Charting the rise and fall of a turn-of-the-century oil prospector, There Will Be Blood astonishingly manages to work as both intense character study as well as an allegorical indictment of the current eastern oil crisis. Not to mention operating as a historic piece chronicling the birth of corporate business through the industrial revolution. This far reach for thematic areas could have made for a convoluted, cumbersome foray into politicised filmmaking, though each level is so neatly woven seamlessly, always feeling relevant and never proudly on display. Whether Anderson ever intended for his film to be as undoubtably multifaceted as this is left unknown, but has nonetheless succeeded in creating a rich American epic that continues to provide different readings and focus on repeated viewings. These aspects are there but only if you want them to be.
Daniel Day Lewis plays oil tycoon Daniel Plainview – a self made loathsome business man who's hatred for others fuels his need to destroy for his own gain, a figure part John Huston à la Chinatown and part Dracula. Though his ventures in the oil business are certainly fruitful and make for his great fortune, this isn't how we're introduced to Plainview. Opening with a 15minute prologue beginning in 1902, we follow his work as a lone prospector searching for gold in the Californian hills before earning enough to hire a small team of men. An accident kills one of his workers leaving his baby boy fatherless, a position Daniel soon fills. This opening segment is almost entirely free of dialogue and reveals so much about the character of Daniel its really a testament to the level of storytelling on display throughout, Anderson as a director is using visuals and experimental sound-design more and more to reveal his characters and to further the story, a direction built over his last two films and taken even further here.
The relationship between Plainview and his adopted son H.W. is at the heart of the picture, with the father's love for the boy drowned in tortured ambiguity. There certainly are moments are tenderness between the two but Daniel's cold focus and personal detachment often counteracts them, like everyone else he meets, if they aren't of use to him and his business. If they won't work on his terms then they're instantly viewed as obsolete.
Adjacent to the father/son dynamic is the rivalry between Daniel and a small community evangelical preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Brought to the town of Little Boston on the promise of oil by Eli's twin brother Paul, the oil-man and the preacher collide in a match of cunning hatred based off their unmatchable ambition and greed. Whereas Daniel projects the image of honest family man to promote his business and gain trust, Eli's public deception is in the form of a religious charlatan as he claims to be the vessel for the holy spirit to line his pockets. The vile loathing Daniel has for Eli stems from not only seeing his own dishonesty mirrored back at him but also his distain for religion in general. Plainview certainly has a God-complex, a man whose word is final, even his final utterance delivered as if allowing the credits to roll, like we've been 'graced' with his presence no longer than he'd allowed us. Therefore Daniel's high regard for his own word and of the unfortunate necessity of verbal liaises makes for disgust as Eli uses his words of 'truth' to manipulate the masses. The tension between these two businessmen is wound like a tight screw and feels ready to burst at any time like the oil derrick acting as centre piece to the film. The film's title also injecting further suspense to these high strung players, though the blood of the title refers to anything from familial blood-ties or even the blood of Christ, it also acts as promise to the now infamous finale.
Daniel Day Lewis gives the performance of his career and undoubtedly the finest of the decade, a towering monstrous turn as an emotionally complex man caught in everlasting turmoil. The character of Plainview is a terrifying and wholly unlikable one yet I can't remember the last time a screen presence was this magnetic, this psychologically enthralling and simply entertaining. We root for him as we're drawn in like a small planet's inevitable demise against a larger more ferocious one. Even the young Paul Dano as Eli Sunday holds his own against the titan thesp. Though his performance has its detractors, it's clear that Eli was never meant to measure up to Daniel, fighting a losing battle all along. Another standout character is that of Jonny Greenwood's music; an impactive soundtrack that, like Morricone's, elevates a film beyond the standards of general filmmaking. Greenwood's experimental instrumentation is contrary to what is shown to us, a bizarre melding of sound and image that creates a never ceasing element of foreboding and unease.
Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a director to watch, his ambition and talents have been felt right from the start but only now do we see him truly come into his own. Whereas his past films have hinted at greatness, with There Will Be Blood we see this artist arrive there; an overwhelming example of filmmaking that marks Anderson firmly above the crop of American auteurs as he leaves behind the crutches of his cinematic influences to carve his own. With his latest we've witnessed an artist mature and refine the exuberant touches of his early work, a maturity that far from neuters but rather frees his work.