From "Citizen Kane" to "Wall Street," cinema has been a fantastic forum for examining the frayed edges of unchecked ambition and greed.
The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson follows single-minded oilman Daniel Plainview to show us the dark side to this particular American dream-not knowing when to give it a rest.
This is fierce, bold, and angry filmmaking, adapted very loosely from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!" (which was concerned with the Harding administration's many oil-related bribes and scandals) by Anderson ("Punch Drunk Love," "Magnolia").
"There Will Be Blood" instead focuses on the plague that lies behind human disregard. How can someone be so unforgivingly cruel without a moment's pause? Plainview (as played by Daniel Day-Lewis) plainly states, "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking." His cutthroat competitiveness and subsequent inability to feel anything for his fellow man makes for an uncompromisingly bleak, yet fascinating and eye-popping, vision.
While Anderson's script explores the complete inner failures of men's souls, the gorgeous anamorphic cinematography by Robert Elswit explores the outer reaches of the sprawling desert. Shot with enough "magic hour" natural light to rival Terrence Malick's famously ethereal "Days of Heaven," "There Will Be Blood" is the second movie this year (following "No Country for Old Men") that could exist on a purely visual level and still be moving. Unlike "Days," however, the narrative chugs forward with horsepower, like a train gathering steam from a cold start.
In deep, convincing tones, Plainview offers a small California town "the bond of family." It turns out he's just playing up to the unwitting locals, promising to create a prosperous community so he can buy their land and reap the profits. His son and "business partner" H.W. (a magnetic Dillon Freasier) gives him the air of being a family man, and sometimes even he believes he is. The movie's emotional set pieces feature Plainview trying to convince himself that he can muster some feelings other than contempt, but the only thing that gets his blood pumping is the constant struggle to get to the top and remain there.
If Plainview stands firmly on the side of corrupted ambition and lust for money, then preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, showing massive range only hinted at in "Little Miss Sunshine" last year) holds up another American pillar that can just as easily corrupt. Although outwardly the men are at opposite ends of the spectrum, inwardly their goals are similar. Plainview's disgust and distrust for Sunday comes from the fact that he believes he can see right through him, which is an astute view, since Plainview isn't even around for the blistering moment when Sunday lashes out as his cowering father, foaming at the mouth and screaming that God "doesn't save stupid people!" What Plainview does not realize is that he is looking in a mirror.
Much has been written about the movie's portrayal of religion. Certainly, religion can be used to further one's own selfish agenda, and there are untold cases of this throughout history. But Sunday's predilections are no more an indictment of the entire institution than Plainview's abuses are an indictment of all of capitalism. New York Press reviewer Armond White criticized the movie for not being a "formidable dramatization of the struggle between power and faith." He misses the point. "There Will Be Blood" deals in extremes. These men reside on the outer reaches of society, and whether anyone wants to admit it or not, they exist.