I had never really been overly impressed by Paul Thomas Anderson's previous features. The likes of 'Boogie Nights' and 'Magnolia' were perfectly fine, clearly the work of a prodigious film maker who was perhaps too respectful to the films and techniques of Robert Altman to have found his own voice, but had the potential to make something interesting. 'There Will Be Blood' is the moment at which that potential is fulfilled; a mature and classy film that might not be the masterpiece some critics claim it to be, but it really doesn't fall much short. It's the most impressive mainstream American film in recent memory, and deserves the praise and accolades it has been rewarded with.
An epic set in four eras from 1898 to 1927, this is the account of the rise and potential fall of Daniel Plainview (a typically intense Daniel Day Lewis - a staggering performance), a silver miner striking out by himself, who becomes one of the most successful and wealthy oil prospectors in the West coast of the United States, but a man consumed by greed, corruption, hatred and megalomania. The genesis of this monstrous behaviour can be identified immediately when a search for silver goes wrong and Plainview falls, breaking his leg. Through sheer will and determination, he climbs from the metres deep hole in the ground and makes his way to sell his silver. This first scene, which takes over the ten minutes in pure silence is completely radical in American film making. This is the kind of scene you see in a Tsai Ming Liang film, not a film with a $30 million budget.
Plainview's success over the next three decades is rapacious, though this comes at the expense of disregarding all those around him and his very soul and humanity. Plainview is a man who sees nothing but the worst in people and who sees nothing to like in people, a man who wants no-one else to succeed and who has an unhealthy sense of competition. The challenge to his authority and place comes when drilling in the town of Little Boston, where a young preacher/healer, Eli Sunday (a terrific Paul Dano, who shouldn't be overlooked because of the attention paid to DDL's performance) starts a church with the money Plainview spent on buying the drilling rights to the town. So begins the rivalry for the two men for the hearts and minds of the community, and these two men have the potential to destroy each other and as well as themselves.
Anderson used Upton Sinclair's 'Oil' as the basis for 'There Will Be Blood', though it isn't an exact adaptation. It lacks Sinclair's overt political agenda (his Socialist beliefs were the driving force of his works), though one wonders whether the rush for oil of a century ago mirrors than of contemporary America. I don't know about that though; it's a fairly spurious assertion to make. I'm not sure Anderson is interested in making a political film beyond holding typically American values up to the mirror (ambition, success, capitalism) and revealing the negative sides to them. His main interest is creating a portrait of a man capable of love and self destruction, who is monstrous, but able to attain our sympathy every now then, although Anderson then shows Plainview behaving in a despicable way to stop us doing so.
Three films spring to mind upon watching 'There Will Be Blood' - 'Citizen Kane' (the rise and fall of a paranoid megalomaniac), 'Days of Heaven' (the Biblical references, the wide open spaces of the American landscape) and 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' (where greed and corruption turn man against man). All classic Hollywood films, and 'There Will Be Blood' arguably sits comfortably amongst them and warrants comparison. It really is that good. 4.5/5