If Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 masterpiece, Magnolia, was a story about our struggle to find our humanity, his new movie, There Will Be Blood, is a story about our struggle to forsake it.
Set largely in 1911, with a final act 16 years later, it's about an oil man, a preacher man and a nation whose thirst for petroleum products would soon rival a thirst for spiritual salvation, and vice versa.
People who knows Anderson's work know to anticipate the way his movies end. Magnolia ended with frogs raining from the sky: They were a metaphor of Biblical proportions, and also absolutely real. There Will Be Blood ends spectacularly, too, but it's spectacle of a different sort.
Nobody could have foreseen the frogs; you have only to pay attention to foresee what happens in There Will Be Blood. Just as surely as Watergate, Monica-gate and the current Iraq war were the organic consequences of the men who caused them, so is the ending of There Will Be Blood a result of the two men who collide.
That's what's so absorbing about Anderson. Mainstream films can barely tell a story and chew gum at the same time. Anderson can do all of that while rubbing his belly and patting his head. His films are consummate, a breathtaking collaboration of story, character, ideas, acting, image and sound.
There Will Be Blood will certainly displease three constituencies of the Republican Party: those who believe that God exists and that Jesus Christ was his son; those who believe that what's good for The Corporation is good for the U.S. of A.; and those who believe both. There are, of course, Democrats who also believe those things, but they tend not to make a religion of it.
The central figure of There Will Be Blood is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who spends three years digging his first oil well by hand and almost by himself. In 1902, he finally hits black gold. Years later, he's gobbled up many thousands of acres at prices that cheated their owners out of fortunes. He could do so because he controlled the means of production, and because the people who owned the land had no chance of ever controlling it themselves. (Anderson based his screenplay on a novel by Upton Sinclair, the muckraking novelist/socialist.)
If Daniel doesn't seem to meet his match in Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), then he certainly meets a frustrating antagonist. Eli is a young evangelical preacher in a California desert town rich with untapped oil. Daniel buys most of the town's land, and Eli makes sure that he manipulates the deal to get some cash for his church.
These are the archetypes of American men who shaped a 20th century for which we're now paying in the 21st, and as Anderson tells their stories, he also unravels their characters. In a world where greed and pride -- the deadly sins of the soul, rather than the body -- wag the dog, their lives run parallel, with Anderson discerning little difference between them.
In many ways, There Will Be Blood is a very familiar story. And yet, it may surprise you, because we're not accustomed to seeing an American filmmaker, working on a big canvas, follow through with what he starts. The title is at once literal and metaphorical -- substitute "oil" for "blood," an unholy communion -- and the story is both history and parable. This Janus-like duality keeps you off-center and thoroughly absorbed.
There Will Be Blood embraces Anderson's recurring themes: the search for love, the hand of fate, the death of innocence, the consequence of our selves. Eli, too, is Tom Cruise's character in Magnolia, and Dano even vaguely resembles Cruise. The movie also rather clearly reflects our current culture, wherein the rich are getting richer and the holy are getting holier. I'm sure Anderson intended this, although the analogy interests me much less than what's literally on screen.
"I see the worst in people," Daniel tells a potential business partner. "I don't even have to look past them to see all I need." His disease is one of more than just avarice: His sort of virulent misanthropy can lead only to decay. He's a man who simply can't permit himself to be beaten or humiliated, and anyone who tries will never, ever be forgiven. (The same is true for Eli, if for different reasons.) In the end we know who Daniel is; we just don't know why. But even there, Anderson gives us a hint. Daniel ends up alone in a big empty house, like Charles Foster Kane. The only piece of him missing is his Rosebud.
Day-Lewis, who returns to the screen judiciously, gives one of those immutable performances that worries you with its intensity. His character is so self-contained and full-bodied that you might think he's merely imitating a man. He is, however, imitating the distinctive voice of the legendary director John Huston, whose Treasure of Sierra Madre Anderson cites with his opening shot.
Finally, listen to this movie when there's something to hear. Nobody speaks for 15 minutes, except for a baby that cries. The early soundtrack music, as Daniel digs his oil well, builds from a whisper to a high-pitched whine, like the sound of the monolith in 2001, signaling the advent of a New Age. Glorious moments in the drama provoke a full symphony, disastrous ones a percussive cacophony. These idiosyncrasies are the trademark of Anderson's work, which is always welcome, even when it doesn't surprise us like we want it to.
- Man of the century: Daniel Day-Lewis as oilman Daniel Plainview