Ambitious as hell but irreparably flawed, Paul Thomas Anderson
's There Will Be Blood enthralls for half its run but balances precariously atop an epilogue that can't sustain the picture's dramatic weight. Picture a circus elephant perched on a beach ball at the center of the big top. Teeter, teeter, topple.
Opening with its protagonist buried deep in a hole from which he never really emerges, Blood tracks the turn-of-the-century dealings of miner Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis
, magnetic) who transitions from silver to oil when he taps vast, black resources beneath California's undeveloped frontier. A decade after stumbling across their first reserve, Daniel and his adoptive son, H.W. Plainview (saucer-eyed Dillon Freasier), are snapping up as much land as possible to increase the family's corporate empire. Article continues below
And then, we reach a turning point. The Plainview men are approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano
) -- his name being the first of countless Old Testament references Anderson sprinkles liberally through Blood -- who tips Daniel off to the oil resting just below the surface of Little Boston. The tyrannical tycoon ventures to the town, drives the stakes of his pseudo-revival tent into the fertile ground, and begins to bleed the community dry, both literally and figuratively.
One of Plainview's obstacles in Little Boston is Eli Sunday (Dano, again), who might be Paul coyly feigning ignorance to Daniel's ultimate goal or a different brother altogether. Anderson reveals the character's true nature in time, but it's way too late to matter. Eli is the town's pastor, a holy man who hawks religion with the same zeal Daniel uses to peddle oil. He lays healing hands on gullible parishioners, distrusts the Plainviews, and bullies his weak-willed father, Abel (more Biblical references, for those having trouble following Anderson's blatant subtext).
Had Anderson contained Blood to the strong-willed tug-of-war established between Daniel and Eli, the material could have thrived, expanding to fill the vast frontier that backdrops the story. Both "salesmen" need the support of the susceptible majority, and Day-Lewis is at his best when tormenting an inferior opponent (and not abusing his own steely psyche). But the filmmaker does his best to divert our attentions from the power struggle, laying plot pieces like rails of a train track promising a destination for his story that never crystallizes. Daniel's son, injured in a blast, temporarily is exiled from the town but returns later with few repercussions. Henry Plainview (Kevin O'Connor
), Daniel's brother from another mother, serendipitously shows up in Little Boston right when the family's business starts to suggest profits (the fact that hardened Daniel trusts this stranger is laughable). Meanwhile, one stubborn resident (Hans Howes) refuses to sell his land to Daniel, preventing the completion of a pipeline the baron wants to run to the coast. And representatives of Union Oil are sniffing around, offering massive sums of money for the fruit of Daniel's labor. Anderson throws conflict after conflict against the wall, begging for something to stick.
While Anderson lets the focus slip on his sprawling, nervous epic, Blood remains wholly watchable. Lackluster performances are rare for Day-Lewis, who doesn't disappoint once again as he transforms Daniel into a forceful, cautious, and commanding frontier CEO. Robert Elswit shoots his second gorgeous picture this year (Michael Clayton
being his first). But Dylan Tichenor once again needed a short leash in the editing bay -- he also cut the overlong Assassination of Jesse James for Andrew Dominik -- and Jonny Greenwood's harsh score doesn't always gel with the action.
And then there's the coda, which will be the focal point of Blood discussions for years to come. Those that buy into Anderson's vision may embrace the unabashedly theatrical Charles Foster Kane conclusion, which finds the maniacal Daniel holed up in a mansion as he severs ties with H.W. and faces off with Paul/Eli one last time. It doesn't work. For me, the final act of Blood will be revered for the surplus of embarrassingly cheesy lines it provides, all delivered by Day-Lewis with his teeth sunk deep into the scenery. "Drrrraiiiinagggge," he bellows at his nemesis threw a clenched jaw before elaborating on milkshakes and straws, stomping through his surroundings like Kong unleashed in lower Manhattan. Perhaps realizing the futility of the scene, Day-Lewis chooses to demolish Anderson's construction with a decimating delivery that's admirably hammy. "I told you I would eat you!" Daniel growls to both Paul/Eli and his scenery. The tornado-de-force turn gives way to Daniel's final, telling line: "I am finished." No truer words were ever spoken.