The first time I sat through There Will Be Blood, I wasn’t impressed. On initial appraisal, Paul Thomas Anderson’s oil drama seemed willfully disagreeable and far too long, with little of the flash or exuberance or life of his previous epics, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), two movies I’ve long adored. Blood didn’t feel like a P.T. Anderson movie; it played like subpar Kubrick. And wasn’t Daniel Day-Lewis — as plummy-voiced tycoon Daniel Plainview — just channeling Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York? What went wrong here? During that first viewing, the word that clanged in my head repeatedly was weird. The word that stuck with me after it ended? Disappointing.
Then — over the course of taking in the entire film a second and third time in theaters, and, finally, a fourth time on DVD — I realized that I’m an idiot. There Will Be Blood is an irritable, mysterious masterpiece, and as beautiful as any ugly movie may ever get. Anderson, it turns out, has crafted an epic so unsentimental, so uneager to be loved, that its mighty emotional and cinematic power might accidentally roll right past you the first go-round. As Plainview furiously plumbs the earth for oil in a sandy California outpost called Little Boston, the story pits Day-Lewis’ dirty capitalist against Paul Dano’s pious man of God — giant millennial force versus giant millennial force, set for a last-scene showdown in a bowling alley, a satirically ridiculous 20th-century arena. But also keep your eye on the dynamic between Plainview and his young son and business partner, H.W. (Dillon Freasier, a sweet but eerie presence). What eluded me the first time I watched Blood, and has hit me hard every time since, is how slyly gnarled, intimate, and draining their relationship is. The whole movie is like a sneak attack, because buried under the potentially off-putting brazenness of it all — of Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning volcanic theatrics, of Jonny Greenwood’s screechy but extraordinary score, of Anderson’s entire conception — is a deceptively simple story to leave you sad and off balance.
Is it a problem that Anderson is nowhere to be found on the extras? The second disc features two fine deleted scenes, plus an absorbing newsreel and historical slide show on the early-20th-century oil boom, but no commentary track and no making-of featurette. Which, I submit, is just as it should be. In a ”Dailies Gone Wild” clip, Day-Lewis and Freasier break character and bust up at the end of a shot — and something about it slightly dissipates the spell of the film. If you’re Anderson, maybe you don’t make a movie this befuddling, this inexplicable, and yet this confident and even defiant, and then do anything but let it speak for itself — whether people like it or not. A