Americans have always been, and always will be, fascinated with epics. I think it's a scale thing; it's in our very history, our very being, to do things in a big way. Thus many critics have been impressed by Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, using big words to describe it: "bold," "magnificent," "saga," "titanic," "grandeur." Comparisons have been slung around not with anything recent, but with the likes of Citizen Kane, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and, appropriately, Giant. I have to admit, I was impressed too, but not excited. Though Anderson's pure filmmaking skill, his sense of movement, rhythm, timing, light and dark, places him among the greats of our time, I feel that There Will Be Blood is a step back into the all-too conventional, and the least of his five films.
Let's start with his source material, Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, which was published in 1927. Sinclair was more of a political writer than a creative writer; he apparently sent copies of some of his books to members of Congress, and his views helped establish certain laws. Because of this condescending, soapbox quality, his work has inevitably fallen out of fashion, and out of print; the new movie tie-in is the only way one can buy the book today. Why dust off this creaky source material in 2007? Anderson undoubtedly found something resonant about it, which must invariably be political rather than personal. Perhaps he saw a connection between Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), scooping up all the oil in the Midwest and swindling anyone who gets in his way, and a lot of the suspicious oil activity that still goes on today.
In essence, he has made a message movie. It's the first of Anderson's five feature films that has used outside material, and given the massive amount of imagination that went into Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), it's a disappointment to see him relying on someone else. Yet Anderson never once lets on that he's making a message movie, and his main focus is on the clash between the twin churches of greed and piousness. In the main section of the film, Plainview drills on the family farm belonging to the Sundays, with grown son Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) as the hell-and-brimstone preacher of the local church. Eli and Plainview often go head-to-head, each craftily trying to out-maneuver the other, and it's mesmerizing to watch.
But there's another main problem with There Will Be Blood, and it's Daniel Day-Lewis. Normally an exceptional performer, Day-Lewis has opted, either through Anderson's direction or of his own accord, to channel John Huston -- and probably Noah Cross in Chinatown -- into his character, speaking with the same educated, growling, snakeskin drawl. In Anderson's Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, the director found something deep and truthful within Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler, and both actors gave the best performances of their careers. Day-Lewis' performance, on the other hand, is all tricks and impenetrable surface. It makes one think of that famous quip about The Method from Laurence Olivier to Dustin Hoffman: "Try acting."
Moreover, it's useful to look at Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002), in which Day-Lewis played a similarly monstrous character. He was seen through the eyes of the Leonardo DiCaprio hero, and thus he appeared sinister in a captivating, alluring way. We had the option to look away, but we didn't want to. In There Will Be Blood, he's our one entry into the film. (We don't have the option to look away.) When his young son (Dillon Freasier) gets caught in an oil derrick explosion, Plainview leaves his side for several hours to deal with the oil fire. When he learns that his son is irreversibly deaf, he sends him away. He may be vaguely fascinating, but there's no way to understand him, and that's just too much to ask for a 2 hour and 40 minute film. Despite all this, Day-Lewis' antics have so far impressed many award committees.
Those two major complaints aside, There Will Be Blood is miles ahead of the normal "message" or "award" movie. Though it's Anderson's soberest work to date, it still contains moments of craziness, like his mysterious pianola or the falling frogs, most notably in the baffling ending, and in the title itself. It's a curious title, a passive future tense, ending in the potent word "blood," which these days is so often used in conjunction with the word "oil." It suggests that the film has more to offer than a single viewing and a single reading can absorb. Indeed, all four of Anderson's previous films have resonated with me and improved beyond my initial viewings. It's also possible that the film's failings are merely part of its oversized, insane charm, like the "folly" films that Pauline Kael described years ago. In any case, like Youth Without Youth, it's a complex film not easily dismissed, and definitely better explored than avoided.