Reviewed by David Levinson

AS A TRAGIC survey of the tolls of the American Dream (God, sweat, oil ‘n’ all), There Will Be Blood locates its essence in Daniel Plainview – a self-made “oil man,” ripped from the pages of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!. More than a tacky imprint of the rural huckster though, Plainview enters the West askew: As both a family man – seeking out the promises of modern living –, as well as the victim of a more sinister drive – one that clots his ambition with episodes of abject hatred.

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson – last responsible for the bite-sized Punch-Drunk Love –, the film marks a return to the epic canvases of his twin late-’90s odysseys, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Yet, for all its far-reaching ambition, There Will Be Blood feels strangely parched: Events stagger and fall, like the shards of a daydream; and the only constant remains Plainview, as he steals through the landscape, literally altering the course of its destiny.

Nevertheless, as time crunches on – abetted by the flow of money and land – Plainview dips irreparably into mania. And in that sense – of red-white-and-blue integrity foiled by the ego – the oil titan occasionally resembles a more pimped-out encore to the troubled everyman in Bigger Than Life. Unlike Ray’s carpet-bombing-to-the-50’s-set though, There Will Be Blood is not a study of the descent from normality. Nor is it, really, indebted to a particular time-and-place – thanks in part to Anderson’s own formal fluency (c.f. the seamless, almost cosmic leaps through time), yet more precisely because Plainview is such a striking anomaly, articulating his own misery in footfalls of nihilistic patter that slice through his surroundings. In one instance, for example, turning to his “brother from another mother” (a hayseed opportunist, who slips into the guise of an unknown half-brother), Plainview declares with unerring certainty: "There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone."

If there’s any danger to Plainview’s loquaciousness, it’s that he sometimes comes across as the unleashed product of Anderson’s id – laid out as a treasury of striking lines. It’s the same problem that weighed on P-DL’s distressed hero, Barry Egan – within whom the usual eruptions of Sandler’s comic persona were reframed as expressions of a soul in anguish. As such, sappy-eyed geeks were able to find safe catharsis in everyday deal-breakers (e.g. beating-up a restaurant bathroom on a first date) that otherwise flew over the head of demure fantasy-girl, Emily Watson.

Plainview, on the other hand, may seem less likely a candidate for therapy-figure, though there’s something undeniably scintillating in watching him negotiate his own misanthropy (or am I simply giving away too much about myself here?). Take, for example, his threat to a prospector who make the mistake of offering him advice on his son: Mingling a tense reverence for the father-son bond, with a stubborn refusal to submit to the help of others, he announces that “[o]ne night I’m gonna come to you, inside of your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and I’m gonna cut your throat.” Under the watch of that maniacal self-interest (fed, in turn, by Daniel Day’s own curbed public profile), Plainview begins to resemble less a human being than a demented force-of-nature; indeed, the first fifteen minutes of the film – detailing the genesis of his rise – are spent in a kind of primordial silence, as he’s made to trash around in a thick of oil and darkness.

When the mogul does finally meet his match, it’s in the form of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) – a local preacher, who struggles to gain ordinance over his soul in exchange for the right to drill on his father’s land. But all that changes quickly, after a blast of steam from an oil rig leaves Daniel’s son deaf; violently disillusioned, Daniel abandons his mime of faith – settling instead for a gnashing of wills that sees him and Eli trying to one-up each other through trials of humiliation.

Of course, as every critic on the face of the planet has pointed out, the struggle between Daniel and Eli (spanning the formative years of 1911 to 1927) doubles as a face-off between the forces of capitalism and religion. Yet there’s too much overlap here to allow either party to emerge clean-fisted: When we first see Eli preaching, in an effort to rid an old woman of the “devil” of her arthritis, he enters into a kind of spasmodic trance that mirrors the occult scenery-chewing of Plainview.

Rather than hosting a confab, what Anderson seems to be imagining is the landscape as an ongoing process - shaped by egos pulled between a ‘higher’ order (capitalism, religion), and self-annihilation at the hands of their own pettiness. As the latter pole takes over, the movie assumes the shape of a funnel - gradually refining its scope until Daniel and Eli feel like the last two people on earth, their own aimless struggle having devoured everything else around them. It’s a familiar set-up – both in its mimicking of the final scene of Boogie Nights, and in the realm of Anderson’s work in general, whose camera has always functioned as a catch-all for the down-and-out. In the case of There Will Be Blood though, Anderson has managed to translate that perverse human-interest into a singular character study, once again delivering on the promise of his considerable talent. The result is a blessing, and one of the richest works of American cinema in recent memory.