The intrigue has been building since May 2006, when writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) commenced production on his fifth feature film, There Will Be Blood, loosely based on the first section of an Upton Sinclair novel called Oil! Despite the fact that Sinclair’s story takes place in California, Anderson insisted on shooting mostly in Marfa, where he erected an enormous set across five hundred acres and cast a number of townspeople in supporting parts. But other than the usual gossipy details from the locals, who reported seeing the film’s star, Daniel Day-Lewis, jogging around town in a heavy sweat suit, information about the actual movie was scarce. No members of the press were allowed to visit the set; the contents of the script were kept closely under wraps. The film even bypassed the usual splashy fall showings at Venice and Toronto this year and instead had a “surprise screening” world premiere at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse. The lucky few hundred who attended emerged uttering breathless superlatives, but even they seemed incapable of communicating much detail. (“Both an epic and a miniature . . . a certain awards contender,” wrote John DeFore in an enthusiastic, but not especially descriptive, Hollywood Reporter review.)
Finally, the shroud of secrecy is about to be lifted. The day after Christmas, There Will Be Blood opens in New York and Los Angeles, just in time for Oscar consideration, before expanding nationwide throughout January. My best advice: Take a deep breath and gird yourself for disappointment. Running almost two hours and forty minutes and spanning three decades in the life of an oil magnate named Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), the movie purports to be an art-house mash-up of two of the greatest American films ever made, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and George Stevens’s Giant. But Anderson doesn’t seem to have much of a grip on the story he’s trying to tell. There Will Be Blood, which flirts with complicated ideas about the symbiotic relationship in this country between capitalism and religiosity, ends up feeling wholly misplaced. It hints constantly at one thing, then delivers something less interesting entirely.
The story begins in 1898, in a bone-dry, unnamed California town, where Plainview solitarily mines for silver and gold. Three years later, on yet another mining expedition, he accidentally strikes oil. These early scenes are nothing if not arresting: Anderson shoots in spooky, shadowy light as screeching noises flood the sound track. (The score is a bizarre mix of electronically generated sound and percussion by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, along with classical pieces by Brahms and the Estonian composer Arvo Part.) But there’s also a fine line between the portentous and the pretentious—and as these opening scenes carry on, with only one whispered line of dialogue in the entire first reel, you begin to suspect that Anderson may have allowed his own self-seriousness to get the best of him.
And “carry on” is the operative phrase here: With each passing minute, the pacing of There Will Be Blood gets slower and the tone ever more lugubrious. The story picks up again in 1911, as the now wealthy Plainview travels to the town of Little Boston. There he must negotiate with a money-hungry teenage preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) to lease drilling rights on the Sunday family ranch. This is a terrific subject for an American movie—the idea that, whether we are secular or religious, we all worship at the altar of the United States treasury. And the scenes between Day-Lewis and Dano have a shocking force; these two equally slimy souls will stop at nothing to claim the mantle of righteousness from each other. But almost as soon as Anderson stumbles upon these fascinating themes, he diverts his attention elsewhere. Plainview is plagued with guilt after his young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), is rendered deaf in an oil derrick explosion. Later, he meets a man named Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) who may or may not be his half-brother. Sunday drifts farther and farther into the background. By the time he returns for the last scene, a bloody, utterly befuddling finale set in a two-lane bowling alley inside Plainview’s mansion, we’ve long since stopped caring about any of these people.
Where did Anderson—who until now has done consistently solid, if occasionally overpraised, work—go wrong? His first mistake, I think, was in fashioning There Will Be Blood as a character study instead of a traditional, plot-driven melodrama—especially since we’ve seen this raging magnate character a million times before. Anderson did himself no favors either by handing the movie over so completely to his lead actor. Day-Lewis certainly cuts an impressive figure, with his formal, almost singsong twang and his glowering dark eyes. But it’s also hard not to feel that you’re watching a replay of his Bill the Butcher shtick from Gangs of New York, complete with manic hollering and drool cascading from his mouth. Besides, Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) is so electric that the movie sags whenever he’s not around. Just watch the instant-classic scene where Sunday wrestles the devil out of a woman’s arthritic hands and tosses him out of his one-room church, all as Plainview looks on in disgust and suspicion. You get a sense of what There Will Be Blood might have been: a monumental battle of corrupt wills.
The greater frustration, however, is that Anderson has paid so little attention to history and geography, the very subjects that should form the backbone of this drama. It took me more than an hour before I was certain that the story, which unfolds in deliberately vague fashion, was taking place in California. I then spent the rest of the movie wondering why Anderson hadn’t transposed the setting of Sinclair’s novel to Texas, where the tensions between Christianity and commercialism are much more prevalent (and where those of us who live above the Barnett Shale are still listening to the industrious pitches of men who want to drill beneath our property). But Anderson, who was born and raised in suburban Los Angeles, doesn’t seem to care much about real people or real places; he’s more interested in conjuring up his own stylized cinematic universe. Indeed, he doesn’t just render Marfa as an anonymous stand-in for California; he turns it into the superfluous backdrop for an allegory about fathers and sons, sin and redemption, transgression and revenge. (George Stevens, who filmed Giant in Marfa in 1955, must be spinning in his grave.)
Perhaps if Anderson knew what point he was trying to make, this artifice-driven, film-school-geek approach might have resulted in something surreal and singular, a period piece unmoored from time and place, à la Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Instead, the conflicts here are banal, the emotions muted, and the central allegory half-baked. And for all of the director’s grandiose flourishes, this movie really is kinda dopey. (To wit: Is there any reason why the screenplay never explains whether Eli Sunday actually has a twin brother named Paul—or if he suffers from some sort of split personality disorder?) The real secret of There Will Be Blood: You scratch at its epic surface and discover there’s absolutely nothing inside.