Though set around the turn of the 20th Century, There Will Be Blood is, in its pitting of capitalism against revivalism, conspicuously more about the state of the union at the turn of the 21st. (There’s even an oilman, or oilboy, called “H.W.”!) Daniel Day-Lewis tears through the film as an oilman, father of H.W. (though the character’s name is Daniel, not Prescott), who picks up a few thousand oil-ripe acres out west—beginning with those belonging to Paul Dano, a young preacher, and his family, in exchange for the promise of a tithe—and starts drilling. Forget films about the American Revolution or the Civil War—this is the true document of the birth of the nation as it stands today, when Texas tea met the Christian church.
Possibly because Day-Lewis fails to let Dano perform a blessing on the first derrick before it starts pumping—“a simple blessing,” he says, “but an important one”—tragedy ensues; soon, an accident sets the derrick ablaze, and through director Paul Thomas Andseron’s lens it looks like hellfire escaping from Hades through a hole in the ground, the devil come to earth with a pitch-black, soaked-in-oil Day-Lewis as his one man welcoming committee. Not that Dano is some kind of saint; not long thereafter, Day-Lewis cuts him down to size by pushing him into a puddle of oil on the ground, a reminder to Dano and to the audience that the two are not so different.
There Will Be Blood announces its grim and somber heft from the onset, through its austere style characterized by uncut long takes, solemnly muted colors and frames packed with sweaty and serious men. (Religion and industry are the domains of men, and as such there is hardly a speaking role for a woman in the film.) Though Dano plays a central role in the film, he can’t help but be overshadowed; There Will Be Blood belongs to Day-Lewis, whom Anderson emphasizes by shooting in unbroken close-ups; but Anderson contrasts this intimacy with a tendency to allow the action to unfold in the frame’s distant rearground. There Will Be Blood is meant to be understood microcosmically, an illumination of one barbarous tycoon in a expansive country full of them, in a world that turns on their dollar.
Although Day-Lewis doesn’t seem like much of a villain at first; not so much cold, callous or cruel, he comes across as simply arrogant. But midway through the film he delivers a speech that clues us in to his bitter and rampant misanthropy, which he has hitherto successfully hidden from his public: “I have a competition in me,” he says. “I want no one else to succeed.” In Anderson’s film, the hubris and greed of unchecked ambition yields tragedy, as Day-Lewis, to his undoing, slips into sin: from lust and drink to abandonment and, finally, murder. At the film’s start, Day-Lewis falls down a crude mine shaft and breaks his leg, though it doesn’t stop him from crawling out, like an animal, to stake a silver claim; he walks with a limp through the rest of the film, his unquenchable yearning for power through money manifest as a physical handicap.
Dano, for his part, is also nothing more than a mountebank, finally exposed, in no big surprise, as nothing more than a manipulative “man of God” out for his own piece of the oil pie. Day-Lewis, like the Cheneyes of the world, co-opts Dano’s religious agenda to push his own oil-money agenda, while Dano forms an uneasy alliance with Day-Lewis to gain control of his small religious community and further his own career. There Will be Blood presents two self-destructive forces, the dominant strains in America—Jesus and oil—as they battle against one another; as a result, the film follows through on its titular promise as one consumes the other, leaving but one: miserable, impotent and alone.
It’s no accident, then, that the film ends during the unraveling of the American Dream known as the Great Depression. If There Will Be Blood begins by showing where the country came from, it moves on to show how it ends. Anderson slyly uses history to predict the future, and to warn Americans that their country is falling in on itself.