If movies were judged by their themes alone, There Will Be Blood would be a masterpiece. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, adapting a 1927 novel by The Jungle's Upton Sinclair, has brought together the two most powerful forces that shaped this country - business and religion, profits and prophets - and allowed them to duke it out in the California desert. In this corner, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an oilman who, with his unquenchable thirst for liquid gold, is the very personification of greed. And in this corner, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a boy-preacher with a wildcatter's instinct for whose souls are ripe for the plucking. Greed is good, God is great, and may the best man win.
So, a great theme. And let's not overlook the movie's connection to our own oil-drunk, religion-besotted times. In taking us back to the turn of the last century, when Tin Lizzies were starting to roll off the assembly line, Anderson wants to remind us where we came from and where we're going. Oil's in our blood, and blood's in our oil. Alas, a great theme does not a great movie make. And There Will Be Blood, in pursuit of the American tragedy, has neglected the kind of character and story development that might have embodied that tragedy. Day-Lewis' Plainview is a type, almost a stereotype - the kind of guy who would cut off his arm to avoid giving the rest of the world a fair shake. He's a classic misanthrope.
He's also a very hard worker. When we first meet him, he's deep down in the bowels of a silver mine, with only a pickax for company. Anderson stretches out this all-but-wordless sequence, as if to signal that narrative isn't at the top of his list. And what we take from it all is that Plainview is unbelievably driven. He'll stop at nothing to get what he wants, and what he wants is every last drop of oil in the state of California. It's hard not to pull for the guy as he swindles people out of their land, Day-Lewis turning up the charm a notch. The actor brings his usual intensity to the role, allowing emotions to bubble up to the surface, then gush skyward in a torrent of bile. And no one gets Plainview's goat more than Eli Sunday, the son of a goat farmer.
A cipher with the self-satisfied smile of someone who has God on his side, Eli has a piece of land Plainview wants to get a hold of. And this might have led to one of those classic confrontations between a heathen and a man of the cloth if the movie weren't so reluctant to let us know what either of them is thinking. Dano, the son who took a vow of silence in Little Miss Sunshine, more than holds his own in his scenes with Day-Lewis; he underplays when Day-Lewis heads over the top. But when filled with the Holy Spirit, Eli Sunday lets loose with verbal pyrotechnics that even Plainview has to admit is "one goddamn hell of a show." For sheer entertainment, gimme that old-time religion.
Sheer entertainment is something the movie could use a little more of, truth be told. It strains so hard to be a masterpiece that it forgets to take care of us along the way. Anderson has cited The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a touchstone, Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs having been driven crazy by his lust for gold. But John Huston's film betrays no signs of strain, and it's as entertaining as can be. Dobbs shows us what greed does to a man; Plainview doesn't appear to know, or care to know, what it does. "I don't like to explain myself," he says at one point - a pity, because we're not really given enough information to come up with an explanation of our own.
He doesn't appear to be altogether human, more an oil-drilling machine. The script assigns him a surrogate son (Dillon Freasier), a kid orphaned by a drilling accident, whom Plainview raises as his own, at first because having a child around softens the hearts of the people he does business with. But it softens his heart too, and we're supposed to realize that deep inside Plainview's dark, oily solitude there's a longing for the brotherhood of man, a longing that, when thwarted, leads to madness. There was always a screw loose, but by movie's end, when the promise of the title is fulfilled, Plainview is completely unhinged, living proof that greed works in mysterious ways.
Too mysterious, if you ask me.