Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood opens with a pair of primordial vignettes set at the turn of the century. A solitary miner clawing at the earth with a pickaxe falls down a stony well and breaks his leg. Through savage will he somehow climbs back to the surface, where he drags himself across the arid land, twisting and flopping like the first fish to explore sandy shores. Then, another hole--this one dug for oil--and another man, this one not so lucky. As he stands waist-deep in the seeping crude at the bottom, the jerry-rigged wooden derrick high above him splits and tumbles down, driving him into the muck.
In these dialogue-free opening scenes, set to a score that buzzes like a plague of locusts, There Will Be Blood establishes itself as a film of Darwinian ferocity, a stark and pitiless parable of American capitalism. One man lives and one man dies. One hoists himself from the Earth’s embrace; the other is sucked into it. One winner, one loser.
The winner is oil entrepreneur Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and There Will Be Blood is the story of his success and his damnation. Following the death of the man in the well, Daniel takes the deceased’s infant son as his own, liberally spiking the baby’s milk bottle with whiskey to quiet his bawling. The adoption is equal parts compassion and calculation, as we learn when the tale shifts nine years forward, to 1911. Daniel’s angel-faced young “son,” H.W. (Dillon Freasier), is now his partner as well, a fact that figures prominently in the “family man” pitch with which he woos residents of a series of oil-rich towns.
One of these is Little Boston, a tiny California hamlet that sits upon oil like a cork atop a bottle. Daniel sets upon the town and quickly begins buying up land and constructing his mighty derricks. Over time, he stages a series of escalating feuds with a young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the God to his Mammon. Following an accident, he sends H.W. away, essentially replacing him in his heart with a long-lost half-brother (Kevin J. O’Connor), a relationship that proves no less fraught. The wells come in and Daniel grows rich; he builds a pipeline to the coast and grows richer still.
But There Will Be Blood is less about these material accomplishments than about what lies behind or, more properly, beneath them. This is a film about what churns under the surface, the vital, subterranean fluids that only occasionally explode into view: oil and blood, blood and oil. The film has a carnal intensity, nowhere more evident than in its treatment of the early oil business, its danger and mystery and near-limitless possibility. Daniel and his men scratch at the earth with their primitive drills and explosives like surgeons probing a patient with medieval tools. When they finally tap a vein in Little Boston, the result is a cataclysmic gusher that stains the sky like arterial spray and tosses the unlucky H.W. like a rag doll. But even this sodden, violent outrush is transformed into something near-divine, when it catches aflame and blazes like the sword of an avenging angel--earth and water transubstantiated into air and fire.
There is also, as the title promises, blood in its many forms: blood that is spilled, blood that anoints, blood that binds. Even as Daniel taps the blood of the Earth, his rival Eli calls upon the blood of the Lamb. And there is, too, Daniel’s strange reverence for the connection that blood confers, the way he privileges a small boy or theoretical sibling with confidences he denies his colleagues, even on the basis of a blood tie he knows to be fraudulent. It’s as if he recognizes that his primitive capitalist asceticism has room in it only for borrowed family.
Day-Lewis is a marvel, again constructing, as he did in Gangs of New York, a figure at once iconic and entirely original. His voice is gruff but precise, the speech of a brute who has cultivated himself with the same bitter stamina that dragged a broken leg across miles of desert. He has the weathered leanness of a man who has learned to subsist on his own buried furies, and his pale eyes focus so deeply they seem they could bore into the earth unassisted. He is, literally, something we have witnessed crawl up out of a hole.
There Will Be Blood is by far the most ambitious film Paul Thomas Anderson has yet attempted, spare in its vision yet rich with resonances. The score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, is eerie and evocative, frequently tiptoeing to the line separating music from noise--the kind of gamble Ennio Morricone might have undertaken had his spirit of experiment survived to this day. The cinematography, by Robert Elswit, is equally arresting, conjuring an infernal landscape for Anderson’s lost souls to wander. Many critics have understandably declared the film a masterpiece.
For my part, I have to append the qualifier “flawed” to that verdict. Anderson’s film is indeed an extraordinary one, yet it is one that runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene. A tale that has taken its time suddenly becomes rushed; crucial moral and psychological developments are abruptly elided; a director’s careful hand throws caution to the winds; and a masterful performance descends into frothing caricature. For the benefit of those who have not yet seen the film I will leave it at that; for those who have, a more detailed catalogue of my complaints is here. Suffice it to say that the conclusion to Anderson’s otherwise masterful picture is full of sound and fury, signifying that, for all his dizzying cinematic gifts, he hasn’t figured out how to end a film.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.