Crude Awakening: Day-Lewis? Plainview quickly learns the drill of oil prospecting.
Crude Awakening: Day-Lewis? Plainview quickly learns the drill of oil prospecting.

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One of those prodigiously gifted American movie brats who strives never to repeat himself, Paul Thomas Anderson has four features behind him: a grubbily intimate tale of luckless gamblers (Hard Eight), an exuberant porn-biz saga (Boogie Nights), a web-of-fate ensemble piece (Magnolia), and the most abstract Adam Sandler comedy ever (Punch-Drunk Love). Now comes There Will Be Blood, a small-cast epic, set at the turn of the 20th century, that’s the writer-director’s first historical film. Stylistically, this sweeping yet thin movie marks another shift, but it’s also the film in which some shared themes begin to emerge.

Aside from Hard Eight, set in Nevada, all of Anderson’s films are odes to Southern California, and all are concerned with avarice, obsession, entrepreneurship, and isolation. Since its central character is a pioneering oilman, and the film arrives at a time when petroleum addiction is benefiting Iran and Venezuela more than the United States, There Will Be Blood has a rueful timeliness. But the movie’s lead character, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), is just another of the director’s outsize rogues, pursuing his era’s path to riches and the right to tell everyone else to bugger off. Born a few generations later, he might have decided to shoot porn flicks in the San Fernando Valley instead of prospecting in Los Angeles’ then-rustic environs.

The movie opens with squealing, buzzing music—the score is by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who’s clearly heard George Crumb’s experimental string-quartet piece Black Angels—and a shot of dry hills. It’s 1898, and Plainview is digging for silver, all alone in a pit. There’s no dialogue save for mutterings. When he falls into the shaft and hurts himself, Plainview simply continues, hobbling to protect his injured foot. (Yes, it’s his left one.) Later, Plainview switches to seeking oil, finds it, and employs hundreds of workers. Yet he’ll always be the lone man in the pit, essentially solitary even after he adopts a son and builds an empire.

A worker maimed in a pit is one of the film’s visceral motifs, and not all of the incidents result in mendable wounds. Early in Plainview’s enterprise, one of his workers is crushed by a piece of machinery, and the tycoon-to-be takes responsibility for the dead man’s baby. (Where’s Mom? Anderson never explains, but there are so few women in the tale that it might as well transpire in an alternate universe where humans reproduce asexually.) The poker-faced boy is called H.W. (Dillon Freasier), and he becomes Plainview’s prop—the kid’s presence allows the antisocial oilman to proclaim himself a “family man”—and later his partner. Plainview also trusts one associate, Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds), but there’s little warmth between the two men. “I hate most people,” Plainview admits, and when a guy who claims to be his half-brother appears, the loner’s wariness soon turns to fury.

Plainview’s breakthrough arrives in the guise of an awkward young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who says that the land underneath his family’s goat farm bleeds oil. Sunday accepts $500 for the property’s exact location, then exits the story. But his twin brother, Eli (also Dano), is a recurring character and remains Plainview’s nemesis for some 20 years. An oily evangelical, Eli Sunday demands the oilman’s financial support for his fledgling church. Plainview reluctantly agrees, but he snubs the self-styled preacher whenever possible. Plainview and Sunday’s rivalry abides until the final scene, which reveals the depth of the magnate’s contempt for the minister—and also reminds viewers of Anderson’s tendency toward overblown and unsatisfying endings.

Loosely adapted by the director from Oil!, the 1927 novel by muckraker Upton Sinclair, There Will Be Blood captures capitalism in the raw. Yet the director is more movie buff than social critic, so it seems likely that he was attracted to the book in large part because it allowed him to construct a latter-day counterpart to Erich von Stroheim’s famously butchered Greed. Cut by MGM from more than eight hours to two, von Stroheim’s 1924 movie was based on Frank Norris’ 1899 novel, McTeague, which prefigured Sinclair’s work. The opening title of There Will Be Blood, rendered in white-on-black Gothic lettering, is a nod to the silent cinema of the era. Otherwise, though, Anderson doesn’t attempt to simulate the look of ’20s movies. Indeed, he flashily rejects the formality and distance of early Hollywood, often using subjective viewpoints and repeatedly bouncing objects off or splashing liquids onto the camera lens. Still, he rewinds Sinclair’s yarn a couple of decades to begin in the 1890s, near the birth of moving pictures, so that Plainview’s rise will parallel cinema’s.

Such insider references are more compelling than the movie itself. Grimy and physical, There Will Be Blood is rich with detail. Particularly impressive is a long sequence that includes a crucial injury, an oil-well fire, and the blaze’s snuffing with a dynamite blast. Yet all this oil-spattered activity is just the backdrop to Plainview’s character and Day-Lewis’ performance, both of which are forceful but cursory. Anderson’s protagonist is driven yet largely unmotivated, a portrait of ruthlessness sketched in crayon. And while Day-Lewis’ characterization benefits from his Method actor intensity, the essence of it is simply that he ta-alks rea-all-ly slo-o-ow. That’s the sort of acting gimmick that works better for a supporting player than for a lead performer who’s onscreen for virtually every second of a nearly three-hour film.

Though it opened during the last week of 2007 only in New York and Los Angeles, There Will Be Blood has done very well in the artier critics’ polls across the country. So have No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, all auteur movies that celebrate virility run amok. Art films have a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for being talky, mannered, and, well, feminine. But these pictures turn on personal codes of manly conduct that range from heedless to frankly sociopathic. Such movies are essentially genre work, albeit at a high level of skill.

Partially because both are Westerns of a sort, There Will Be Blood is closest to No Country for Old Men. Impeccably filmed and edited, neither film gets a shot wrong. Yet they’re undermined by unconvincingly stylized central performances, and by characters who don’t learn, evolve, or mellow but simply move from one explosion to the next. Neither historical analysis nor political tract, There Will Be Blood is simply a 158-minute journey toward fulfilling its title. Sure enough, there is a shower of blood, and it’s expertly staged, elegantly photographed, and not especially meaningful.