In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson transposes his preferred themes of avarice and dysfunction onto the California desert during the early 20th Century. While not technically Anderson’s first period piece (a write-up in the current New Yorker argues that Boogie Nights, his electrifying look at the San Fernando Valley porn industry of the 70’s and 80’s, remains his finest film), it is surely the most self-consciously epic and refined. And despite stretches where it takes a bit too much of its own time to develop, it ultimately engrosses, with both its grand images and narrative intriciacies seared upon the viewer's mind. It is the rare movie in which all the elements come together both forcefully and seamlessly. The acting, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis’, is volcanic, but saved by the tremendous scope of the film from being overbearing. Johnny Greenwood’s mesmerizing score complements the action onscreen rather than intrudes upon it. The lush camerawork and exacting production detail recall Days of Heaven and the movie itself could qualify as a continuation of that Terrence Malick classic, detailing what happens after the pastoral idyll is corrupted by man and machine.
Anderson traces the rise to fortune (and, in a nutty epilogue, subsequent drunken decline) of Texas oilman Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). With his son, H.W. (Dillon Fraesier) in tow, Plainview traverses the expansive and largely undeveloped California landscape (stunningly rendered by Robert Elswit’s cinematography) convincing various townspeople to sell him land for drilling. During one of these stops, he is visited by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who tips him off about the oil bubbling beneath the surface of Litte Boston, his hometown. Upon Plainview’s arrival there, the plot kicks into high gear, introducing an adversary in Paul’s brother, Eli Sunday (also played by Dano). Eli is an evangelical minister and self-professed faith healer whose surface spirituality is at odds with Plainview’s transparent (and his own, thinly veiled) greed.
This conflict is the American binary of pious self-improvement and blind capitalist ambition made manifest. Only here, the piety is fraudulent and, were it ever pure, fully tainted by the prospect of oil riches. Daniel and Eli are both duplicitous salesman, with more in common than they would ever like to admit. This is not a story of good versus evil; all intentions are muddled. Even the normally solid family structure is compromised. As in his earlier works, the family Anderson depicts here is a surrogate one. Plainview masquerades as H.W.’s father, using him as a “sweet face to buy land,” after the real father, a fellow driller, is killed in a well. A stranger appears on the scene who claims to be Plainview’s half-brother, a dubious claim whose ficition is quickly exposed, its author swiftly dispatched. All is suspect. We first see Plainview in a dark abyss; neither he nor his many adversaries ever emerge from it to see the light..
Manhola Dargis, in the Times, interpreted the movie as a metaphor for George W. Bush: a rich, Texan oilman who will stop at nothing, including blood, to get his way. She might be onto something: “I want to rule and never, ever explain myself,” says Plainview. But perhaps the contemporary contextualization is a narrow one. There Will Be Blood is a timeless American fable in which the drive to succeed often lays waist to those individuals and institutions both behind the wheel and trying to slam on the brakes.