‘There’s power in the blood,” goes the refrain of a hymn sung at the faith-healing Church of the Third Revelation in There Will be Blood, the critically acclaimed new release from director Paul Thomas Anderson. A richly envisioned period piece about the brutal quest for oil in the American Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century, with an epic sweep and an attention to grand questions about human nature, There Will be Blood (based on Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!) is a remarkable shift for Anderson, whose previous films include Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Anderson builds and sustains a thematic gravity and somber tone throughout the first half the film. Unfortunately, that gravity evaporates into lunatic levity by film’s end. Having nothing finally to say about the weighty matters he introduces in the first half of the film, Anderson turns the whole thing into a farce. Far from being the film of the year, Blood is this year’s most disappointing entry.
Daniel Day-Lewis turns in a memorable performance as Daniel Plainview, a California prospector for silver and oil. The risk and brutality of this way of life is driven home in an early scene in which Plainview is seriously injured in a silver-mine accident. When his partner dies in yet another accident, Plainview takes in the dead man’s infant son and raises him as his own. We next meet up with Daniel — and his young son, H. W. Plainview (played with astonishing ease by Dillon Freasier) — some years later, he has become a successful and fiercely independent speculator, who finds himself in competition with nascent U.S. oil companies.
Plainview’s biggest purchase is a plot of otherwise worthless land owned by the Sunday family. One of the sons in the family, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) informs Plainview that there is oil on his family’s land. When Plainview visits the property, he meets not Paul — who has disappeared — but his twin brother, Eli (also played by Dano), an ambitious preacher who quickly becomes Plainview’s nemesis.
Plainview’s attempt to buy the Sunday family’s land cheaply sparks tension between Daniel and Eli. Their feud becomes irreversible when Daniel lies to Eli and decides to offer his own rather curt blessing of the new oil rig on the Sundays’ former property, after having just promised to let Eli perform that ritual office. The two take turns abusing one another, psychologically and physically: Daniel humiliates Eli in the fields, while Eli returns the favor in his church.
Artistically and dramatically complex, the film begins with a lengthy wordless prologue, punctuated by the sound of chiseling rocks, the pulling of ropes, a baby’s cry, and the ominous score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. (Blood’s spectacular score features music by Greenwood, Brahms, and twentieth-century marvel Arvo Pärt.) The wordlessness of the opening anticipates the message of the whole. Grueling, joyless striving to extract wealth from the earth — whether in the form of silver or bubbling crude — is inimical to communal life. To be sure, communities grow up around the oil rigs, replete with women, children, schools, and churches, but they are distractions from the exacting task of probing the earth for its riches — a task rooted in ruthless male competition, whose inevitable outcome supplies the title for the story.
There are fruitful themes here: greed and envy spur a competitive spirit that makes the advance of civilization possible, while simultaneously threatening to undermine it. Indeed, the film shows how tenuous the very notion of family is in a world where everyone is a threat to everyone. The film is preoccupied with the earth and human mortality: with what lies under the earth—silver, oil, and dead bodies—and with the powerful men who determine what comes up and who goes down. Then there is the community’s religious element, the repentance through the blood of the savior that shatters and then rebuilds the souls of sinners. A number of these themes intersect in the film’s interchangeability of oil and blood. The metaphysical significance of oil is evident in the film’s opening sequences, when a crying baby is given a sort of christening on his forehead with crude oil.
Alas, in its depiction of religion, the film never transcends a Jesus freak show. That is the point of course, but the problem is that the film sets itself up as if it might say something significant, and in the end, snidely, says nothing. One of the film’s fundamental flaws has to do with Eli’s character — a nasty, cowardly version of Elmer Gantry — who is incapable of providing a sufficient counterweight to Plainview. Making their conflict the dramatic centerpiece contributes to the film’s undoing.
In just about every way imaginable — plot, character, dialogue, choreography, soundtrack — There Will Be Blood is superior to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, the film that has turned out to be Blood’s chief competition for film of the year among most critics. Neither film really knows what it wants to say in the end about violence or nihilism, but No Country disappoints less because it promises so much less in its opening sequences.
At one point in Blood, a man (Kevin J. O’Connor) shows up at Daniel’s home claiming to be Henry Plainview, Daniel’s “brother from another mother.” Initially suspicious, Daniel eventually makes Henry his business partner and even begins to confide in him about his past and the peculiar bent of his character. In a garrulous moment, he acknowledges that he is envious, wants no one else to succeed, and in fact hates most people. (These conversations, along with the affection he exhibits toward his adopted son, add layers of human depth to his personality.)
What follows is a scene — the best in the film — in which Daniel and Henry visit a brothel. Everything about this masterfully composed scene — the harrowing, empty laughter, the tight shots of Henry’s irrationally giddy exuberance, Daniel’s grim indifference, all accompanied by unnerving music — signifies a moment of descent into the madness of Hell. We have by this point a profound sense of the brutality of Daniel Plainview, but also of his emotional complexity, the residue of humanity that makes possible his ongoing self-torment.
From there, sadly, we descend not into grand, Lear-like madness but into embarrassing farce. A lengthy concluding segment, which apparently skips over a great deal of the source material from Upton Sinclair’s book, moves us toward an inevitable blood-soaked ending. But there’s less power in Anderson’s obsession with blood than there is in the chanting of the duped congregants of the Church of the Third Revelation. By promising depth and gravity and delivering neither, Anderson has indeed outdone himself in this film, just as the critics insist — but not by making an enduring epic of the Old West. He has in fact made an even more pretentious film than Magnolia. And that is truly a stunning achievement.
—Thomas Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.