle (the soundtrack presence of “He Needs Me” making the reference explicit) but in retrospect it’s the work of a director who hooked up smartly with an expert cinematographer (Robert Elswit), developed chops in both story and character, and started wrapping eager fingers around his own newly developing voice.
But I didn’t see inside those films the promise of anything like There Will Be Blood, a wild-eyed fable about the life and deeds of one Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a prospector-turned-oilman working to buy up as much resource-rich western land as it takes to make his own fortune. The price is paid in more than dollars, of course — like a D.W. Griffith melodrama, There Will Be Bloodfocuses on the moral drama in Plainview’s biography, the way his misdeeds live as tiny voices yapping at him from the back of his head until, spectacularly and triumphantly, greed murders conscience.
“I drink your milkshake,” Plainview declares, frighteningly and hilariously, in a scene that summarizes certain cutthroat capitalist principles. It’s a principle that seems pointedly American, connoting the swagger and influence and craftiness with which so many legendary yanks have conducted themselves, not only as shake-suckers within their own countries but in terms of punitive if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us foreign policy. It can’t be merely coincidence that this story of violence and ambition reaches screens at a time when the U.S. is embroiled in a damaging episode in oil-rich lands abroad, where again lip service is paid to notions of righteousness while the events on the ground suggest different concerns entirely. Anderson is smart enough to relegate that metaphor to subtext, but he’s made a staunchly moral movie; it makes no excuses for the errors in character and deed that Plainview comes to exemplify, nor does it have any interest in forgiving them. Plainview is a successful entrepreneur, a shrewd businessman of the type that was probably a key driver of economic growth during the industrial revolution. He’s never, quite, held accountable for his own dreadfulness in story terms, but the film’s condemnation of his ilk is absolute. It’s not an anti-American film by any means, but a film that considers the down side of American history.
The film’s early scenes are intense and economical. In their spare precision and occasionally graphic depictions of underground peril, they begin to sketch the outlines of Plainview’s rags-to-riches story. A prospector who drags his broken body out of the ground after his first oil strike, Plainview quickly becomes focused on maximizing his profit potential. His business is built on convincing townspeople who suddenly find that their homes and schools are parked on oil-rich land that he has their best interests at heart. A key to his sales pitch is the presence of a cute moppet at his side during his presentations, which seems to serve on its own as some kind of testament to essential goodness. (The absence of the boy’s mother is the elephant in every room.) Even so, there’s a clear tenseness to Plainview’s pitch – he’s worried that if he can’t secure drilling rights to the massive store of oil that will make his fortune, corporate interests will beat him to it. So he’s that other American archetype as well: the paranoid entrepreneur. But at what cost his fortune?
Anderson directs this stuff with breathtaking confidence. The film’s first act, shivery with its terrible knowledge of the peril of mining, draws on the claustrophobia of holes dug in the ground to emphasize Plainview’s fundamental intensity and aloneness. In many scenes, Anderson employs a moving camera that owes a clear debt to the slow, God’s-eye zoom favored by Altman, but which has an energy and consciousness of its own. In the absence of God – or at least a holy man who can be counted on to work true miracles – that camera eye is Plainview’s abiding challenger, the film’s audience the gathering of peers that will sit in judgment. Anderson indulges no fancy notions of karma or retribution against the man’s misdeeds in his own world; it’s enough that this character sit and endure our condemnation in this other. (What does that name mean, anyway? A “plain view” may reference the way he sees the world, a quick, simple calculus that allows him to find the base value of any human interaction. But it can also refer to the gaze of the audience – this man is unadorned mortal spectacle, laying bare the base motives and other failings of human nature for us to plainly see.)
The spare storytelling of the first portion of the film reaches spectacular and terrifying climax in a showpiece sequence depicting a derrick explosion that creates a pillar of fire towering above the desolate California landscape where Plainview stakes his claims and erects his strange altars to material wealth. It’s Anderson’s delivery of the disaster his film has been suggesting, the promise of spectacle fulfilled. Simultaneously terrible and beautiful, the fire rages overhead as the extent of Plainview’s corruption first becomes apparent – given the choice between tending to injured kin or to the unexpected shower of black gold out on the plain, he chooses to stand and gloat. In context, it’s a genuinely shocking moment. I can’t remember the last time an American film depended so much on – counted on, trusted in — our rapt observance of these details of character. It’s one of those films that feels like a great collaboration between filmmakers and viewers, between artists and audience. There Will Be Blood has a great, blood-boiling power and ferocity, but Anderson delivers the medicine so deftly that it feels only like a needle slipping under the skin. And then the burn sets in.
Anderson promises blood, and the film is punctuated at regular intervals by little bursts of violence, culminating in an explosive climax. Anderson avoids overtly sweeping gestures or showy flourishes in favor of old-fashioned narrative, hunkering down with his camera close to his leading man and letting his face – a squint, a mouth hanging slightly agape, a grin and a twinkle in the eye that may not be at all friendly — tell a good part of the story. Day-Lewis plays Plainview not so much as a new invention as a refinement of the ferocious pioneer he played in Gangs of New York. As great as that performance was, this one is better. (Imagine how much Gangs of New York could have been if Day-Lewis was the lead and the story revolved around his character instead of wasting time on the love story between Leo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz.)
Plainview is gruff and self-assured, but tormented. His pain is never made explicit, but you can feel the psychic recoil in his blustery responses when pigeonholed by the local preacher who insists — as part of a crude exchange of interests — that he seek Jesus’s forgiveness, or by the grave disdain of the son he fails. If Plainview believed the devil existed, and if he were to make a deal with him, it would be sealed with a gruff smile and a matter-of-fact handshake (and a steely glint in the eye as he tried to figure out an angle on the transaction). He knows what he has lost, and only a rough gravity – a by-any-means-necessary sense of ego and purpose – keeps this man afloat. You can feel grave moral desperation, too, in his urge toward familial love – when it seems possible that a long-lost brother has arrived on the scene, Plainview lets his guard down in a way that shows how urgently he wishes for the revelation of a real blood relation. Something to believe in, thicker than oil. When the fashion is for movies about redemption – when even the apocalyptic I Am Legend is rewritten to have a happy ending — this film about long cold nights spent living inside the dark of one’s soul, lit only by burning oil, has the force and power of scripture. It’s a magnificent achievement.