“I am a sinner!” declaims Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Over and over he cries it; louder and louder. Words said under duress, yes – but the man speaks no lie: he’s as bad an apple as they come.
He rots gradually, though. Early on in There Will Be Blood, there’s a train-ride moment of warm, wordless rapport between Daniel and his baby boy HW – just one of innumerable grace notes that add up to glory in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth and possibly finest feature. Plainview proffers himself as a family-minded, community-spirited fellow, but in time it’s clear he’s one thing alone: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am an oilman.” Prowling turn-of-the-20th-Century California looking for drilling prospects, he pitches up in dirt-poor Little Boston, where he swipes the rights to the liquid fortune bubbling below the rubes’ feet. But as Plainview’s wealth explodes, his soul erodes...
Given the patchy backstory (“I don’t like to talk about such things...”), Plainview’s more metaphor than man, an emblem of avarice or morally bankrupt capitalism, or just sheer, self-serving Evil. But, ever the consummate Method man, Day-Lewis gives him startling physical presence: imposing body language, eyes that squint and glimmer, and an insidious John Huston drawl (Plainview could easily be ancestor to Chinatown’s vile water-monger Noah Cross). Such oral alchemy maximises the marrow-chill of the character’s misanthropic musings: “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking... I want to rule and never explain myself.”
Remarkably, writer/director Anderson is able to marshal a worthy adversary for his force-of-nature protagonist. Paul Dano kept his lip zipped for much of Little Miss Sunshine, but he’s a born gabbler here as Eli Sunday, Little Boston’s premier boy-preacher. No lily-white coin-flip to Plainview, he’s also fascinatingly flawed, a false prophet who becomes an increasingly sore thorn in the oil baron’s side. Pious and precocious, Dano’s creepy, shifty fervour bristles thrillingly against his nemesis’ godless disdain in a string of flashpoint confrontations.
Since the other players are either peripheral or just passing through (minor gripe: Ciarán Hinds’ scarce face-time), Blood could be flagged as a two-hander. But the chamberpiece intensity can’t belie the sweep and weight of a full-blown epic. PTA’s screenplay is casually based on Oil!, Upton Sinclair’s 1920’s exposé of the black-gold industry’s sticky beginnings. But this is no literal-minded plod through the pages. Rather than replicate the novel’s muckraking focus, Anderson anatomises America’s heritage from a more oblique angle, conjuring an opus infinitely rich and bracingly strange.
The eccentricity kicks in from the first shot, a parched panorama scored by the piercing, hundred-hornet buzz of Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary avant-garde soundtrack. The Radiohead man strikes a foreboding note that reverberates through the movie, while DoP Robert Elswit and production designer Jack Fisk turn the Marfa, Texas backdrop (stage for Giant and No Country For Old Men) into a stark period snapshot, at once earthy and unearthly.
As for Anderson... well, you might not recognise him. He’s less inclined to show off, to distract with self-conscious camera swirls. Mature and monumental, this is a progression on a par with David Fincher’s Zodiac; from whizz-bang wunderkind to authoritative auteur. If the overt influences of PTA’s earlier work were Altman (mosaic plotting) and Scorsese (coke-frenzy formalism), here he’s indebted to two other old masters. Blood’s stunning centrepiece – a newly struck oil gusher that erupts into a fountain of flame – echoes the hellish beauty of the locust holocaust in Terrence Malick’s just-as-dreamlike Days Of Heaven. Kubrick looms even larger. While the dialogue-free first act – a marvel of show-don’t-tell exposition – apes the eerie, primordial mood of 2001’s ‘Dawn Of Man’, the climax mines the dark humour of Dr Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. With Day-Lewis unhinging his full Satanic majesty, it’s an outrageous final reckoning – the point where Blood’s brooding poetry balloons into opera. Contentious? No doubt. Some might wish for more of the bruised humanism of Magnolia and Boogie Nights, but few will contest the towering ambition, unflinching boldness and impeccable technique of Anderson’s midnight-black vision.