There’s no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the strongest voices in film today—and one of the most independently eccentric. His films aren’t really like anyone else’s, though in the case of his latest, There Will Be Blood, there are certainly strong intimations of at least three other movies—Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1923), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). But, as you might expect if you’re familiar with Anderson’s work, these echoes of earlier films are pretty darn idiosyncratic. For that matter, Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!—or more correctly, the first 150 pages of the book—can only charitably be called a very free adaptation indeed. “Inspired by” would probably be nearer the mark.
There Will Be Blood tells the story of an oilman ironically named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in a positively ferocious performance). We first meet him in an extended dialogue-free section—nearly 15 minutes—depicting his early days as a silver miner. (These scenes clearly recall Greed, as does the film’s bizarre—and controversial—ending, though in a different manner.) When we next see him as a hopeful oilman (to the degree the word hope can be applied to this fascinating monster), we find him adopting (or at least taking over) the child of a dead coworker. The apparent reason (never voiced) is that he thinks this child and his family-man status will make him more appealing to the people he wants to exploit.
Whether or not this works—especially since young H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier) is little more than a taciturn prop where others are concerned—Plainview’s fortunes do change when a young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), shows up one day. For all intents and purposes, Paul betrays his family by selling Plainview the information that the Sunday farm is sitting on a huge oil deposit of which they aren’t aware. Swindling the family—and most of the surrounding landowners—isn’t a terribly difficult job, except for dealing with Eli Sunday (also played by Dano), a self-styled evangelical faith healer who wants money for his ministry. Sinclair undoubtedly drew the name from the popular evangelist of the early 20th century, Billy Sunday, but Anderson’s version of Eli is quickly revealed as a self-glorifying fake out for power and fame. In other words, Eli isn’t a great deal different from Plainview.
The crux of the film lies in the strange bedfellows nature of the relationship between Plainview’s oilman and Sunday’s religious zealot—each locked in a struggle with the other, yet each dependent on the other to achieve his ends. That there is a modern-day parallel in the relationship between oil-based big business and fundamentalist Christianity—complete with an inherent hypocrisy on both parts—is certainly not meant to be coincidental. However, this is only one aspect of the film, and one that Anderson leaves to the viewer. Of equal import is the relationship between Plainview and H.W., which is clearly deeper (at least till the child is deafened by an explosion) than Plainview admits even to himself.
The story is long and dense—I’ve touched on only a few of the plot points here—and also brutal and disturbing with outbursts of bitterly icy humor. As it moves forward, it becomes Anderson’s Citizen Kane—except that the loveless, friendless and utterly misanthropic Plainview descends far further into insanity than Kane ever did. He becomes the spiritual ancestor of the thoroughly corrupt Noah Cross character played by John Huston in Chinatown until he so completely divorces himself from humankind that all that’s left is his twisted connection to Eli Sunday—the connection that forms the film’s aforementioned climax. Anderson’s is a dark and strange film. Nothing about it is quite normal—from its status as a miniature epic to its deliberately overbearing Bartok-esque score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood—but all of it is as fascinating as its monstrous main character. It’s not a film to like, but it’s too powerful to ignore. Rated R for some violence