I have loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies for years. I admire the cinematic artistry and the gorgeous thematic arcs and the finely drawn characters, but what I love most is the profoundly empathetic quality of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson has a remarkable ability to take characters we might otherwise dismiss with a sneer—a dim-witted porn star, a drug-addled but repentant gold digger, a painfully shy man with anger management issues—and create clear-eyed but exquisitely human portraits, quietly insisting that we see shades of ourselves in them. There is nothing cynical or cruel about the stories Anderson tells. The honesty, patience, and tenderness of his films move me each time I see them.
So I don’t know quite what to do with There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s latest. It has all those great aesthetic and artistic qualities: long dramatic tracking shots, brilliant lighting, striking use of music. The arc of the movie, with Daniel Day-Lewis’s intense performance in the central role, is beautifully wrought, not a simple rise-and-fall storyline but something more interesting and muddy. But There Will Be Blood is also much colder than I expect from Anderson, and that saddens me. Without the warmth of his previous films, Blood left me impressed and intrigued but unmoved.
Part of that hardness comes from the simple fact that the protagonist, Daniel Plainview, is a hard man. The film opens with Plainview prospecting for oil around the turn of the twentieth century. He strikes it rich, but one of his workers is killed in the drilling, leaving behind an orphaned infant son. Some twelve years later, Plainview is a wealthy, self-made oilman who has claimed the boy, H.W., as his own. Following a tip, he and H.W. come to a desolate swath of California desert in search of an untapped oil field. They buy up land, bring in dozens of workers, and drill around the clock, but although the oil is there, the project will bring Plainview more than money. A devastating accident, a mysterious traveler, and a fervid young preacher turn Little Boston, California, into a reckoning place for Plainview.
As Plainview, Day-Lewis gives an impassioned performance reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated turn in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Again he plays someone whose ruthlessness and capacity for violence are frightening yet compelling; Day-Lewis commands our attention. In the first twenty minutes of Blood, he has virtually no lines—Plainview is alone in the depths of a shaft in the earth wielding a pickaxe in search of oil—but he inhabits the character so fully, so convincingly, that we feel the scope of Plainview’s resolve without needing any exposition.
Twenty-three-year-old Paul Dano holds up remarkably well next to Day-Lewis as Plainview’s foil, the charismatic preacher Eli Sunday. Sunday has nowhere near Plainview’s strength, but in self-righteousness and ambition, he is his adversary’s equal. Their clashes are ominous, emblematic of confrontations between more than just two individuals.
In fact, despite the painstaking period detail, There Will Be Blood never feels like a “period film” but rather like something larger, something timeless and epic. Anderson’s measured, artful filming of the unforgiving land and the grueling physical labor required to work it reminded me of Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s masterpiece. The sequence in which an oil geyser catches flame, in particular, holds the same apocalyptic texture as the climactic fire in Heaven, and Jonny Greenwood’s unnerving, dissonant score heightens the portentousness of the moment.
So what is Blood about: the deleterious effects of capitalism? the self-destructive nature of unbridled ambition? the general ugliness of humanity? Each of those interpretations seems simplistic to me, which is why I found Plainview’s big monologue (“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”) a rare misstep—facile and clumsy, not to mention out of character. But regardless, the movie has a bleak, misanthropic worldview that left me feeling deflated and vaguely repulsed.
I can’t argue with those who claim that There Will Be Blood is Anderson’s masterpiece. They are right to say its classical structure is more unified and taut than his previous efforts. They are right to praise the consummate filmmaking and the unforgettable performance at its center. But walking out of Blood, I missed the tenderness of Anderson’s earlier films. I’m not for a moment arguing that they’re cheery, up-with-people extravaganzas—they’re not; they can be painfully bleak—but in all their grim, messy sprawl is a kernel of foolish hope, wonder, love, that Blood lacks.
That doesn’t make Blood a bad movie. Truth be told, it’s not a bad movie; it probably is a masterpiece. But unlike the others, it’s a movie I respect more than I love. There may be blood, but there’s not much of a heart.