Sprawling yet cramped, "There Will Be Blood" may not be the best movie of the year, but it's certainly the strangest. It evokes passing comparisons to everything from "Giant" to "Citizen Kane" but it's impossible to pigeonhole.
Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of those toweringly eccentric performances of his – think of Bill the Butcher in "The Gangs of New York" – plays Daniel Plainview, an itinerant prospector who becomes a turn-of-the-century California oil baron. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and very loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!," the film encompasses 30 years in the life of a man who starts out mean and only gets meaner. By the end, he's so profoundly isolated by his misanthropy that he's deranged.
Daniel makes his first oil strike when he cons an impoverished family into granting him drilling rights to their property. Teamed with his young son H.W. (the terrific first-time actor Dillon Freasier), he presents an imposing front: The tycoon and the tyke.
Daniel adopted H.W. as a baby and deliberately uses the innocent-looking boy, who is devoted to his dad, as a way to soften potential business allies for the kill. When, at age 10, H.W. loses his hearing following an oil-well explosion, his usefulness is diminished and he is packed off by Daniel to an institution. This scene is the film's emotional high point because, as is typical of Anderson, he makes it bracingly unsentimental.
Daniel's professional adversary is Standard Oil, with whom he wars in his ultimately successful attempt to build a pipeline to the sea. But it is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the son of the landowner he first conned, who is his principal nemesis. Eli has become the local preacher, a kind of junior league Elmer Gantry, and he wants $10,000 from Charlie to build a new church. Daniel detests religion and recognizes a fellow con man when he sees one.
Imperially creepy, Eli, like Daniel, can be viewed as a nightmare archetype of American hypocrisy. His false piety is matched by Daniel's personal code. "I don't want anyone else to succeed," Daniel says at one point – that's his religion. In the film's ghastly comic pinnacle, Daniel undergoes a baptism, viciously presided over by Eli, in order to secure a business deal.
This may all sound a bit formulaic, but Anderson doesn't overdo the rigor. Structurally there's a formlessness, almost an aimlessness, to "There Will Be Blood." Eli drops out of the movie for a long stretch. A crucial sequence involving H.W. and arson is confusingly presented, as is the unmasking of a man (Kevin J. O'Connor) who claims to be Daniel's half-brother. Everything that happens in the film is subordinated to Daniel, who is front and center in practically every scene and whose feral mask, with its big black moustache, is the film's emblem, its skull and crossbones.
Anderson deals in archetypes because he can't, or doesn't care to, get inside the skins of his people. He eliminates the psychological baggage that might "explain" Daniel, but the result is a furious sameness: Daniel doesn't deepen, he darkens.
If anybody but Day-Lewis were playing him, the film, for all the skill with which it has been made, might have been tedious. (Robert Elswit's cinematography, Jack Fisk's production design, and the score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood are all amazing.) But Day-Lewis, who seems to have modeled his courtly-demonic vocal drawl here on John Huston's Noah Cross in "Chinatown," is one of the few actors who can infuse a symbolic character with the lifeblood of passionate, lived-in experience.
But what is he symbolizing exactly? "There Will Be Blood" sets itself up as nothing less than a movie about America and its false prophets and about the greed that defaces glory. But, ultimately, it's an epic about a monster whose most affectionate gesture in the film is spiking his baby boy's milk with gin.
Anderson has made a small-minded big-minded movie; the disparity between the vastness of its scale and the obsessiveness of its dramatic focus is supremely odd.
There are people who, knowing nothing about "There Will Be Blood" but its title, will mistake it for a horror film. They're not far wrong. Grade: A–
• Rated R for some violence.