For one, let’s not think that There Will Be Blood is a departure for Paul Thomas Anderson, who loosely adapted the film from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. It was Anderson’s whimsical, lovely Punch-Drunk Love (2002) that left behind the director’s admirable, but portentous megagoliath films Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). His last film turned towards crafting an almost expressionistic mise-en-scène, one built around a character, a world-view, a feeling, and not a smearingly glossy, over-broad narrative of grandiose linkage and showoffery. That most strange of Adam Sandler vehicles has as unified—and off-kilter—a film world as that of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood: a style of cinema that finds its natural place as it tries to become accustomed to the eccentricities of the most eccentric of characters.
And Daniel Day-Lewis’ early 20th century oil prospector Daniel Plainview is indeed eccentric, showcasing a proclivity to absurd obstinacy and capitalistic tenacity, and blessed with a gift of gab that, when tied to the cut-throat business of the booming oil trade, soon reveals in the character a merciless hatred for the people around him. He even says as much, in a moment of rare, though clearly relished, frankness; Day-Lewis practically lavishly smacking his lips as he curls his words of condemnation and isolation to his nighttime confessor. But to get back to Anderson, with the inestimable help of regular collaborator Robert Elswtt’s naturalistic photography and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s score (part Jon Brion’s avant-garde percussive work for Punch-Drunk Love, part the Penderecki/Ligeti of Kubrick), piece by piece he constructs his film around this oddity, this character of Plainsview.
It is noticeably an incomplete view of the man, as if from a book not with missing pages—for There Will Be Blood doesn't suggests other, off-camera parts of the man’s life and character—but rather it is a view of a book where the edges of the page leave off. It is artistically incomplete and fragmented, ideas gathered about this man’s dogged lifestyle and thoughts, his cruel, passionate character, but never truly brought together, strands connected, everything fleshed out to a reassuring depth of artistic perception. Anderson’s film is like a vision of notes he took on a Great American Epic, ideas and angles introduced but rarely followed through. Instead, we get a narrative that skips at will from the initial days of Plainview’s silver prospecting to the accidental adoption of another miner’s son, who takes Plainview’s own name under the initials H.W. (Dillon Freasier). The film finally moves elliptically to the older man’s fateful arrival at the promising field near the podunk town of New Boston. Here we seem to get at the meat of the film, Plainsview convincing a town that exploiting their bountiful oil will bring modernization and wealth all around, a promise that also suggests an inevitable clash with locals. The oilman’s nemesis takes the form of a young Christian minister, Eli (Paul Dano), who claims to be a healer and seems to threaten to turn the town, and potentially the employees of Plainview’s oil rig, towards a fevered fundamentalism.
We see snatches in Anderson’s sprawl: Plainview’s early injury in his mine and his wherewithal dragging his mangled leg along with his silver find to the assayer; brief moments of love, or at least care, between Daniel and his adopted son; the gab with which he wraps up an oil deal with a small town assembly; stuttered but never complete confrontations with Eli, and so on. It is not that the film moves at a montage-like clip as does much of Anderson’s two mega movies, but rather the narrative touches down at telling details, small and large, to suggest something of Daniel Plainview and the world he represents, and then moves on to another idea, rarely finishing the first.
Plainview, like The Shining’s Jack Torrence, to which the film implicitly compares him, is as much a monster as a mystery. A man in a quintessentially American position, here the capitalistic prospector and entrepreneur (Torrence, the troubled writer, middle-class family man), he gradually turns monstrous—or, perhaps, reveals his monstrosity—piece by piece as he voraciously uses his passion to better his position. I do not wish I had to take Plainview at his own word, but Anderson does let him explain himself in terms that leave little ambiguity to the character, his obsessive need to find a method to get the man out in the middle of nowhere, near only a representative and minimal amount of humanity. It is this mysterious drive and this mysterious misanthropy that is the center of There Will Be Blood’s appeal, and Anderson’s inadequate plotting often helps underline the gulf of understanding between Plainview and the audience. He seems to have a bit of everything in him, but with not enough given to us to explain him thoroughly.
Jonny Greenwood’s atonal score and Elswit’s long takes, many using tracking shots or the Steadicam and limited camera coverage, clearly present Plainview with an almost total strangeness. There seems little of the stylization that there was to Adam Sandler’s idiosyncratic relationships in Punch-Drunk Love, or the slick, omniscient/omnipresent direction of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Shot principally on location, There Will Be Blood views its subject with a fascination but also a kind of restraint or naturalism (a few shots early on, and a later, amazing confrontation at a restaurant, are covered like a Hou Hsiou-hsien film) that lets Day-Lewis’ rich acting dig itself into its own hole. Anderson holds back in muffled awe at the potential, growth, and finally the blossoming of Plainview’s warped character, of the mania that transforms from capitalistic fervor to psychopathological in minute, elliptical shifts in Day-Lewis. As the film’s skittish plot and ideas fail to gel, it is only the presence of Plainview that holds the film together, and Day-Lewis’ fierceness makes up for, and helps cover, much of the film’s gaps and immaturities.
The perhaps inadvertent side effect of There Will Be Blood’s problems is that the discrepancy between the film’s knowing, considered distance and the oddness of its subject provides a gross dissonance in the film’s tone, producing a remarkable, ungainly strangeness, an inability to nail down purpose, meaning, and direction in even the most over-planned moments, the most over-scripted dialogs. Anderson has his plans, that’s for sure. The film has a propensity to hit its Biblical notes, its Kubrick influences, its doublings (brothers and twins, fathers and sons, mostly) as hard as it possibly can. Yet the film’s strangeness is so potent that the film escapes the aims of these over-determined structures, which seek to close the film off and seal in particular meanings, explanations.
The sprawl of the film, its somewhat ragged and unusual structure (perhaps sloppy), are where the film’s crevasses of mystery are to be found. In Day-Lewis’ swallowing of his ur-American comicbook villain from Gangs of New York into a more psychological and thereby more of-this-world, believably unhinged psychosis, and in the film’s avoidance or, as the case may be, eccentric versions of conventional or assumed plot high points are the film’s most powerful, strange visions. Eli and Daniel’s confrontations, the breaks and re-unions between father and son, and inevitable oil rig disasters are not done as one would assume, an indicator both of Anderson not seeing his ideas through to the end, as well as his ability to idiosyncratically divert the film away from convention. How else to explain the turgid father-son concluding scene of the film juxtaposed against the brilliant grotesqueness of the final bowling alley showdown?
We can still see the old Anderson in There Will Be Blood, determined to control the film and the meaning, the experience itself, but thankfully we are blessed with the artist who grew into someone who could direct—believe it or not—the most plausible and lovely Adam Sandler romance ever to be made. We find someone embracing the strange; dedicating not just a film to it, but for the most, and brilliant, part letting that strangeness move and alter the film in frustrating, tantalizing, and often unknown and unknowable ways. The pleasure, then is to see this film, perhaps yet another re-invention of Citizen Kane (crossed with The Shining), find in its look at an American passion for moneymaking and adventure, its somewhat less fleshed out attraction to the security of the church, and both institutions' bonds with human relationships and building foundations for tomorrow, a new weirdness, a freshness that finds in these warped American archetypes evil itself.