For most of Hollywood's output, the task of director falls to someone perhaps more aptly described as Entertainer, someone whose job it is to string together the elements of story into something a wide audience will enjoy. But There Will Be Blood reminds us of the great joy that can be had when a Director strings together these elements in service of the story first, audience to follow as they will.
I have enjoyed P. T. Anderson's previous films, but a certain perceived self-consciousness in his style kept me removed from them emotionally. Blood is devoid of many of his quirks which, enjoyable as they are, in their absence give this particular film a leaner, more “classic” style. Gone is the huge cast, the interweaving stories, the intertextual popular soundtrack. This is the story of one man, and a sociopath at that, playing unerringly by Daniel Day Lewis. (The one complaint I have about Lewis is that his cinematic reclusiveness, while perhaps refreshing in the sense that he is not overexposed, may in fact have had the same effect by overdetermining his presence in any film he's in.)
The cleanly-told story find parallels in Citizen Kane, Kane's inspiration Hurst, and the story of the West's activities in the Middle East. There's a moment where Plainview (Lewis) sells a small town (whose land is good for virtually nothing but goat-herding and oil) on his schemes by telling them that he's going to bring them education and roads, and I could not help but add “democracy” to his litany. Plainview is also, in a sense, the Devil, a view enforced by what I think is the most significant single shot in the film: a long take of Plainview's face, streaked with oil and blending into the black night behind him, as he watches his own derrick burn. The flames dance in his eyes as he seems to revel in the destruction even as it represents a loss, both financial and personal.
The film, as the above indicates, is beautifully shot. Nothing distracts from the desolate, 100 year old landscape. The soundtrack is bizarre and brilliant, and its seamless construction makes it a pity that, because it is not entirely original music, it cannot get Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) nominated for an Oscar. The acting, too, is fantastic; Lewis is the obvious one here, but the revelation is Paul Dano as brothers Paul and Eli in a performance so committed and skillful it makes me wonder what the film would have been like without him, as it almost was. There are some child actors who do amazing jobs here as well, especially a baby who, in one long take on a train with Lewis, acts so perfectly I had to wonder if it was a puppet or something.
Like his other films, There Will Be Blood is about people it is difficult, if not impossible, to like, but Anderson pulls it off. I would argue that this one offers what I hope is a new era for him as a director, in which he will continue to succeed at doing this without the quirks which may have mitigated audience reaction in his previous films. It is starker than Magnolia or Boogie Nights, even if it is more beautiful. Films like this are expensive and time consuming to make, which is a pity, since it really makes me wonder what cinema might look like if more actual Directors were involved.