At first glance, There Will Be Blood feels pre-fabricated for the “masterpiece” label. It’s anchored by a showy, overly intense performance. It has elegant cinematography, and the courage to unfold at a languid, dream-like pace. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson won’t hurry along the story, letting his lead performers inhabit their characters at a turn of the century pace. The whole film has the majestic air of a Kubrick film and mainstream critical press are taking the bait — hook, line, and sinker.
Paul Thomas Anderson adapted a section of the Sinclair Lewis novel Oil!, focusing on Daniel Plainview, a malignant oil driller embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis, who builds a small empire of oil wells with all the honesty of a sub-prime mortgage lender. Anderson summons up his inner David Lean to create his epic, relying on landscape and sweat in equal measure.
There Will Be Blood opens with a wordless prologue. Working alone at the bottom of a silver mine, Daniel Plainview is all grit and intensity. A sudden, violent accident breaks his leg, and on the sheer strength of his will, without uttering a single cry of pain, Plainview crawls out of the ground and drags himself across the wasteland. His first stop isn’t a doctor, or the saloon, it’s the assay office to register his claim.
That tells you all you need to know about Daniel Plainview. It’s a striking beginning, but it’s also the end of his character development. He emerges from the ground fully formed and oil-black, harder than the earth he rapaciously mines. From that moment onward, he is a titanic display of ego and will, willing to lie, murder, and manipulate without remorse to satisfy his greed. Plainview is a monster, perhaps a uniquely American monster, but his charisma is offset by the relentlessly one-dimensional nature of his greed. There are no surprises, and no mystery about what he’s truly capable of. Plainview is a full-bodied incarnation of evil, but he’s no more profound than a mustache-twirling villain who ties damsels to railroad tracks.
In the desert, the flat scrub plains can't provide any perspective. Plainview is a monster without a nemesis, and without any points of reference, his evil nature is like a lone oil derrick – thrusting blackly into the sky, an eyesore, and nothing more. Where he winds up, wealthy and isolated, venomously lashing out at the few people who dare to approach him, is completely without surprise. Plainview’s motives are opaque, and his morality is never explored. He must win, and everyone else must lose, and nothing else is satisfactory. The performance is showy, but there is nothing revelatory about it.
Film history is littered with performances that plunge into the darkest urges of humanity, and explore the phenomenon of unchecked greed. Pacino has two under his belt – Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. Both turn inhumanly monstrous and commit depraved acts of murder. The characters remain riveting to watch because their respective films patiently develop a moral code that leads to murder. Plainview never opens a window into his own soul; instead he takes an impish pleasure in denying anyone (including the audience) any knowledge of his inner workings.
Day-Lewis’ performance is all taut jaw, clenched throat, and Tom Selleck mustache. He’s hypnotically watchable, but is it performing? Is it acting or is it just his charisma? All of his memorable performances strike the same smoldering intensity, and most veer dangerously close to parody. Here, particularly, he seems stuck in the same gear as in Scorsese's Gangs Of New York. If anything, his Bill the Butcher was the more hypnotic creation. Under Scorsese’s direction, Day-Lewis walked a fine line between seductive and reprehensible. More importantly, even though Bill's motives were opaque, you were never quite sure when he would let things slide into disaster. Bill the Butcher knew that he could unleash hell on cue, but he also understood that his power lay in holding it back.
From the opening scene to the final, murderous image, the completely opaque Plainview is, ironically, transparent. What you see is exactly what you get, and the lack of surprise becomes wearying. There are no flaws in the clarity to help shape or define it. Watching him is a grueling feat of endurance. There’s no enjoying the thrill of villainy. There are no moral judgments made, nor is there a skewing of a moral compass to let us see the world through Plainview’s eyes.
Just like the Coen's static No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood is just an icy facade, devoid of substance. In a year or two, after a dozen more critically anointed "masterpieces" have unrolled in theaters, Anderson's epic won't be more than a footnote.