Maybe it says something about me that the Paul Thomas Anderson film I like best is the one that nobody else likes: Punch-Drunk Love. For I found both Magnolia and Boogie Nights – still hailed by most film geeks as classics – bloated and irritating. Still, I think Anderson is an interesting director and I looked forward to There Will Be Blood, thanks to intense advance critical acclaim and of course the cooperation of star Daniel Day-Lewis, who only infrequently chooses to work and always delivers an outstanding performance. Perhaps, then, my expectations for There Will Be Blood were too high, because I walked out of the theater during the end credits feeling just a little bit underwhelmed.
Day-Lewis is still fantastic, of course, and it would be a surprise if he doesn't pick up his second Oscar for his work. Anderson's direction is notably scaled back, letting his monster actor do all the heavy lifting, and that's fine. And it must be said that the film is perfectly made in every way: the production design, costuming, and cinematography expertly capture the film's time period (primarily 1911), and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's creepy, mostly atonal score adds significant atmosphere and tension.
So what left me cold? I guess it was the smallness of the story.
There Will Be Blood is about an oil man named Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a misanthropic opportunist who arrives at the birth of the era of the automobile and dreams of making it big. Using his waifish adopted son (a terrific newcomer named Dillon Freasier) as a prop, he swindles a rural Californian church family – with the surname Sunday, no less – out of their land and commences drilling, thus setting up the story's main conflict between the atheist Plainview and the vain young minister Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, who is very good).
And herein lies the problem.
Plainview's hatred towards the pious young preacher is palpable. Over the top, in fact. And yet it's never really explained why Eli – who seems a little too smart for Plainview's liking, but is otherwise harmless – should enrage the oil man so much. I can make up my own backstory, based on the scant details offered by the movie, that Plainview came from a religious and possibly abusive family and that Eli reminds him a little too much of his own father. But that's all conjecture; there's no concrete evidence that supports this.
More importantly, the film itself hints at an epic scope but never delivers on it. This is about the dawn of oil – by varying accounts, the greatest and worst thing to happen to mankind in the 20th century, and the source of many of the world's problems today. You can't make a film about the early days of the oil industry without the audience already knowing how it all turned out. But curiously, Anderson takes There Will Be Blood from a mid-scale look at man vs. community and, instead of showing how it shaped the world's development and priorities, he whittles it down to a three-character drama about the troubled relationship between Plainview and his adopted son, and the battle between Plainview and Sunday.
While Anderson might be telling us "You put gas in your car today thanks to whacked-out individuals like Daniel Plainview," the film itself is such an intimate experience that it's easy to forget that Plainview represents a class of men who, a century ago, carved out the future of the world. Instead, There Will Be Blood winds up an actor's showcase for Dano and especially for Day-Lewis. (His performance is reminiscent of John Huston's corrosive millionaire in Chinatown, down to the accent – it's not hard to imagine Daniel Plainview changing his name to Noah Cross and getting interested in water rights a few years after the close of There Will Be Blood).
I still think it's a good film. And perhaps you will like it more than I did if you walk into it with the expectation that this a small movie with small ideas but big characters. Again, one could read a lot into the battle between the heartless businessman and the self-righteous churchman, but as There Will Be Blood hardly approaches the stuff of epic myth, it's a stretch to find a meaningful metaphor.