Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is an implacable, unstoppable juggernaut of historical phantasmagoria and sheer strangeness adapted from the opening chapters of Upton Sinclair's muckraking 1927 novel Oil!. While it has its set pieces, notably an apocalyptic oil fire, the film is a stylistic changeup for Anderson, a director previously known as a bit of a technical daredevil. As he charts the rise to power of California prospector turned oil magnate Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), Anderson reins in his camera pyrotechnics and slowly works his way through a big, sprawling, violent American landscape with deliberate care that borders on reverence. For better and worse, the end result is one of the damnedest things you'll see at the movies all year.
The first part of the film inches along with the kind of righteous, artless blunt force that Sinclair summoned in his 1906 meatpacking exposé The Jungle. The great potential riches of the oil fields are always checked by the deadly working conditions of early-20th-century mining and drilling. Although dialogue is minimal in these opening scenes, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's menacing score barges in at the beginning and refuses to shut up. Watching the film, you start to feel like you're inside a dangerous factory as it's being built.
Alas, melodrama is even slipperier to handle than sweet, light crude. The second half of the film is as strange as the first, but it settles into a much more familiar shape as Day-Lewis' aging, distant plutocrat mows down everyone who faces him. But this predictability and conventionality was tipped off much earlier. You can hear it in the names of the characters. This is a film where Plainview's nemesis (Paul Dano) is a fiery evangelical minister named Eli Sunday. Sure enough, "E lies" like all them other folks in the fire-and-brimstone crowd do. You half-expect Day-Lewis' business rivals to be named Bilkemoor and Steele, and you are more than a little shocked when he doesn't fall in love with a woman named Prudence Goodwife.
But the slow burn of the finish never dims Day-Lewis' electrifying performance. Taken collectively, his historical re-creations of American men are impressive in their range, depth, and symbolic force: In 1992's Last of the Mohicans, he personified guileless strength. In 1993's The Age of Innocence, he exemplified upper-class male cowardice. In 1996, he assayed frontier stubbornness in The Crucible. And he was probably the best thing in 2002's Gangs of New York, playing a racist nut on the urban frontier. Now he embodies rampant capitalist aggression, and there's a sense of finality in his performance, because it touches on all of the ugly Americans he's played in the past.
Just like that indomitable showman P.T. Barnum, P.T. Anderson loves the freaky side of human nature, and this fascination is clearest in the film's final showdown in a private bowling alley. Symbolism and political sophistication melt away as the scene explodes in bombast, metaphor, tenpins, and stale meat. He shows us two charlatans duking it out, two hucksters conning each other to death. The scene may be all punk political disdain and histrionic shouting, but as Plainview says earlier, it's a helluva goddamn good show too.
There Will Be Blood
Opening Friday, January 18th
Studio on the Square