Paul Thomas Anderson's latest is all in good fun, but it doesn't really have much to say about its ostensible subjects - religion and capitalism - except that the uses of the former can be more than a little ridiculous and often serve as a front for more self-interested purposes and that the latter can lead to an all consuming, but ultimately unsatisfying pursuit of profit, neither of which constitutes any sort of revelation. Still, Anderson's technical mastery, while occasionally obtrusive (his camera never stops moving), and his staging of a handful of truly spectacular sequences make its re-tread themes go down easy. But for a film with its apparent ambition, it's surprisingly thin.
Shooting for epic stature, the film spreads its action out over thirty years and follows the fortunes of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an increasingly ruthless oil speculator who amasses a fortune buying up oil land at bargain prices and then bleeding it dry. Spurning the offers of a buyout from Standard Oil (shades of McCabe and Mrs. Miller - although that film had much more to say about individual enterprise and corporate monopoly), he builds a pipeline 100 miles from his inland empire to the California coast, remaining defiantly independent until the end, only to wind up utterly alone, drinking himself half to death in his cavernous mansion.
The film begins with considerable promise as Anderson stages a long, wordless sequence which documents Plainview's initial oil discovery while digging inside a well. Building tension out of the carefully observed details of a mining expedition (which take in all the danger of the pursuit), perfectly timed cutting and the shock of the thud as Day-Lewis falls several stories to the bottom of the shaft, the scene promises the sort of expertly understated filmmaking that the rest of the film doesn't exactly deliver. Far more typical (though admittedly impressive) is Anderson's bravura staging of an explosion in the oil fields which turns the derrick into a spout of flame and sends the townspeople into a panic (as well as causing Plainview's adopted son, H. W., to lose his hearing). Handling the pyrotechnics of the fire and the movement of scores of extras with such impeccable control is a unique technical achievement, but for all its bluster, the sequence lacks the dramatic pull of the opener.
The film's finest scene, though, eschews the outdoor settings of the work's long middle section in favor of a decidedly domestic milieu. Taking place some twenty years after the bulk of the action, the scene recasts Plainview as an aging alcoholic living in a desolate California mansion. Following a long estrangement, H.W. (Russell Harvard, as an adult) pays a visit to his father in order to announce his final independence and his decision to start his own oil business in Mexico, an announcement which occasions a string of invectives and a final denunciation on Plainview's part. What is remarkable about the scene is the expository imbalance between father and son created by H.W.'s deafness and his reliance on an interpreter to communicate, while Plainview is able to give direct voice to his hatred. Not a mere distancing device, nor simply a chance for the director to show off, this mediation of language is something else altogether; it instantly transforms the meeting into an oddly affective interchange that gains its power precisely from this imaginative quirk of presentation. By making strange the ordinary functions of discourse, Anderson grants us a unique perspective on an otherwise unremarkable expression of familial hatred and desperately asserted independence. In the scene's stunning climax, Plainview demands that his son speak to him in his own voice. Anderson fixes his camera in close-up on H.W.'s face as he hesitates for several seconds. Finally, in a halting, imperfect voice, he states clearly, "I'm leaving you and I'm going with my wife to Mexico." In a scene marked by mediated speech, only the assertion of direct discourse, the ability to speak with his father on equal terms, allows for H.W. to make his definitive declaration of purpose and leave his father to his inevitable alcohol-fueled demise.
Despite these occasional triumphs, though, the film is remarkably thin in its treatment of the twin pillars of American enterprise - capitalistic drive and religious expression. Anderson makes quite clear the ways in which the profit motive has blinded Plainview to anything other than the pursuit of more profit. When Standard Oil offers to buy his land for a large sum, he wonders "what will I do then?" Retiring from business, he is faced with just that problem and can only fill the absence with booze. This may all be pretty simple stuff, but it's downright Byzantine compared to the film's treatment of religion. Through Plainview's opposite number, the hypocritical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), Anderson posits religion as one more form of capitalism, a point made obvious in the final scene, in which Sunday agrees to denounce God if it will earn him a significant profit. The preacher strikes a ridiculous figure throughout. Barely out of puberty, with a few tufts of hair hanging from his chain, Sunday prances about the church, declaiming in typically overblown revival rhetoric, offering to cure the various conditions (arthritis, etc.) of his parishioners by driving out their evil spirits. As if the ridiculousness of the presentation wasn't obvious enough, in one scene Anderson has the atheistic Plainview attend Sunday's church in order to telegraph the audience's responses to the preacher's sermon. As Sunday baptizes the oil man (as part of a deal for land), Day-Lewis strikes ironic facial gestures and delivers sarcastic asides, making absolutely certain that the audience understands Anderson's ironic distance from his material. This sort of condescension towards religious expression doesn't mean that the director is making any sort of statement beyond the obvious about the uses of American religion; he's simply taking a few cheap shots.
Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly one of the most technically assured filmmakers working in this country. He revels in devising complex tracking shots and employing slow, Tarkovskian zooms. He's equally adept at staging huge set pieces and intimate parlor scenes. But it all seems like a little too much. Between his constantly moving camera and Jonny Greenwood's assaultive score (a mixture of low strings and aggressively ominous electronics) that - at least until the picture's conclusion - remains a near constant presence, there is little room to breathe. This aesthetic claustrophobia combined with the picture's superficial treatment of its "great" themes means that, for all the director's efforts, There Will Be Blood can't be judged a major work. That it often succeeds, and succeeds quite wonderfully, in spite of these debilitating weaknesses is a sign of Anderson's remarkable talent. But, as has been proven on an almost weekly basis this season, it takes more than talent to make a great film.