Daniel Day-Lewis has a speech near the end of There Will Be Blood that is mostly about oil drainage, about the clandestine siphoning of someone else's cache of crude. As Daniel Plainview, a once lowly prospector-turned-petro titan ensconced in his California manse, he illustrates that process by supposing that he and another guy are drinking milkshakes, but that Plainview is drinking his from an especially long straw. He could reach over to the other person's milkshake with that straw, you see, and start drinking from it, too.
"I drink your milkshake!" he exclaims, mad as a hatter.
Really, truly, mad.
Beginning on the cusp of the 20th century and spanning 30 years, There Will Be Blood is a genuine epic about manifest destiny, good old-fashioned American ambition, the obsessive pursuit of money, and the equally feverish pursuit of God.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, of Boogie Nights and Magnolia fame, and adapted from the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood is also a showcase, a two-hour-and-38-minute spectacle of wild and dazzling acting.
Day-Lewis begins this movie as a young man, alone, deep in a hole digging through mud and muck. Hardly a word is spoken for 20 minutes - it's like some depiction of primal man, scraping, grunting, foraging. (To the eerie screech and thrum of music from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.)
By the end of the film, which has taken Day-Lewis' Plainview from a little Western town where oil oozes from the ground, to the throne of an oil empire, the man can barely stop talking: He's a font of rage and invective, bitterness and bile.
In between, as Anderson charts the evolution, and then devolution of a man (and maybe all humankind?), Day-Lewis delivers a performance that is so wholly there, so scarily inhabited, that his face, his voice, his brilliant, deceptive, scheming manner will stay with you for days. That the actor doesn't lay waste to everything, and everyone, in his path is a testament to both Day-Lewis' instincts and to Anderson's sense of storytelling, of grand panorama.
Paul Dano, who has the tricky (pay attention!) role of twins Paul and Eli Sunday, mainly plays a quaking, charismatic preacher - a boy, really, consumed with prayerful fervor, and the desire to rule over a church of his own making. Kevin J. O'Connor shows up midway through as a man who claims relation to Plainview. The Irish actor Ciaran Hinds plays Plainview's right-hand man in his early, prospecting days, and the young, wide-eyed Dillon Freasier is Plainview's son, H.W.
There are no female roles to speak of, really, and certainly no romance.
Anderson has cited John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a huge influence on this project. And in its story arc of humble beginnings, runaway ambition, and last-act implosion, Citizen Kane certainly comes to mind. If There Will Be Blood doesn't quite match the achievement of these hallowed titles of American film, it is for a weak link here or there, and for a tendency toward over-the-top emoting. Like Julianne Moore going nuts in her drugstore breakdown in Magnolia, Day-Lewis doesn't quite know when to stop - and Anderson doesn't know how to, or want to, tamp things down.
That said, There Will Be Blood is riveting, and rollicking - a delirious exploration of human folly, of zealotry for fossil fuels and zealotry in the name of a god. (Oil and fundamentalism, sound familiar?) Day-Lewis, channeling John Huston and Orson Welles (the grumbling intonations, the crazy-eyed glares) and who-knows-who-else, is nothing short of astounding.
And There Will Be Blood is just a few barrels short of being a masterpiece.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O'Connor and Dillon Freasier. Distributed by Paramount Vantage.
Running time: 2 hours, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJEndText