To love Paul Thomas Anderson is to love his endings. A lot of viewers never got over the frogs in Magnolia. I’m still trying to make up my mind about the bowling alley, the whining preacher, and the belabored milkshake analogy of There Will be Blood, his latest extravaganza. Nonetheless, for better and worse, that sums up the movie. Anderson has distilled Oil!, Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel about class conflict during California’s petroleum boom, into a depoliticized, stereotypical, ravishingly beautiful epic of occasional nutso genius.
|There Will be Blood | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | Written by Paul Thomas Anderson based on the novel Oil! By Upton Sinclair | with Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciarán Hinds, and Kevin J. O’Connor | Miramax Pictures | 158 minutes|
Genius as in the film’s first 10 minutes or so. (Beginnings are not so problematic for Anderson as endings.) Totally without dialogue, the oblique episodes tell everything and nothing about Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who starts out as a troglodyte scratching in a pit for silver ore and moves on to become a grease-soaked prospector toiling at primitive, sometimes lethal, oil sites while lulling a mystery baby to sleep with a finger dipped in whiskey. These scenes could be lost footage from an undiscovered silent-era auteur, as Robert Elswit’s spooky cinematography invests faces, landscapes, and artifacts with an amber specificity nuanced by Jonny Greenwood’s æthereal score.
Anderson doesn’t explain much, cutting the scenes elliptically, titling in the occasional date as a chronological reference. But once people start talking and the basic dramatic conflict emerges, he doesn’t have much to explain, as the story devolves into a cartoon. Daniel finagles a fortune-making gusher from the Sundays, a clan of born-again goat farmers. Their eldest, Eli (a creepy, zygote-like Paul Dano), has messianic ambitions for his Church of the Third Revelation, and he and the church-despising Daniel work out a tense accommodation. In other words, a crude pas de deux between ruthless capitalism and hypocritical religion, the two faces of a debased American Dream.
There are some Biblical-ish digressions from this text —the film is, after all, pushing three hours in length. A little Cain and Abel creeps in as a long-lost half-brother (Kevin McCarthy) shows up at Daniel’s doorstep when the latter’s business flourishes. (Eli’s twin brother, Paul, selling his birthright is more like Esau and Jacob.) And there’s a touch of Abraham and Isaac as H.W. (Dillon Freasier), the mystery baby and presumably Daniel’s son, grows into an enigmatic child. Both characters try to lure Daniel out of his ironclad monstrosity, and to the extent they succeed at extracting tenderness and candor, the character earns some sympathy.
What Blood doesn’t have is much in the way of politics — so much for social justice. Instead, Anderson offers up sophomoric satire, but with a redeeming, anarchic mirth. Which brings us back to the end, a showdown that, as some have pointed out, owes much of its iconography — and its spirit as well — to The Big Lebowski. To buy this, one must buy Day-Lewis’s performance. Is it the best of the year, an elemental channeling of archetypes, drawing on John Huston’s malevolent patriarch in Chinatown? Or is it all hat and moustache, sounding more like Robert Stack with traces of Foghorn Leghorn? Either way, as Daniel describes Eli’s faith-healing song and dance, it’s one hell of a show.