I’m not entirely sold. Not entirely convinced that Paul Thomas Anderson is the most gifted director of our generation, the most talented American director working today, or any of these other superlatives I see other reviewers tossing around these days. I’m not going to argue There Will Be Blood’s eight Oscar nominations, either, but let’s not get carried away.
I like Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love and Magnolia in that order. I think Magnolia is incredibly overrated. I’ve noticed that opinions about this movie tend to be the kind that people haul out like they’re fifties and hundreds in intellectual currency, when what I see is Confederate money. People say how brilliant it is but rarely can they articulate precisely what’s brilliant about it. It’s just a safe movie to call brilliant, a trendy talking point with no further explanation forthcoming or required. It’s the Trout Mask Replica of Paul Thomas Anderson movies: You’re supposed to look smarter and hipper just for saying you like it.
Like Magnolia, There Will be Blood is both summa and departure, more a throwback to the grandeur of yesteryear’s studio epics than anything Anderson has directed so far, distantly related to Giant and Citizen Kane. It’s long but it doesn’t feel long, two and a half brooding hours swept along by a captivating performance by Daniel Day Lewis that everything else just kind of whirls around. Like Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, Lewis unintentionally steals the light from everyone around him. Unlike The Last King of Scotland, there aren’t any other dazzling performances a la James McAvoy’s to leave in the dark. Paul Dano’s is the closest thing there is to a three-dimension supporting role by a non-child actor in Blood, and he’s simply not up to the task. There Will Be Blood is wholly Daniel Day Lewis’s. By the end, you feel like you’ve been in the desert with him for all 29 years this movie spans.
Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, silver prospector turned oilman. His diction alone is Oscar worthy: John Huston laced with Sean Connery, right to the point and every syllable rich and chewy, though the first 10 or 12 minutes of the movie are a poem of wordless quiet. We first see Plainview in a mine shaft that rings dry and metallic with every blow of his pick, spit-shining dusty ore looking for a few flecks of payout. The deeper he goes, the softer the bottom of the mine shaft gets until Plainview and his partners are shoveling in oily muck that leaves them gasping from the fumes. A few years after making the switch to oil, Plainview is making $5,000 a week (in 1911 dollars) from three wells, and he goes around trying to persuade destitute farmers working crop-poor but oil-rich lands to sell out to him instead of Standard or Union Oil. “We run our company like a family,” he tells them, which is true in practice but not in genuine sentiment. Calculatingly, he keeps his young adopted son H.W. at his side during these land-shopping trips, the “sweet face” to seal the deal.
In a parched little goat-farming settlement called New Boston, Plainview runs into religion in the form of the Church of the Third Revelation, an evangelical sect headed by a teenage prophet named Eli Sunday (Dano). Oil mixed with religion infuses the movie with all-purpose symbolism that works in its own way even, perhaps surprisingly, without the slightest bit of overt contemporary political commentary. People drown in oil, get baptized in oil, humiliated with ignominious smearings of oil in knockdown fistfights. By contrast, there’s not nearly as much literal blood as the title would suggest. Why this movie carries an R rating is a bit of a mystery, actually. It certainly isn’t for language: a couple of “hells” and a “goddamn” or two, less than five mild swears in all.
Plainview, we discover, has a visceral hatred for religion. In one spectacular scene, he lets himself be humiliated in Eli Sunday’s church—the one time he stands for any personal affront—as a necessary step to securing the lease on the “holdout” Bandy family property, and it’s perhaps the most violent scene in There Will Be Blood, even with no physical violence. Plainview is a man of carefully chosen words, the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick type. Even so, with him and his sheer force of will in the ring against Eli Sunday and his religion, it hardly seems a fair fight.
Charitably speaking, Dano is an odd casting choice. I liked him as the awkward boy Howie Blitzer in L.I.E., but as a late-teen and adult actor he’s done little to endear me to his sulky, simpering qualities as an actor (serial readers of this newspaper will perhaps recall that I’m the only person in Missoula who didn’t like Little Miss Sunshine.) As Eli Sunday, he’s reminiscent of high school drama club hambone, alternately chewing the scenery and trying to radiate a quiet force, coming off as fairly lackluster as both. As a teenage false prophet, maybe that makes him the perfect casting choice. But paired off against Lewis no less, his lack of confidence is plain to see. He’s an imposter and he knows it, and it’s the weak spot in an otherwise muscular movie.