"There Will Be Blood" is an epic about that most American trait, ambition.
We see it in the determination of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) to wrest a fortune out of California's bedrock, and in the resolve of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson to make the prospector's story a classic in the mold of "Citizen Kane," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Greed." Each attains his goal, and each goes a bit mad in the end.
The story opens in a landscape as bleak and primordial as the dawn of time. Against a dissonant, modernist orchestral score by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, Anderson shows us a panorama of raw, unforgiving hills. At the bottom of a vertical shaft, Plainview hacks at the earth, looking for a glint of silver. For 15 minutes we watch him labor in wordless solitude, defining himself as a figure of elemental willpower almost impervious to pain.
When he finally speaks, we see that he's almost as insensitive to the pain of others. In his new vocation as a successful oilman, his craft is to swindle landowners out of their mineral rights.
The obsessively guarded Plainview charms his marks with his promises of fair dealing and family values. But the fresh-faced boy he introduces as "H.W., my son and partner" is the orphan of a man killed in one of Plainview's mines; he took the infant under his wing largely as a public relations prop. Misdirection is his stock in trade. He rarely speaks to communicate, but to get something from someone else and usually he succeeds. His smile is pure venality.
When he learns of a failing farm where the soil weeps black crude, he impersonates a quail hunter and sets about cheating the trusting, pious landowner. But the man's son Eli (Paul Dano), a charismatic young evangelist, who has some idea what the land is worth, opposes Plainview. They lock horns in a dinner table conversation that crackles with unspoken mutual contempt. The pair enters into a taunting, bitter clash of wills that magnifies each man's flaws - Eli is as much a fraud as Plainview - and drives the story to its shocking, unexpected conclusion.
Who wins the battle is unimportant in the film's eyes. It continually keeps us guessing as to which is the villain and which is the anti-hero. A scene where Plainview hypocritically presents himself to Eli's congregation as a repentant sinner is so electric with malice it almost short-circuits the film.
Day-Lewis' performance is nothing less than breathtaking, and Anderson's austere direction, with its cuts between harsh vistas and confined, claustrophobic interiors, conjures high tension out of sheer atmosphere. The film's finale, a kind of metaphorical "High Noon" showdown, takes place not on a tumbleweed street but in a mansion's bowling alley. It's an almost intolerably painful sequence and it strikes with such hurricane force that it might startle some viewers into stunned laughter.
"There Will Be Blood" is a work of stunning intelligence and dramatic sweep, a portrait of a young nation struggling to find itself, torn between religious and business values.