A wellspring of evil

By Steven Snyder

There Will Be Blood

Written for the screen and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Based on the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair

What may surprise audiences most about “There Will Be Blood” is how little blood there is — how the film’s violence is of the more emotional variety, unveiled not in any sort of Wild West shootout but in the cruelty of the business meeting, the church gathering, and the swift gutting of California’s lush landscape, as oil leapt past gold and silver to become the definitive commodity of the western states.

It’s an intentional decision by director Paul Thomas Anderson to rely on words more than bullets. In his much-anticipated first film in five years, Anderson (“Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love”) begins his story out in the vast, desolate plains of central California. The year is 1898 and Daniel Plainview (Daniel-Day Lewis), a young silver speculator, is covered in dust and grime, working almost a hundred feet underground as he spits on excavated rocks, hoping to strike it rich. With this desolate prologue playing out over the sweeping, ethereal, minimalist music of composer Jonny Greenwood, Anderson jumps forward into the future, the crude silver mine replaced by an oil rig. And as the buried black gold bubbles to the surface, Greenwood’s disjointed chords soaring to the heavens, one can sense the evil being unleashed — in the form of greed and power, made limitless by the “ocean of oil underneath our feet.”

Almost overnight, Plainview, along with his young son (played in later years by Dillon Freasier), opens up one oil well, and then another. Late one night, he’s visited by a teenager who makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Give up $500, and learn the location of a rural town where oil is literally seeping through the bedrock. Plainview hands over the hundreds, and his life changes forever, as he discovers a massive swath of land with endless reserves of oil, and realizes that rather than relying on the monopolistic railroads to transport his barrels, he can build a pipeline 100 miles to the West and use the ocean as a transport hub.

Almost everyone in the small town welcomes Plainview’s arrival. In exchange for drilling rights, he promises the building of schools, of irrigation canals that will permit farming for the very first time, even negotiating with local spiritual leader Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) that he will make a donation to the church if he is allowed to bring in his men. But as the rigs grow larger, and the volume of oil explodes exponentially, both Sunday and Plainview’s egos expand as well. Across the rocky plain, we see the growth of the town’s two enterprises — oil and religion — and the growing congregations that idolize the oil man and the prophet.

It’s a dense, but peculiarly captivating movie, one of those rare masterpieces in which the most difficult thing to describe is what it’s really about. Initially, “Blood” is focused on the nature of oil, and the way virtually all American commerce and community changed with its discovery. In other ways, it’s a character study of Plainview, played with a fiery intensity by Day-Lewis, who (in an Oscar-worthy turn) hides an endless ocean of anger, rage and arrogance within his mild-mannered, businessman demeanor. It’s also about a battle between two fantastically flawed men, Plainview and Sunday, the capitalist and the preacher, both using money and the Almighty to exert the power they crave.