Come and listen to a story about a man named Dan. A poor prospector, barely kept himself fed. Until he struck it rich in gold and silver, hired a crew and dug a well, and up from the ground came a bubblin' crude. Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.
Well, the first thing you know, ol' Dan's a millionaire. But Daniel Plainview is the sort of guy with no kinfolk to point him to California. There are no swimming pools nor movie stars for Daniel Plainview, just adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), an insatiable desire for success and a deep, desperate loathing for anyone who dares to stand in his way.
This is the basis for There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's mighty new film, loosely based the first section of Upton Sinclair's muckraking 1927 novel Oil. It's an extraordinary picture of greed, corruption and conflict between religion and business and the way each leads to terrible internal weakness and self-destruction. It's epic and intense and in many ways unlikable—but it's also a powerful examination of the tragedy of the human condition, anchored by a staggeringly monstrous performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview.
Yes, oil has been good to Plainview, who's tipped off about a desolate Texas ranch that's sitting on an ocean of the stuff. He buys the spread from the Sunday family and sets up his operation, quickly creating more wealth than he knows what to do with. But standing in his way is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the town's young preacher. The simmering conflict between them is both personal and professional, as commerce and faith are set against each other, and each becomes more successful and powerful.
Power certainly corrupts, but one of the most brilliant aspects of There Will Be Blood is how subtly the corruption manifests itself, and that's a testament to the talent of Anderson, who has two epics under his belt already—Magnolia and Boogie Nights—and who surpasses both of them here.
Of course, his wisest move was simply giving Day-Lewis free rein. The actor, so good for so many years, is brilliant. In a year of solid performances by male actors, no one comes close to what Day-Lewis does in There Will Be Blood, as we see him yearning for vulnerability and struggling to come to terms with what is truly important to him even as he manages to push away, with over-the-top displays of rage, anyone who might have ever been important to him. He is an oilman, after all, and oil is dark and poisonous. Even when he realizes horrible, brutal truths about himself, he isn't always able to overcome them. And yet, the moment that Eli Sunday takes vengeance on him—forcing Plainview to betray his personal beliefs in hopes of obtaining enough property to build a pipeline to the coast—is awe-inspiring, as Plainview shifts from going through the motions to moments of clarity when he sees himself for who and what he truly is. It is nasty and tragic and makes you feel sympathy for a man who has made himself unsympathetic.
Day-Lewis is such a brave actor, more than willing to spend the final moments lying in the gutter with a half-eaten pork chop for company. (That's no spoiler—it's not the sort of gutter you're thinking.) His final confrontation with the preacher, where we see how rancid and poisoned and diseased each has become in 20 years, is wretchedly painful. And to Anderson's credit, it doesn't feel like it fits with the rest of the film. It's uncomfortably out of place, but it truly does have its place, in that it is as discordant as the score, a seething mash of classical strings from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. The movie never takes a break, never allows us to relax, drilling emotional holes as deep as any oil well.
No, There Will Be Blood is not a happy or particularly pleasant film, but it's impossible not to appreciate it. And, as Plainview tells Eli Sunday after seeing him in action at his church, it's one goddamn hell of a show.