A complete universe is created before a word is spoken in There Will Be Blood, a towering new American epic and instant modern classic from Paul Thomas Anderson. Sinewy, grimy, grizzle-bearded Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is as yet unnamed when we meet him, chipping away at the earth in a fathomless mining hole out in the unclaimed American West. Solitary and stubborn, Daniel is prospecting for silver. And in a paradigm of American enterprise at its most legendary, he hammers his way toward fortune undaunted even by broken bones.
A title slide in grim-lipped olden Germanic letterforms tells us it’s 1898. But the soundscape that envelops this singular miner as he hack-hack-hacks is, in the revolutionary musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (as much the star of the show as Day-Lewis himself), like nothing we have ever heard before. What we see is a man in a turn-of-the-20th-century wardrobe who literally pulls himself out of the earth’s bowels to grab hold of wealth and power. By 1911 his fiercely competitive work ethic has paid off in the scramble to claim ownership of other natural resources: The first words Daniel Plainview utters, in exquisitely enunciated, stentorian tones brilliantly constructed by Day-Lewis from the cadences of John Huston, are ”Ladies and gentlemen, I am an oilman.”
By then the oilman is a tycoon with a fondness for an empire-builder’s mustache, and although no woman is ever seen in his life, he’s accompanied on his landgrabs by the sweet-faced, sharply observant boy he calls his son and business partner, H.W. (Dillon Freasier, an arresting nonpro natural). What we hear, though, is the keen, whine, rattle, and tonal blur of musical modernity as the components of epic storytelling are lofted decisively into the 21st century. The aural juxtaposition, sweetened by additional music from Johannes Brahms and the 20th-century Estonian ”mystical minimalist” composer Arvo Pärt, is more than thrilling — it’s neurologically revolutionary, as if we’re seeing with our ears and hearing with our eyes in a whole new way. It’s also an omen that the oilman will become a madman.
Our eyes, of course, are riveted on Day-Lewis, who justifies the obsessiveness of his legendary work-prep style — erasing all vestiges of DD-L-hood and living as the man he plays even when the camera’s not rolling — with a magnificent performance. Indeed, it can hardly be called an ”act,” so fully does the fictional Daniel come alive, with all the fury, hatred, restlessness, and distrust that courses through him. And when not searching Day-Lewis’ frightening eyes (one a squint, the other a glint) or bracing ourselves unconsciously against the aggressive threat of Plainview’s forward-thrusting stance, we’re spooked by the shifty, menacing, Holy Roller softness mustered by Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano as the evangelical preacher Eli Sunday, who comes to bedevil Daniel’s schemes for years.
Anderson — who boldly goes where no other moviemaker working today has gone before in this, his fifth movie (after marvels including Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love) — stakes There Will Be Blood, at least provisionally, to a chunk of Oil!, Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel about the early, greedy days of the American liquid-gold industry, written 20 years after The Jungle. Don’t look for much of the muckraking spirit of the original text, though, in Anderson’s adaptation, which is shaped entirely to the filmmaker’s own obsessions. The movie catalogs the worst about capitalism, about fathers and sons, about exploitation, broken trust, and the corruption of power, and then saves an extra dollop of acid for the misuse of piety.
Anyhow, a fierce story meshing big exterior-oriented themes of American character with an interior-oriented portrait of an impenetrable man (two men, really, including the false prophet Sunday) is only half Anderson’s quest, and his exciting achievement. The other half lies in the innovation applied to the telling itself. For a huge picture, There Will Be Blood is exquisitely intimate, almost a collection of sketches. For a long, slow movie, it speeds. For a story set in the fabled bad-old-days past, it’s got the terrors of modernity in its DNA. Leaps of romantic chordal grandeur from Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major announce the launch of a fortune-changing oil well down the road from Eli Sunday’s church — and then, much later, announce a kind of end of the world. For bleakness, the movie can’t be beat — nor for brilliance. A
Want more? See what director Paul Thomas Anderson and composer Jonny Greenwood told EW earlier this year in an in-depth Q&A about the making of There Will Be Blood