Thicker Than Blood


Let's come right out with it. "There Will Be Blood," director Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of greed, oil and empire-building in Southern California in the first decades of the 20th century, is a masterpiece.

"Blood" is not a companionable classic; pessimism runs through it like a seam of coal, and the last 10 minutes are pure craziness. But it is simply one of the best movies to come out of this country in years, as commanding as the gothic injunction of its title.

This is Anderson's fifth film, and if it confirms his early promise as a director, it also eases the disappointment of his most recent work.

In 1997, Anderson directed "Boogie Nights," his celebrated if somewhat stiff documentary on the hothouse orchids of the San Fernando Valley. "Boogie Nights" was a prodigious achievement for a director

not yet 30 years old. Even within the limitations of his subject, Anderson was able to coax humane and funny performances from a cast of dozens, including Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle and - miracle of miracles - Burt Reynolds, as a distinguished horticulturist.

Anderson followed "Boogie Nights" with "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk

Love." Critics were sympathetic to those efforts; both movies had their moments of formal daring and narrative pyrotechnics. But it

seemed - to me, at least - that Anderson had run out of big ideas. No more.

Loosely adapted from the first chapters of an Upton Sinclair novel, "There Will Be Blood" is an epic, hard earned where the others

were cheap and showy. Evidently, Sinclair Lewis' sense of the gargantuan in America - its enormous appetites and ambitions - gave Anderson a theme big enough to hang his movie from.

When we first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), in 1898, he's

laboring at the bottom of a mineshaft, solitary and filthy.

Correction: we don't


meetPlainview, we hearhim. I can't remember a film as attuned to the sound of labor as this - the clank and ring of pick ax against rock; the caveman slap of hand on burp; the sound of a rope snapping, as Plainview is thrown to the bottom of the shaft. Just how, exactly, Plainfield manages to crawl out of the mine and into town (his leg has snapped) is left unsaid. The implication is that he willed it.

 

When we meet him again, in 1911, Plainview is an oil man, traveling

through California to buy up farmland at unscrupulously low prices. Accompanying Plainview is his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). A little man in a suit, H.W. stands, mutely, on his father's right side, as though he were a substitute for the man's conscience. There is no Mrs. Plainview; in fact, there are hardly any women at all. Day-Lewis fully occupies the film's center, having

presumably scared gentler types away.

A physically audacious actor (he famously coaxed a performance from

his left foot), Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as Plainfield - a demonic figure with coal-dark eyes and tight-coiled tension. Arriving in the town of New Boston (which, despite its name, registers as little more than a scratch in the dirt), Plainview cheats the townspeople out of the ocean of oil that sits beneath them. In a fraudulent speech, he invokes a future of industry and agriculture, and promises to "blow gold" over the land.

Well, at least he makes good on that last promise. In one apocalyptic scene, Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit film with lapidary stillness, one of the derricks exploding, and oil rains down from the sky. When H.W. is injured in the explosion, Plainview abandons the boy. The townspeople are little better. Sold on the future, they don't care if their town goes to hell.

Industry and evangelism: the American one-two. In town, Plainview

meets Eli Sunday, a boy preacher who wants to exploit the town's oil

to build

style="font-size: 10pt"him. i can't remember a film as attuned to the sound of labor as this - the clank and ring of pick ax against rock; the caveman slap of hand on burp; the sound of a rope snapping, as plainview is thrown to the bottom of the shaft. just how, exactly, plainfield manages to crawl out of the mine and into town (his leg has snapped) is left unsaid. the implication is that he willed it. >

 

hisempire, the Church of the Third Day Advent. As played by Paul Dano (the mute, outraged brother of "Little Miss

 

Sunshine"), Sunday is as ruthless as Plainview, and the two humiliate one another in scenes of blackly comic violence.

Their quarrel takes us to the doorstep of the 1930s, at the end of the film. Plainview, now visibly deranged, lives in the enormous mansion

he built for himself on the California coast. There, the old prospector sleeps on the floor - drinking, drooling, and raving like a

peg-legged pirate. In these final scenes, Anderson and Day-Lewis move "Blood" somewhere outside of sanity altogether. On this

last point, the director is disconsolately clear: Oil runs thicker than blood.

style="font-size: 10pt"empire, the church of the third day advent. as played by paul dano (the mute, outraged brother of "little miss >

 

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