The itch to remonstrate any Paul Thomas Anderson film as pretentious is not without justification. Remember the frog-shower in Magnolia? Yep, that was him. But, from Sydney (formerly known as Hard Eight) to Boogie Nights to Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s filmography has always been stamped with the brand “flawed masterpiece,” works that are simultaneously brilliant, indulgent and infuriating.
These descriptors also apply to There Will Be Blood, and they are qualities that Anderson sharesperhaps not altogether coincidentallywith its larger-than-life protagonist, Daniel Plainview. At once both a riveting character study and a scorching metaphor, Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! is at least equally influenced by the cinema that comprised the syllabus for Anderson’s cinematic self-educationGiant, Citizen Kane, even the three-act narrative structure of Kubrick’s 2001 (headlined by a half-hour opening chapter sans dialogue that could well be called “The Dawn of Daniel”). It is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, had Bogart’s Fred Dobbs been the one to emerge from the hills with all the gold. No film in the past year has haunted me longer after departing the theater.
Within Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit’s panoramic stereogram is a Faustian fever dream that deconstructs both the Horatio Alger myth and the American ethos of success through diligent, pious striving. The story of Plainview reflects much that is admirable and reproving in the American experience. This man, whom the luminous Daniel Day-Lewis plays with an almost reptilian gait and a melodious baritone mimicking John Huston, is a turn-of-the-century Texas prospector who crawls miles of rugged terrain after shattering his leg just to stake claim to a silver mine, and, in this film, he embodies the hardscrabble spirit that legend tells us built this country. His later trek to California in search of an oil-rich expanse and financial glory mirrors our nation’s western expansion.
Once there, Plainview preys on the want of cash-strapped homesteaders to acquire great swaths of land on which to build his derricks and fiscal empire. Yet, even as his coffers overflow, Plainview’s descent into personal decay is precipitous. The more economic success he attains, the more he cordons himself from those around him, even his deaf adopted son H.W. Accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s ethereal score, Plainview develops into a fistula protruding from capitalism’s seamy underbelly: shrewd, diabolical and cunning … everything we continue to admire and even demand from our corporate and political leaders. Anderson’s most devious trick is triggering the faint notion that even after all Plainview’s foibles and personal tragedies are laid bare, many of us would still trade places with him if his mansion and money came with the deal.
Deciphering motives behind Plainview’s madness is a thorny matter, and it is one of There Will Be Blood‘s starkest shortcomings. Although Plainview admits (to a man he later murders) that he generally dislikes people, his psychosis seems driven primarily by running to-and-fro with local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Originally uneasy business partners, their relationship devolves into a series of indignities and reprisals, including a tit for tat of violent baptisms, one by oil and the other by water.
Together, Sunday and Plainview represent a microcosm of the often unholy marriage between capitalism and religion. Plainview’s inability to submit to any authority beyond his self-interest, much less one that requires him to confess and confront his wickedness, illuminates There Will Be Blood‘s driving conflict and clarifies its cataclysmic (and undoubtedly divisive) climax. Charles Foster Kane dies pining for his Rosebud; Plainview’s perverse redemption flows from obliterating his own.
There Will Be Blood opens Friday in select theaters.