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Movie Review

Striking oil

'There Will Be Blood' extracts money, power, and struggle to epic effect

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 4, 2008

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Strictly speaking, "There Will Be Blood" doesn't come from the Bible. (It's sprung up from an 80-year-old Upton Sinclair novel.) But the movie has a stunning biblicality. In the beginning (the turn of the last century) there was a man. The man dug a hole in the earth. The hole went deep. The man plunged a great metal spike into the heart of the earth, and the earth bled a thick brown juice. By the bucket, the man and his crew hauled it up. The juice was called oil. The oil made him wealthy. The wealth made him powerful. The power made him crazy. Amen.

The filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson, puts us right up close to this mustached oilman. His name is Daniel Plainview, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the kind of performance that makes a term like "acting" seem pedestrian (he floods technique with instinct). Plainview is a gathering storm. This alluring visionary has a seductive authority, scary beady eyes, and John Huston's diabolical diction. He actually starts out evoking Huston in, say, "Chinatown," and gradually - the patience shown for Plainview's trip from driven to psychotic is the key to the performance - concludes with him doing a comic remix of Humphrey Bogart's primal meltdown in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Yet he goes so far beyond homage or mere embodiment. Daniel Day-Lewis is something else here. He's the smoke, the ash, the lava, and the volcano.

But as grand and singeing as Day-Lewis is, Anderson doesn't let him vanquish the picture, the way he did in "Gangs of New York." He doesn't need him to. Anderson puts us right up close to everything else in this great big funny, scary, deliriously one-of-a-kind movie. (The flabbergasting photography is by Robert Elswit; and Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead, did the movie's churning, horror-film soundscape.)

We're down there with Plainview scraping at the bowels of the earth. When a ladder snaps and Plainview crashes to the floor of his dark tiny birth canal of a well, he gasps for air. So do we. (His wheezing accounts for the only lines of dialogue for about the first 15 minutes.) What we're watching, with thrilling rapture, is a director building a movie the old-fashioned way: with his hands. Dirt cakes the fingernails. Oil smears the camera lens.

The work we're seeing men do - the heaving, pulling, climbing, pouring, waiting - is exhilarating in part because it's so manual. I marveled at some of the labor being done on-screen and thought of Abel Gance, D.W. Griffith, and King Vidor, how those men built epics out of the cumulative force of real on-screen horsepower. Anderson's movie takes full advantage of its medium to show us the infernal birth of an industry.

"There Will Be Blood" is anti-state of the art. It's the work of an analog filmmaker railing against an increasingly digitized world. In that sense, the movie is idiosyncratic, too: vintage visionary stuff. It's physical and tactile (including a "Three Stooges"-load of slapping.) There's an astonishing sequence, in which oil is struck, producing a gushing blowout that sends one character flying backward. The ensuing inferno has to be extinguished manually.

The whole movie is full of dust and mud, soaked with earthly and bodily secretions (ponds of oil, ponds of water, a climactic pond of blood). When Daniel Plainview takes off his clothes and soaks in an ocean toward the middle of this movie, it's as if we're rinsing off the days and days of sweat and toil, too.

This is a movie we can almost completely feel. But its physicality is only part of Anderson's achievement. It's true that Plainview is as long and imposing as the derricks he's putting up all over California. But both Plainview's seduction of the little towns in the way of his growing pipeline and his eventual mania connect beautifully with the grim tales of moral collapse in "Greed" and "Chinatown." One evening a long-faced young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) arrives and seduces Plainview. Paul says his daddy's land has oil right there just beneath the surface, ready to be had, and for $500 he'll tell the tycoon where it is. A rival company, he says, is buying up all the land in the area, so Plainview had better act quickly.

And he does, arriving at the Sundays' arid back lot of a property - in a place called Little Boston - with H.W. (Dillon Freasier), his partner and son. They're almost immediately accosted by Eli Sunday, an aspiring preacher who bears an uncanny resemblance to his brother Paul and is also played by Dano (who, for what it's worth, bears an uncanny resemblance to the surreally serious-looking Freasier). You might say Eli is a piece of work. For the Sundays' land, he wants Plainview to give $10,000 to build a church. As Plainview is publicly promising the townsfolk that the oil will produce infrastructure and an economy (schools, agriculture, roads, jobs), Eli pipes up: "Will the new roads lead to the church?"

