“There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s nightmare vision of an oil tycoon’s rise and fall, is an unwieldy and tonally spastic film. It is at times ponderous and almost always laughably over the top. It’s also terrific. Always prone to inspired risks, Anderson has taken his screw-it ambition and showy vision to fevered heights. The result is a wacko masterpiece.
The first 20 minutes or so of the film have no dialogue save for grunts and exaltations. We see Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the young Daniel Plainview, digging first for silver and then wildcatting for oil. This montage runs the risk of amounting to an infomercial for rugged individualism, but Anderson’s virtuosity is a pleasure to watch. The scenes are beautifully choreographed and shot, awash in shadow and rhythm; the sudden moments of violent catastrophe, like the money shots in a good horror movie, explode against anticipatory tension.
The horror-movie vibe is enhanced by the score, a cacophony of discordant string buzzing. At times it sounds more like locusts than music, and the message is clear: A plague is coming.
Thirteen years later, Plainview is a successful oil tycoon with a mannered sales pitch: Let me buy up your land and I will help you turn the dark liquid beneath it into gold. What follows is a whole lot of American epic and a whole lot of male drama, most of it centered on betrayal, disconnect and confrontation between brothers, fathers and sons, God and man and so on. Some of this is powerful stuff, some is half-baked.
After spending an enormous amount of time exploring the way that the oil business came to be in America, Anderson seems to tire of that thread and instead focuses squarely on Plainview’s descent into madness and staggering hatred of mankind. Day-Lewis begins to ham it up halfway through the film and by the end he’s well past Pacino hoo-ahing on the look-at-me-I’m-crazy scale. His over-doing it makes twisted sense, however, since everything about this movie screams excess, from the showoff cinematography to the heavy symbolism (the gushing of oil and blood, a baby baptized in oil!).
One can read all of this as grand American allegory or dark character study. My suspicion is that it’s neither one, actually; that Anderson’s approach here rejects meaning in favor of plain old meanness. It’s one thing to make a movie about a nihilistic and toxically ambitious man, but something altogether more radical to make a movie that registers at such an obsessively megalomaniacal pitch. What if “Citizen Kane” didn’t offer a bittersweet closing? What if, instead of Rosebud, we received a lavish guffaw and a middle finger?
“There Will Be Blood” closes with no redemption, no tragedy, no darkness. Instead, in a shocking turn, there is something more like a cartoon — petty joy, violent opera, riotous farce.
For all of its sprawl and mess, this film seethes with an energy that intoxicates. There is art amidst this anarchy, even if it’s nearly unplaceable. Anderson’s palette is the ineffable and the eff-you: There is no moral to this story, only raging and unforgettable half-truths.