It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the role that rage and resentment play in American life—not just with our society’s so-called losers but also with many of its illustrious winners. In a highly competitive country like this one, getting ahead of the other guy (which most folks seem to think is their Constitutional right) almost always entails the desperate fear of falling behind the other guy and, of course, once you do get ahead of him, you face the little problem of staying ahead—a pursuit which, for many, has no end. This doesn’t just have to do with the getting and spending of money, by the way. I vividly remember an already-world-famous writer once telling me that the main reason he wanted to become even more elevated in the public eye was so that when he took a dump he wouldn’t miss anyone beneath him.
In turn-of-the-twentieth-century oil baron Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s half-lyrical, half-lunatic, altogether unforgettable recasting of Upton Sinclair’s much more realistically grounded 1927 socialist novel Oil!, the director/screenwriter creates a character who is the quintessence of American anger, resentment, self-sufficiency, and competitiveness. Plainview is what entrepreneurial capitalism would be like if there were no inner or outer checks on its progress. Except for famous theatrical tyrants like Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Shakespeare’s Richard III, I have never seen a character quite like him, someone who delights so plainly in outwitting, undermining, or destroying anyone—stranger, kith, or kin—who stands in his way.
It almost goes without saying that such a character is also the quintessence of loneliness. Indeed, Plainview’s sole weakness (or vestige of humanity) is his need to share his triumphant chicanery with someone he thinks he can trust—a flaw, as the movie shows us, that leaves him open to duplicity and betrayal (for which he, thrice, takes terrible revenge). What does need saying, however, is how appallingly fascinating Daniel Plainview is, in spite of (or is it because of?) his monstrousness. He has if not personal charm, the charisma of success, which in this country is a kind of charm. And he knows it, and knows, always and exactly, how to use it to his advantage. He also has a mind that holds insults like impressions in wax. When deceived, frustrated, or humiliated (which are roughly the same thing to Plainview), he is capable of threatening to destroy or actually killing with as little compunction as a Tamburlaine or a King Richard. He is also given language by Anderson (who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing) that is nearly worthy of Tamburlaine or Richard—a kind of American orotundity, part streetwise commonsense, part horse-trader canniness, part self-made man’s towering ego and smoldering rage. To top this off, he is incarnated, ferociously, by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance that is truly one for the ages (and truly deserving of the Academy Award that Day-Lewis won).
So why, you might ask, do I rate this a four-star movie rather than a five-star one? The answer (or, at least, my answer) is that while Anderson has a grip on something authentically American in Daniel Plainview, he doesn’t really know quite what to do with him, except make him seem worse and worse. Like the late Robert Altman—Anderson’s mentor, to whose memory the film is dedicated—Anderson wants to encapsulate America in a freewheeling symbolic drama. Unfortunately, as was also sometimes the case with Altman, there is too much freewheeling and too little drama. What plot development there is is sketchy, episodic, and progressively more and more disjointed and hysterical, which makes watching There Will Be Blood a little like watching an interesting person slowly going mad.
The film is structured—in so far as it is structured—around several decades in Plainview’s life, with a central episode from each decade that describes, like stations of the Cross in reverse, his transformation from hardscrabble miner to ruthless capitalist, from a tough man with a small tight-knit family of people he trusts to a soulless, totally isolated monster, and, alas, from a stern, fierce, compellingly complex character to a raving, moustache-twisting psycho straight out of Ten Nights in a Bar Room.
The film’s slow dive into near-farcical melodrama is complicated even further by an inheritance from Sinclair’s novel—a Holy Roller named Eli Sunday who becomes a big-time SoCal evangelist like Aimee Semple McPherson and is meant to symbolize the other pole of American life, God to Plainview’s Mammon. Unfortunately, after inflicting unforgettable humiliation on Plainview (who eventually takes unforgettable revenge, served as cold as ice), Eli quickly become an afterthought in Anderson’s film, leaving us entirely unprepared for the final confrontation between him and Plainview, which in its suddenness and Gothic extravagance is quite simply (and spectacularly) nuts.
In spite of these manifest flaws, this story of a Citizen Kane without even the memory of Rosebud to console him sticks with you because of cinematographer Robert Elswit’s gorgeous cinematography (there are long, entirely silent sequences in this film worthy of Kurosawa), Jonny Greenwood’s fabulous Ligeti-like score, Anderson’s ambition, and, above all else, Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview—a true Marlovian villain baptized in oil, whose greedy, unscrupulous progeny are still with us. Jon Valin