You can feel Anderson fixing for a duel between the man of God and the man of Mammon. As the movie rings the fight bell, you can also feel "There Will Be Blood" expanding into some kind of battle for the American soul: Big Oil vs. Big Religion. But Anderson doesn't overplay this. For one thing, it's an unfair fight, since Eli hardly seems as devoted to God as Plainview is to oil. And if this is an allegory, it's not straining to be allegorical. Eli's m.o. is mild moralizing, but he's as self-interested and monomaniacal as Daniel, who is so obsessed (with business, with himself) that he lacks an ostensible interest in sex or women. He responds to a lucrative buyout offer by asking, "What else would I do with myself?"

Eli's ramshackle chapel eventually becomes a sort of mega-church. And it's not God's house. It's Eli's. The dais is a stage, the congregation an audience. And Dano, who was the speechless son in "Little Miss Sunshine," has a couple of electric Holy Roller-type scenes - impure theater. In one, Eli uproariously whales on Plainview, who looks ashamed more for his showboating assailant than himself.

Daniel has a lot to atone for, though, in particular his treatment of H.W., who as a tot was anointed with a dab of crude to the forehead and whose temperament changes as the result of an injury sustained in that flaming blowout. Freasier and Day-Lewis develop a "Paper Moon"-ish physical banter. But the adult curiosity in Freasier's face turns intriguingly mean. That accident and his father's monomania have severely bruised him and altered their bond.

The filmmaking in this movie will do that to you - leave you bruised. But for once Anderson, the director of "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," and "Punch Drunk Love," isn't desperate to run us over and knock us out. The cavalcade of characters and the ambulatory heaviness that were his stock in trade - he was Altman on skates with occasionally lead wheels - has thinned out and turned observant. The resulting movie is an achievement of patient art.

The novel Anderson took the movie from, Sinclair's "Oil!," is a merry-go-round with too many horses. The director has pared away the dozens of characters (starlets, other oil magnates, more religious folk), talk of strikes, the Bolsheviks, and faraway places (London, Paris, Sao Paulo), and the accompanying tale of how an American city rises and falls.

Maybe Anderson thought we don't need a second "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." The first one is great as it is. He also ditches the wishful editorializing that so thrilled Sinclair. Here's the author's closing riff on this title substance: It's "an evil Power, which roams the earth, crippling the bodies of men and women, and luring the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor." Finding a relatively simple story to extract from "Oil!" is in itself an act of prospecting.

But the book as Sinclair wrote it - vast, highly populated, amusing, wild, weirdly entertaining - probably should have appealed to a filmmaker sometimes referred to as "P.T." The moniker evoked P.T. Barnum, and it invited you to see the circus in Anderson's emotionally volatile kaleidoscopes. Even Jon Brion's music for "Hard Eight," "Magnolia," and "Punch Drunk Love" had a "step right up, folks, step right up" quality.

The thrill of a movie like "Boogie Nights" or "Magnolia" was that you were in the hands of a young artist (Anderson is only 37) who wanted to break a lot of rules he never really believed in in the first place. Neither movie was coherent - Anderson didn't seem to believe in coherence either. But he did understand cohesion. The finished films didn't always make sense, yet something - sincerity, ambition, a big sense of humor, pathos, anarchy of a sort - was holding it together. For "Magnolia," add to that list loud Aimee Mann music and frogs.

Anderson is more detached in "There Will Be Blood," right up until the gonzo finale, a black-comic epilogue that's at once a savage, sick joke on Americana and a clobbering, snidely blunt impersonation of Stanley Kubrick. It makes good on the film's title, which may be taken from Lord Byron. "The king-times are fast finishing," he said. "There will be blood shed like water, and tears like mist. But the peoples will conquer in the end. I shall not live to see it, but I foresee it."

The movie shares some of that prophecy. But it can't find the hope. Anderson's crazy ending is right where the crazy world outside the movie theater picks up. The people's revolt - against something like the tyranny of oil - might have a happy ending down the road. In the meantime, there is blood.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.