Sinister sounds and chords ringing with foreboding, images of bleak, parched hills, and a title -- There Will Be Blood -- rendered in grim Gothic blackletter, all suggest horror. And there is violence, deep in the earth, where a solitary, single-minded man with a pickax scratches at the rocky belly of the hills. He's looking for silver, and he finds it, though not before the earth exacts a price. The man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), will eventually make the ground bleed and ooze liquid gold from deep wounds, clawing his fortune from the soil with his bare hands. The earth gives him a son too, an angel-faced boy, and tenderness and warmth oozes out of the hard, callused man. All this before a word is spoken in There Will Be Blood, a positively brilliant film by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Set in California at the turn of the century, There Will Be Blood is loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for moral corruption than sticky, black, dirty crude oil? How perfect is it that this stuff that oozes from the bowels of the earth, from the hot hell beneath our feet, has inspired so much evil? It seeps into every pore of There Will Be Blood -- it is the intoxicating blood of the earth that poisons man's blood, and causes blood to be spilled. Anderson's movie ends in 1927, and has much to say about capitalism and greed (then and now), corruption and exploitation, about fathers and sons, religious zealotry and pious hypocrisy, broken trust, and revenge, and about blood -- the blood of the earth, the blood between family, the blood of the lamb. Anderson has crafted a riveting, intelligent, multi-layered, modern day Citizen Kane in this tale of a tycoon who literally pulled himself up out of the dirt. There Will Be Blood, which Anderson also wrote, is filled with indelible images vibrating with portent and consequence, and carefully chosen words that split open like onions to reveal layers of meaning. The musical score, composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, with a little help from Brahms and Arvo Pärt, veers from stark, savage minimalism to orchestral grandness -- the score is a work of original art in its own right, enhancing the film's emotional depth and mood, and demanding attention without taking any away from the rest of the film.
Plainview is played with fascinating complexity in a magnificent, mesmerizing, eerie performance by Day-Lewis. Even at his most monstrous, Plainview is an enigmatic and charismatic figure, and though he speaks in a authoritarian and stentorian manner, there is remarkable subtlety in Day-Lewis' performance. You can hear in that voice veiled threats, disdain, triumph, hatred, pride, and love. There's not an ounce of sloth in the hands-on, earthy mogul, but the other sins are well accounted for, seen in the hard glint of the eyes, felt in the aggressive, in-your-face body language, and heard in the long dusty road of a voice lubricated by crude oil and whisky. You can hear in that voice, through bitter, cruel words, the unexpected sound of a black heart breaking. Plainview's son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) is the perfect foil, an observant, quiet, gentle boy who stands at his father's right shoulder like his conscience, and is the object of utterly incongruous tenderness. H.W. is his father's moral compass, requiring, as children do, justification and explanation. The father's face, his jaw jutting out and his lower lip lifted in an almost perpetual frown -- the visible marks of his misanthropy -- crinkles and smiles around the boy, until a tragic accident breaks the bond between them, and breaks the magnetic needle that insistently tugged at Plainview's soul.
There Will Be Blood is a fable of American capitalism, captured at a pivotal moment of appetite and discovery. It's the kind of story that, in decades past, was the subject of heroic movies, movies in which the conquest of people and the planet were considered admirable, even if the conquerors were less than perfect specimens of humanity. In a thousand small ways, the moral of that story has changed. There Will Be Blood is premised on the idea that avarice and competitiveness are so ingrained in our national soul that it corrupts every relationship and every person, including the shifty, spooky, evangelical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who vexes Plainview and haunts his schemes, and who is every bit as ambitious, covetous, and rapacious as the businessman. The story is set in the past, but the film is rooted in the present, informed by modern wars, land grabs, and treacheries inspired now (as then) by the lust for oil, informed by the insidious entanglements of piety, prophets, and profit, and piety for profit. Yet for all its epic and provocative themes, for all the expansiveness of a story that spans three decades, There Will Be Blood remains strikingly, captivatingly intimate, an exciting, visionary, perfect movie told in small, bold, devastating strokes. I haven't stopped thinking about There Will Be Blood since I saw it, and I can't think of a thing that's wrong with it.