The story, based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s graphic novel Oil, is actually nothing much to talk about. What makes the difference is the brilliant screenplay by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson in transforming the story of a maniacal, self-obsessed turn-of-century oil prospector Daniel Plainview into a grim and sordid saga of greed, ambition and madness.
The story of Plainview, arguably one of the most brilliantly written film characters I seen in recent times, raises a very old debate of faith and religion in the face of human avarice and naked materialism. The film opens in a strange, silent and spooky manner, playing with darkness and shadows, as the protagonist Plainview digs through the earth and then injures his leg in an accident, which would remain as a slight limp with him throughout his life. The film chronicles Plainview’s life as he picks himself up from the bowels of the earth, both physically and metaphorically, to chance upon black gold – his ticket to wealth and fame. Along with his adopted son, H.W., Plainview gets news of great field oil in a wild, sparsely populated town in Southern California. Using H.W. as a symbol to show the townspeople that he is a caring family man, Plainview convinces them to let him use their lands for drilling. As he strikes upon a massive oil well and wealth starts flowing in, his greed, anger, monocentrism and misanthropy begins to get hold of him.
The film is definitely about the two shining Daniels, the character Daniel Plainview and the actor playing him, Daniel Day Lewis. Plainview transforms a bootstrapper’s dream into a terrifying prophecy about the coming American century. And this is what makes this film all the more scary. Plainview is a suave, civilized and articulate man and this lends a certain chilling effect to his character; he comes across as a man primitive and almost animalistic – while covering his nakedness with a veneer of civility and love for his son. The most amazing part of this film is Plainview’s relationship with his son, H.W. It is this intense, needful bond that raises the stakes and gives enormous emotional force to this expansively imagined period story with its pictorial and historical sweep, its raging fires, geysers of oil and inevitable blood. By the time H. W. is about 10, he has become a kind of partner to his father, at once a child and a sober little man with a jacket and neatly combed hair who dutifully stands by Plainview’s side as quiet as his conscience. The brief scenes of Plainview’s first tender, awkward moments with H. W. will haunt the story. In one of the most quietly lovely images in a film of boisterous beauty, he gazes at the tiny, pale toddler, chucking him under the chin as they sit on a train very much alone. The other extreme but equally beautiful scene is when he leaves H.W., now deaf, on the train and goes away. This is one of the very few scenes, which bring out Plainview’s humane side and completes the character.
And among the two shining Daniels are the two Pauls who raise the film to a totally different level. Paul Dano as the self proclaimed religious preacher whose ambition and greed is unmatched by any except probably Plainview is riveting and gives a career defining performance. His soft, almost effeminate manners and gentle awkward speech hides a dark menacing greed and lust that comes across brilliantly in the few scenes that he has. His violent and horrific encounter with his father almost shatters his calm and timid image, which he puts up for the people of his church. The film’s other underlying theme of the conflict of faith and religion in the face of natural wilderness and civilization is played at a more subtle level. Plainview’s almost agnostic beliefs are contrasted with Eli Sunday’s (Dano) superficial and ritualistic religion/church. And then, the magnificent final scene in which, Plainview makes Eli say that “I am a false prophet and God does not exist”, comes across as a resolution to that conflict but in actuality it is nothing but another step towards a greater debate, which Anderson leaves to the audience to ponder about.
Finally, the star of this film, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who moves from his genre of dysfunctional families to give us another kind of family problem, that of man, civilization and its inherent dysfunctional ties. Anderson’s real triumph lies in transforming the film beyond the obvious. There Will Be Blood is, in fact, not a historical saga; rather, it is an absurd, blackly comic, horror film with a very satanic figure at its core. The film is above all a consummate work of art, one that transcends the historically fraught context of its making, and its pleasures are unapologetically aesthetic. It reveals, excites, disturbs, provokes, but the window it opens is to human consciousness and civilization itself. There Will Be Blood is anti-state of the art. It is the work of an analog filmmaker railing against an increasingly digitized world. In that sense, the movie is idiosyncratic, too: vintage visionary stuff. Anderson’s version of the Great American Movie is bold beautiful and above all bloody, yet very rarely do you see actual blood in the film. Rarely has a film’s title seemed so ominous.