Where There's Oil…

In the finest Hollywood tradition of coaxing movie magic from literary banality, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has taken Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel “Oil!”, which studio heads and agents hadn't exactly been pining to produce, and made from it a work of sensory astonishment and rich moral ambiguities.

Tense, propulsive, and epically scaled, “There Will Be Blood” stalks an iron-willed misanthrope from the grueling toil of wildcatting in rustic 1890s California through his long, relentless amassing of capital to a cliffhanger of deranged, opulent gore. In adapting Sinclair's novel, Anderson eighty-sixed whole continents – gone are World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, American communism, any shred of sex – and rethought characters, plotting, and tone from the ground up, in order to keep in his crosshairs two of Sinclair's biggest game, our homegrown oil plutocracy and evangelical hucksterism.


Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Paramount Vantage

AMC Loews Lincoln Square

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), walking throughout the film with a limp from a mineshaft accident at the start, is sniffing for oil around the San Joaquin Valley, and taps a well. One of the hired hands tends a crying infant, dabbing the boy's forelock with a finger dripping crude, an ominous baptism that results almost at once in the man's brutal death down the hole. Ever alert to an asset, Plainview adopts the orphan, H.W., presenting him thereafter as his own flesh and blood.

Greed and gospel vie for power in stunning oil-rush epic.

A few years pass, and one night the prospering Plainview and his ramrod, Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds), are greeted in their shed by a wandering youth named Paul (Paul Dano). Slow and outwardly meek, he quickly sets aright Plainview's patronizing manner – “I'd like it if you didn't think I was stupid,” he warns – before driving a neat bargain. Cough up $500, and he'll clue them in to a virgin lode so full the crude leaches from the soil. Paul specifies a zone on a map, mumbles some directions, and slips back into darkness.

With H.W., now a self-contained little gent (Dillon Freasier), soldiering quietly alongside, Plainview calls at the ranch Paul described and asks the resident patriarch, Abel Sunday (David Willis), if they might camp on the property for a spell of quail hunting. While the womenfolk fetch supper and water, the eldest boy Eli (Dano), Paul's comparably poky twin, sees the visitors to their campsite, and Anderson gives the trio a moment of delicious uncertainty, balanced between goodwill, awkwardness, and foreboding.

Eli, it happens, harbors no small ambition, pursued through a fledgling charismatic congregation he ministers with precocious zeal. Wise to Plainview and vaguely aware of the worth of his family's land, Eli meddles in the stranger's offer to trusting Abel to buy the spread for peanuts, and though he doesn't avert the swindle he extracts a pledge of funds toward his church. With that pact, Eli becomes Plainview's perfect nemesis, their antagonism waxing till the very end, when both have grown rich by their trades.

Having beaten back takeover bids from Standard Oil and built a private pipeline to the Pacific, meanwhile summarily committing H.W. to foster care when a well explosion leaves him deaf and burdensome, Plainview retreats ever further into himself as his lucre multiplies, psychologically decomposing over the years into a howling paranoid, a feral minotaur in his grand labyrinth.

What need, or fear, drives Plainview to such ends? More basically, who is this person, inside the Nietzschean overman? In a brilliant stroke, Anderson introduces a dust-blown wraith, Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor), as Plainview's doppelganger, who turns up claiming to be his half-brother. Plainview's inverse, a gaunt, broken vagrant begging for menial labor, becomes a handy foil, allowing the buccaneer to give rare voice to his true sentiments – “I see the worst in people” – until the moment Henry betrays himself, a shroud suddenly thrown over his almost nude figure, seated on a beach beside Daniel.

Coming upon Plainview passed out in his victuals on the floor of his mansion's bowling alley at the end, Eli appears in pastoral chic – bespoke black suit, silver cross draped over silk tie – to beg the oilman, as in the beginning, for a bursary. Now it's 1927, and tremors of the coming crash are rattling Reverend Sunday's electric pulpit. Only implied in the film, Sinclair makes plain Eli's scope of influence. “Eli proceeded to install one of the biggest… broadcasting stations. Through the Lord's mercy, his words were heard over four million square miles… [becoming] one of the major features of Southern California life. You literally couldn't get away from him if you tried.”

Resemblance to persons living or dead is of course blind chance, but even so Eli may evoke for some viewers a gene-splice of the gilded fraud Aimee Semple McPherson and the pioneering radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin. Moreover, Anderson's transformation of the novel's Joe Ross into Daniel Plainview strengthens a certain consonance between the character and Edward L. Doheny, the self-made oil magnate ultimately disgraced by the 1924 Teapot Dome scandal, in which oil heavies bribed Warren Harding's secretary of the interior to exploit reserves on federal lands.

But the slant of Anderson's cuts in paring down Sinclair's novel is revealing. For the sake of intensifying the collusion between secular avarice and greed robed in sacred virtue, Anderson deletes Sinclair's major contest between capitalism and a viable red alternative personified in the romantic choice faced by the oilman's grown son, pitting Rachel Menzies, a sensitive, committed Socialist against Vee Tracy, a floozy starlet paid to keep him addled while pop smashes some labor unrest.

However inadvertent, the wholesale burial of Sinclair's vibrant Maypole – arguably the mast from which the tale is hung, as the oil scion Bunny Ross ends by endowing a labor college with his scandal-torn patrimony – abets the neoconservative myth that there never existed in our country a mass desire and popular movement toward a “collective commonwealth,” toward an ordering of society beyond that which makes each person their fellow's competitor.

Still, “There Will Be Blood” leaves most other commercial American films in its dust, and everyone involved, rising to the material's challenge and surely ignited by Day-Lewis in their fold, has surpassed themselves. In particular, the widescreen lensing of Robert Elswit (“Desert Hearts”!), percussive modernist scoring by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and densely wrought sound design make the film an experience lived through the bowels and marrow no less than the eyes and ears. This here's the real thing