Paul Thomas Anderson has grown immensely as a writer/director since his last picture (Punch Drunk Love), so much so that in a single film he has become America’s most visionary and accomplished modern-day auteur. Anderson based There Will Be Blood on the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, about a 1920’s miner named Daniel Plainview (exquisitely played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who strikes it rich after being approached by the twin brother of a young preacher about purchasing his family’s oil-rich land in Southern California.
Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) plays evangelist Eli Sunday, a man with Plainview’s avaricious heart but not his iron stomach for exacting the pounds of flesh that come with such thickly veiled ambition. Embedded in Anderson’s profoundly epic literary adaptation are timeless themes of savage greed, blatant corruption and social oppression that mirror the corporate, economic and ecological injustices ravaging the world today.
At the heart of the story is a rivalry of showmanship between Plainview and Sunday as opposite sides of the same cast-iron coin. The young minister has a knack for the theater of the pulpit where he casts spells over the local citizens of a rugged desert town that wants desperately to be funded by a veritable Niagara of cash that Plainview’s oil-drilling promises.
Both men are self-made inventions so invested in their presentational lies that there is no room for any inner voice of conscious to interrupt the tyranny of their intentions. But Eli Sunday is a rank amateur compared to Plainview whose carefully guarded sense of personal responsibility lends the film its crucible of thematic essence.
After a mine accident kills the father of a young boy mysteriously named H.W., Plainview adopts the lad and treats him as an equal business partner. Dressed in a double-breasted suit and tie, H.W. (played with astonishing maturity by newcomer Dillon Freasier) serves as an ideal foil for Plainview to win over the sympathy of locals and business associates.
There Will Be Blood is a historically rooted parable that traces a vital path of Western culture through the industrial revolution via a primitive man who sees a prevalent opportunity and selfishly sets about claiming all he can for himself. It is about an iconic archetype of a man who starts out with the barest trace of human decency, and by the end of his life has none.
There is visual, musical and linguistic poetry in every frame. Plainview’s mechanical nature does not allow the story a traditional life-affirming closure without looking empathetically toward H.W. as a strong individual who learns from the cruel lessons of his surrogate father and escapes his clutches.
A more cynical perspective would favor the actual black oil that Plainview uses to build his fortunes as a welcome result to his barbarous methods. From this viewpoint, oil is the fountain of life that feeds generations of hungry people. Paul Thomas Anderson embraces the inexplicable facts of reality for their intrinsic dramatic truths, and what we are left with is a complex multiple character study of an evangelical, corporate and political culture.
Moments of cinematic homage to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are evident in a miraculous picture that is simultaneously an art film and a mainstream masterpiece. Anachronistic and phantasmagoric, America’s early race for oil is brought into personal terms that resonate with the withering decay of greed. MTW