Oil, Oil Everywhere! Paul Thomas Anderson Goes to the Old West for a Gusher Evoking New Greed

THERE WILL BE BLOOD Running Time 158 minutes Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano

Running Time 158 minutes
Written and
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, from his own screenplay, is based on the 1927 novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, the muckraking writer and anti-capitalist activist. The film’s narrative seems very slow getting started as it examines in painstaking detail the primitive and dangerous processes, first of silver mining in Silver City, N.M., and then of oil extraction near the end of the 19th century, in Little Boston, a rural enclave near what is now Los Angeles.

The film’s protagonist, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, makes a hardscrabble living as a silver miner until a down-at-the-heels young man from California, Paul Dano’s Paul Sunday, makes him an offer. For $500, Sunday will tell Plainview the location of his family’s goat ranch in California, where the oil leaks out of the ground. Plainview demonstrates right from the outset that he is a tough, wily, always suspicious negotiator as he explains to Sunday that there are many places where oil rises to the surface, but very few with much oil underneath. Still, he accepts the deal, and drives off to New Boston in one of the first just-invented automobiles, which are going to revolutionize the oil industry until oil becomes the global monstrosity that plagues our foreign policy to this day.

After all, why else would two-time Oscar-nominee Mr. Anderson undertake to adapt an 80-year-old little-known Sinclair novel for a high-budget production starring Oscar winner Mr. Day-Lewis? His character is said to be based on the real-life Edward Doheny, an oil tycoon of the period. Yet very little in the movie is revealed about Plainview’s earlier life, which has left him with a little son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). His past life is something Plainview refuses to talk about, and no one in the film, least of all the women, ever gets close enough to him to break his vow of secrecy. Indeed, throughout, Plainview remains a fascinating, often inscrutable presence, but ultimately a morally repulsive figure. Is it capitalism or oil or the American Way of Life that makes him so reprehensible? Again, Mr. Anderson gives us few clues about the inner man, and only Mr. Day-Lewis’ resourcefulness as an actor keeps us intrigued about his possible motives, or is “motive” too old-fashioned a word for this brave new world?

Oil, with the environmental havoc it wreaks on the soil and on communities, is not the only villain of the piece. Revivalist religion takes a few whacks as well, as by the end the antics of Paul Sunday’s twin brother, Eli (also played by Paul Dano), gets more than a few laughs. Eli makes it a condition of Plainview’s purchase of his father’s ranch that a Baptist church be built on the property with some of the oil profits. Plainview cynically agrees to Eli’s overbearing importuning, but one senses from the beginning a final settling of accounts between these two supreme egotists.

Oh, yes, along the way, Plainview’s son is rendered deaf by an accident near the oil derrick, and Plainview blithely abandons the now handicapped child on a departing train. They are eventually but bitterly reunited, and the emotional scars linger through both their lives.

There are a few seemingly decent people Plainview encounters along his rugged path of ruthless self-enhancement, but they serve only to illuminate his capacity for a mysterious malignancy. Not exactly mysterious, for at one point he comes right out and says that he has never liked people.

As it happens, I have enjoyed all of Mr. Anderson’s previous four films—Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002). I have always appreciated, particularly, the flair he showed in his casting, and in his ability to extract all the eccentricities of his characters from the performers playing them. But I have never before seen an Anderson film with a lead character exuding so few sympathetic vibes to the audience, even when the atmosphere was unpleasant and even unsavory.

Nonetheless, There Will Be Blood remains an impressive achievement in its confident expertness in rendering the simulated realities of a bygone time and place, largely with an inspired use of regional amateur actors and extras with all the right moves and sounds. In this moviegoing year of unrestrained morbidity and malfeasance, There Will Be Blood fits in very nicely with all the prevailing paranoia on and off the screen. Oil, Oil Everywhere! Paul Thomas Anderson Goes to the Old West for a Gusher Evoking New Greed