You can see this through a lot of Scorsese's films, heavily influenced by 1950's Hollywood genre pictures and French New Wave. With Anderson, his influences seem obvious in his previous films - with their sweeping camera movements, large ensemble casts, and over the top, operatic acting - he is emulating Scorsese and most notably the late Robert Altman (he helped finish his last final film, A Prairie Home Companion). He's also a gambler, a filmmaker who never makes an uninteresting film. He may fail (many think this film was a huge failure as well as my favorite film of his, Magnolia) but has the balls to throw it all out there on the screen and never apologizes for how uncomfortable a scene may be or how unconventional an idea may come across, he wants to push the viewer in the world of the operatic, and he succeeds.
With There Will Be Blood he leaves the ensemble, the sweeping camera movements, and the dozens of other influences of Scorsese and Altman for the more subdued stylings of Kubrick, Ford, and Mallick. This is a concentrated story excelling in its hypnotic portrayal of Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and resulting in Anderson's most formalistic and tame production to date. The thing most operatic about this film (aside from the performances) is the music conducted by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, an ear drum rattling, headache inducing score that drives you almost as mad as Daniel Plainview.
The film opens with the man, Plainview, alone, mining for silver. When he falls and breaks his leg, it sets up one of the films central themes. Plainview grimaces, and goes about pulling himself up out of the cave with one arm and crawls to civilization to show that he has struck more than just silver. This begins the journey of Plainview and he becomes an "oil man" as he travels to different towns that seem to be good communities he can rob of their oil. He has a son, H.W., left to him by a fellow oil man who died on the job. Right away we get the sense that Plainview doesn't want anything to do with the child, yet he is necessary to his ultimate cause of convincing the towns that in addition to him being an oil man, he is also a family man.
Plainview finds out about a major oil town (where the oil seeps through the dirt, combing the two major themes of the film: Greed and religion, more on that later) via a young drifter named Paul Sunday, who tells him that his father will sell their ranch, which would allow Plainview to build a pipeline to the ocean. Paul's brother Eli, a Jonathan Edwards type, fire and brimstone preacher, he welcomes Plainview, dismissing his greed as an opportunity to get a new church built as well as elevate his status even higher within the small community. We soon come to find that Plainview despises Eli (like everyone else) and in a crucial scene, tells Eli he may bless the Oil station before they break ground, but come time for the ceremony, he undermines Eli's male supremacy by naming the machine after Eli's abused sister and having her bless the site. After this, H.W. becomes injured in an accident and loses his hearing, thus forcing Plainview to become not only tolerant of his son, but compassionate towards him as well, and that just won't do as Plainview sends him away so that he can continue becoming the most wealthy oil man alive.
What follows is one of the most horrific scenes in the film as Plainview takes out all of his frustrations for the injury to H.W. on Eli, claiming that his healing powers are nothing more than mere theatrics, and he his just as much of a con artist as Plainview is.
This is the set up for the major themes of Anderson's most interesting, even if not his best, film to date. Anderson's view of Religion and greed are not that much unlike Eric Von Stroheim's silent classic Greed. He is a director who has tackled themes of similar, however more fanciful, religious weight in Magnolia. Both of those films required actors to go over the top and become very operatic in their delivery of emotions that were real, even though they were surrounded by absurdity (frogs falling from the sky, or as in There Will Be Blood, the slaptastic baptism scene). Some have complained that the acting is too over the top for their liking and doesn't border on comical, rather Anderson gladly lets his characters become caricatures in spite of his heavily themed story of greed and Evangelical Christianity.
The focal point of this critical attack is usually Paul Dano's portrayal of Eli, as there are complaints that his nasally, pubescent voice cracks and shrills and distracts the viewer from actually caring about this character. Well, you are not supposed to like Eli anymore than Danilel, that is the obvious point of the films stance on Religion. Eli has a flare for the theatrics and in a brutally hilarious, awkward, and downright scary scene, Eli slaps Daniel in an exorcism/baptism, the sole purpose of this event is to humiliate Daniel and nothing more. Like Daniel, Eli hates the new competition in town for male supremacy.
Daniel slowly becomes a Charles Foster Kane type character as he states in the films most telling scene, he is sitting talking to a man claiming to be his brother, they are discussing regrets and the possibility of envy when Daniel explains:
"I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I've built up my hatreds over the years little by little. I see the worst in people. I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone. I can't keep doing this on my own, with these... people."
It is this competition that brings forth the inevitability of the films title. The utter distaste of those "people" is the driving force for the films final scene. A scene that reminded me so much in its abruptness, its sudden burst of bloody violence, its minimalistic final line, "I'm finished." It is Anderson's take on what Kubrick made famous.
The film, as you might expect is beautifully shot, Robert Elswit, who also shot Michael Clayton (a good year for him), evokes the best moments of films like Days of Heaven, How Green Was My Valley, and Barry Lyndon. It was one of the reasons the film is so captivating.
However, the main reason is Day-Lewis' performance. It is a masterful, commanding, brilliantly odd performance. Channeling his inner John Huston, he makes Daniel Plainview one of the most interesting characters in film history, and he certainly trumps his other memorable performance of Bill the Butcher. That's no small feat.
So did I like the film? I don't know, I just gave a lot of exposition about the film, but didn't really comment on how it made me feel. The film definitely has to be experienced, and then talked about. It's an exhilarating film experience for the aesthetics alone. The film also left me feeling a little lost. Much like another Kubrick-esque film this year, Atonement, the film does somewhat feel forced at the end, like Anderson felt that he had to bring this maddening and epic film to its bloody conclusion. However, the allusions to Citizen Kane are so strong at the end of the film (Plainview wanders through the giant mansion, lost in his self made paradise) that we cannot help but try to feel some kind of compassion for a man who has nothing but money. However, there is no Rosebud for Plainview, and a few of his actions and decisions at the end of the film truly make him a character that likes things at an arms length (much like the quote above suggests, he just wants to exist, away from people).
The issue I take with the film is that it seems the determination by Anderson to bring this story to a somewhat tidy (although bloody) ending doesn't keep the hypnotic charm of the rest of the film. It turns from a beautiful epic story of greed and Religion, and the audacity and bravado one must have to be at the top of both of those businesses (yes, it's safe to call Evangelical Christianity a business), yet he trades that gusto and that sheer madness the film had, steamrolling its way to an unnoticeable three hours, and trades it in for an unnecessary sardonic ending. The ending is almost a retread of the oil "baptism" of Eli in the field and the mocking "baptism" of Daniel in the church, it just seemed familiar, which is a shame, because so much of the film was alive and fresh. A film that for 2 hours and 30 minutes, was one of the best film experiences I have ever had. I just wish I could have bought that ending.
One thing is for certain: Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't (and will most likely never) make an uninteresting film that challenges the way we look at the medium, and shows the audience a director who isn't afraid to go all in on the very first hand.