Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) used to be a miner, searching for silver to scrape a living. One day he had set his dynamite to uncover fresh veins of the precious metal when there was an accident and he was left with a broken leg at the bottom of the pit he had dug. Yet Plainview was possessed of an almost supernatural drive to succeed, and he not only made money with the silver he found, he dragged himself back to civilisation, or the closest thing to it, later setting up a business to find oil in California. But would his obssession with making wealth hopelessly corrupt him?
Erm, yes, and that's about all there is to Paul Thomas Anderson's much-lauded character study set in the early years of the twentieth century and drawn from a socially conscious novel by Upton Sinclair. It's a long journey to get to a destination you can see even from the trailer, never mind the first half hour, but what was striking to most people was the curious handling of a fairly straightforward tale of the way a man can sell his soul for the sake of prosperity. Yet, really, how strange was it? This wasn't exactly David Lynch, after all.
In fact, the oddest aspect was a muted stillness to the drama that even affected the tenser scenes, leaving us at a remove from the characters and not simply because of the historical setting. Many viewers were not as won over as the film's fans, feeling as alienated from it as those close to Plainview are by the climax of the story. For a start, Day-Lewis adopts a John Huston impersonation to bring his lead role to life, which proves another obstacle in getting on with There Will Be Blood, and the other actors are either reining it in or, in the case of Paul Dano as Plainview's enemy, preacher Eli Sunday, offputtingly weak in what should be a powerhouse performance.
This means Day-Lewis dominates, as it should be as he is in practically every scene, but when he seems to have only one personality trait you start to look for something beneath the surface to see what is compelling him and it grows to be an unanswered mystery, unlike in Citizen Kane which this was overstatedly compared to. Plainview's only family member appears to be a brother (Kevin J. O'Connor) who shows up halfway through, but proves to be not what he says he is, thereby bringing out the theme that the acquisition of great wealth and power also brings a measure of violence in order to keep it. Yes, we're taking down the oil industry here.
Plainview's other family member who isn't is H.W. (Dillon Freasier), the little boy he has brought up since he lost his father in one of the oilman's accidents, who is apparently only present to suffer rejection later on, another example of the plot eschewing subtlety. Anderson does have an interesting point of view on his lead character, and ensures everyone else revolves around him, including those who are resisting his avaricious ways, so that Plainview callously erases the line between success and exploitation in his methods. We are meant to see him as losing his soul, yet Eli does not put up a strong enough defence in the case of God, and their final confrontation brings the film to a halt in a manner that left more than one person wondering, "Was that it?" As usual with Anderson, he was technically impressive, but perhaps overambitious, not that that is a bad thing, just disappointing in this case. Music by Johnny Greenwood.