Paul Thomas Anderson has been striving to make a masterpiece ever since he first exploded onto the American movie scene 10 years ago with his insanely ambitious second feature, Boogie Nights. Replete with showy camera moves and performance tics (borrowed from Scorsese and Altman, respectively), this ostensible portrait of the ’70s porn industry, while wildly entertaining, was in essence little more than a nonstop series of attention-grabbing set pieces. His hyperactive follow-up, Magnolia, gathered even more terrific actors and set off emotional crises at an even more frantic and furious pace. Even Punch-Drunk Love, the goofy romantic comedy he made with Adam Sandler, fairly pulsed with PTA’s unmistakable need to assault the viewer with evidence of his genius. “I get a bit giddy,” I wrote some years ago, “imagining what Anderson might accomplish one day if/when he finally calms the f--k down.” It’s a pleasure to report that the wait is over. His latest effort, the magnificent oil-baron epic There Will Be Blood, firmly and thrillingly demonstrates what switching to cinematic decaf can do.
It may also be significant that this is Anderson’s first adaptation. Loosely based on the first half of Upton Sinclair’s little-remembered novel Oil!, the film, which spans the period from 1898-1927, follows the meteoric rise to fortune of a rapacious prospector, Daniel Plainview. Unforgettably embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis, who speaks in a plummy yet malevolent cadence that makes him sound like the love child of John Huston and Sean Connery, Plainview is first seen mining silver in an astonishing wordless prologue that lasts nearly 15 minutes. A few years later, he’s established himself as an oil man, traveling with his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) from one impoverished burg to another. Fleece, drill, reap, repeat. All goes smoothly until Plainview runs up against his equal in greed and hypocrisy, a boy preacher by the name of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who uses his influence among the townsfolk of Little Boston, California, to blackmail Plainview into supporting his Church of the Third Revelation. The ensuing battle of wills between the forces of capitalism and organized religion could scarcely be uglier.
Anderson’s mastery of the medium has never been in doubt, but There Will Be Blood is even more impressive for the comparative restraint he shows here. He can still deliver a propulsive knuckle-biter when necessary, as when the young H.W. is injured by a newly erupted gusher and Plainview rushes into the muck and fire to retrieve him. But he also seems to have finally grasped that movies are not sharks that need to remain in constant motion or keel over dead. Indeed, some of the effects he achieves are so subtly powerful that they’re difficult to describe. In one scene, Plainview pays a visit to the church and watches from the back as Eli performs an exorcism, driving the alleged demon out of the building (and past Plainview) with great sweeping motions of his arms. He then stands exultant, arms outstretched wide, at which point Anderson cuts to the reverse angle, a tight close-up of Plainview glowering. What makes this shot sing is the presence of one of Eli’s hands intruding into the frame from behind Plainview—a compositional disruption that communicates in an instant what Anderson used to spend lengthy monologues struggling to convey. Perhaps the brilliantly expressionistic, frequently atonal score PTA commissioned from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood gave him the confidence to employ such stark, unadorned imagery.
Ultimately, There Will Be Blood, too, falls short of genuine greatness, in part because Anderson reverts to type. Critics have been sharply divided about the film’s lunatic denouement, a final confrontation between Eli and Plainview set in the latter’s in-mansion bowling alley; I belong to the camp disappointed to see Day-Lewis abruptly turn into Jack Nicholson, leering wildly and bellowing non-sequitur catchphrases (including the instantly infamous declaration “I drink your milkshake!”)—the sort of intensity-for-intensity’s-sake flourish to which PTA has always been regrettably partial. But even before this unfortunate reduction of a complicated personality to maniacal driller killer, Anderson seems unsure of how to reconcile his film’s grandiose sociological themes with its more intimate musings about the inexorable pull of family. (The titular blood is largely metaphorical; There Will Be Deoxyribonucleic Acid just doesn’t have the same ring.) In particular, a subplot involving a man claiming to be Plainview’s long-lost brother (Kevin J. O’Connor) fizzles, though Anderson seems to think that having Eli repeatedly call Plainview “brother” will somehow magically provide resonance. With this film, he proves that no young American director can touch him for sheer formal mastery. All he needs to enter the pantheon is to find something truly arresting or incisive to say.
There Will Be Blood
Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Kevin J. O’Connor
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson