You can't talk about Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, There Will Be Blood, without putting the focus squarely on its "hero," Daniel Plainview — and, in turn, Daniel Day-Lewis' calculated and volcanic performance. As flawed and unnerving as any character in the history of cinema, Plainview is an unapologetic sociopath whose ambitions are rivaled only by his indomitable will. Smart, ruthless and opportunistic, he's the living embodiment of American capitalism, constantly plotting to gain advantage over his competitors.
It's an audacious protagonist to build a movie around, but since his energetic debut with Hard Eight and the critically praised Boogie Nights, Anderson has proved himself an inventive and challenging filmmaker. Though his last two films, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, played like arty but clever scribbles — cribbing from Robert Altman, early Jonathan Demme and even Jean-Luc Godard — it was clear that Anderson had something more ambitious inside him. Who knew it was an attempt to turn Upton Sinclair's Oil! into this century's version of Citizen Kane.
Right from its wordless but beautiful, raw opening, it's clear Anderson is traveling in new artistic terrain. Though his lush, languorous images recall the cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick, There Will Be Blood pushes past homage or genre reinvention to present a relentlessly unique character study that is mesmerizing and uncompromising.
Daniel Plainview is an oilman; it's how he repeatedly defines himself. Love, community, camaraderie; all these things are irrelevant. He cares about no one, possibly not even himself. He's the kind of guy who, when a colleague dies in the oil field, he adopts his infant son, not out of love or duty, but because he sees the advantage of being perceived as a family man. He's not unfair but he is merciless.
It's no surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis delivers another incredible performance, but here he transcends the limitations of his seemingly unknowable character to create a fascinating, complex monster. Some will write it off as an affected imitation of John Huston, but it's not. Huston's persona projected an understanding of humanity but an intolerance of people. Plainview, in contrast, loathes people because he cannot understand them and, as a result, feels left out. When he looks at others, all he sees are ulterior motives and hidden agendas, mirror images of his own misanthropic soul. It's what gives him, oddly enough, power. In every interaction he is brutally honest yet profoundly false, using truth to mask deeper manipulations.
And this leads to the central (and unlikely) drama of There Will Be Blood: whether Plainview is even capable of real human emotion. A trio of characters tests this notion over the course of his life (the film spans 30 years), and it is his relationships with each that provide the heart and soul of Anderson's film.
Though Plainview's relationship with his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier and, as an adult, Russell Harvard) is the least developed of the three, it also the most damning. On first view, his parenting can be categorized as little more than the unfeeling exploitation of an opportunist. But upon further reflection, one can almost see his actions as a twisted version of fatherly love. In place of nurturing self-expression and love, he has sought to empower his son the only way he knows how: by creating a worthy competitor, someone who will challenge him without regret or compromise. Whether you view the gesture as obscene or simply idiotic is up to you. Either way, Anderson cannily turns metaphor into psychological complexity.
The true foil to Plainview's goals, however, comes in the guise of the Sunday twins. Paul Dano impressively plays both characters, and they are two sides of the same coin: Judas and Judas disguised as Jesus. Brother Paul betrays his family for his 30 pieces of silver, and Brother Eli is a snake oil holy man who hitches his ambitions to Plainview's success, using religion to get him what he wants.
From the moment they meet, Day-Lewis' version of the devil is on a collision course with Dano's corrupted soldier of God, casting the ruthless clash between faith and greed as an intrinsic part of the American psyche. One sees religion as a path to money and power, the other sees money and power as its own religion. Their apocalyptic dance delivers the promise of the film's title and pushes the film from compelling character study into overheated, sweeping parable.
The clues to Plainview's humanity finally emerge when his long-lost half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor) arrives on the scene. Plainview first regards this pitiful, shattered man with guarded suspicion. But a longing for family bubbles to the surface, and soon he's taking this stranger into partnership. The relationship ends tragically, of course, but Anderson leaves you wondering who the real loser is in the end, desperate Henry or Plainview's soul.
Unfortunately, for all Anderson's skills as a filmmaker — and he delivers one remarkably arresting moment after another — his skills as a storyteller aren't equal to his ambitions. There Will Be Blood builds up an exhilarating head of steam only to run out of track in its last 15 minutes. Whatever we are to ultimately conclude about this iconic man is obscured by Anderson's penchant for the grandiose. His film sacrifices depth for breadth, forgetting to provide enough contrast and contradiction to Plainview's unbridled individuality and utter contempt for mankind. Worse, he relies on the most awkward of film conceits — a sudden jump in time — to bring us his final (and unconvincingly grotesque) confrontation with H.W. then Eli.
It's not enough to metaphorically make the case that our country was founded by the kind of individualism that mercilessly conquers frontiers instead of building families and communities. After two-plus hours of hinting that the Daniel Plainviews of the world are made of flesh and blood, it's either a failure of nerve or ability that leads Anderson to sacrifice emotional revelation for a bloody and redundant exclamation point.