There Will Be Blood is the fifth film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, and there’s no doubt that it’s a masterfully constructed piece of work from an immensely talented filmmaker — and a sprawling period piece departure to boot from a director whose work, Boogie Nights nominally excepted, has heretofore been rooted in latter-century modernity. And yet there’s still a sense — from some head-feint intrigue involving a pair of twin brothers to its title, which seems designed as a marketing scheme — that the film is an educated, elongated put-on. A great and entertaining put-on for cineastes, but still a put-on nonetheless.
An expansive epic of power, family and faith both conjured and misplaced, There Will Be Blood unfolds against the incendiary frontier of
turn-of-the-century petroleum boom. The story chronicles the life and times of
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a silver miner who transforms himself into a self-made oil tycoon.
gets a mysterious tip-off that there’s a little town out west where an ocean of
oil is oozing out of the ground, he heads with his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier),
to take their chances in dust-worn Little Boston. In this hardscrabble
town, where the main excitement centers around the holy-roller church of
charismatic preacher Eli Sunday (Little Miss Sunshine‘s Paul Dano),
and H.W. make their lucky strike. But even as the well raises all of
their fortunes, nothing will remain the same as conflicts escalate and every
human value — love, hope, community, belief, ambition and even the bond between
father and son — is imperiled by corruption, deception and the flow of that black gold.
Working from the first third, or half, of Upton Sinclair’s 1920s muck-raking novel Oil!
screenplay easily draws comparisons to The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Citizen Kane, just in terms of setting and themes — the manner in which it assays rising paranoia and competition. What
expertly conveys is a deceptive sense of epic scope — we scarcely leave
Planeview’s side, but paradoxically have a keen sense of his place in the industry, and the industry’s burgeoning importance to the country. Jonny Greenwood’s score, meanwhile, sounds like a THX test — a taut, menacing
string stretched to just before its breaking point; it’s a love-it or hate-it proposition. Still, for all the skill evident in its construction, you can feel There Will Be Blood lose most of an educated audience in its third act, as I did at a special screening Wednesday night, followed by a Q&A with Anderson — bad news since this ain’t a populist crowd-pleaser to begin with. Most of the laughter itself is appropriate, but unlike No Country for Old Men, they’re not laughing in shared, clenched tension, but in a weirdly diffused bewilderment. This stems chiefly from problems in the text. More on this closer to release.