American cinema offers a dual narrative of great men. American films are frequently about "America," an individualist ideal tied up with capital and personal liberties. These films are about the "great men" at the center of American history, even when these "great men" are unsympathetic. Some American films become "Great American Films," movies that capture the heart of America's meanings and contradictions by way of the stories of these "great men." The flip side to these stories are the filmmakers whose project is to explore the ambiguities of "America" the myth and the realities of America - the Great American Filmmakers (think: Griffith, Ford, Capra, Hawks, Welles). These filmmakers are frequently mirror images of their subjects - take Orson Welles, the great American showman, the overambitious entrepreneur, the man who achieves early greatness and chases it forever more. Or Griffith, whose self-mythologizing is at least as epic as his filmmaking.
With There Will be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has made a self-conscious bid to join the ranks of the Great American Filmmakers, choosing as his starting point the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! and adapting it very loosely for the screen. His protagonist, Daniel Plainview, is a silver prospector turned oil man who's introduced in dramatic form: a stunning, dialogue-free 20-minute opening sequence shows just how physical the hunt for wealth was in this older America. Daniel Day-Lewis offers another rich inhabitation of character to add to his intense reputation. His primary adversary is Paul Dano as Eli, a preacher who makes demands of Plainview for his own purposes. If Dano sometimes feels out of his depth, it seems that the level of religious fervor required is a bit beyond his grasp. Or perhaps it's something else that's missing - Dano's character, like Day-Lewis' Plainview, seems written without a full concern for cohesive character psychology and the relationship between character and events. Day-Lewis's performance is excellent, but Plainview's psychological wounds aren't explored so much as exposed through set-piece action. Plainview's development can be pieced together in retrospect, but Anderson does little to help this process, letting us infer motivation from action. Eli's strength and weakness seem intertwined, but it's not clear how, nor why each extends so far. It's telling that the one moment of subjective storytelling in the film uses subjectivity to explicate plot rather than bring the audience in to a character's psychology.
These characters, written without being truly observed, are a weakness of the film but also an odd strength that contributes to the complicated moods and resonances in There Will Be Blood. Anderson elides significant details that then are transmitted by hints and subtle clues. Some of these clues are ambiguous enough to include alternate possible readings, or to encourage the hint of other meanings that add richness to character. This ambiguity is a double-edged sword - what works on one level as artistic elision and metaphorical possibility also bleeds into unclarity (witness debates about whether Paul and Eli are twins or split-personalities; Anderson and Dano have always talked about them as brothers, and Dano was originally cast as Paul while another actor played Eli). This brother relationship, like the relationship between Plainview and his "brother," or Plainview and his adopted son H.W., hints at biblical themes in ways that seem almost accidental. The title comes from Exodus 7:19, which offers another confused resonance: Moses, adopted grandson of Pharaoh (or his adopted son, according to the Qur'an) is the one who calls plagues upon Egypt with the help of his brother. But in There Will Be Blood the father-son and brotherly relations don't work that way, the main conflict is religiously inspired but not familial, and the "blood" mentioned consists of violence between individuals. It's as if Anderson chose the line for these four words alone. Karina Longworth has nailed the reasons why these four words work so well: "Blood is oil, blood is family (and family is at worst a scam and at best an Achilles heel), but blood is also blood. If nothing else, the title is a spoiler for the final scene." She's right, but she doesn't address the Biblical significance of the passage because Anderson himself ignores it. While some Biblical resonances are important to the film, the parallels are oblique. It's more that the film has a sense of being "Biblical" in its epic conflicts (between religion and capitalism; between fathers and sons; between brothers or false brothers).
In short, Anderson's film seems largely like a series of ideas rather than a set of interwoven ones. Anderson's focus on visuality and tableau dims his characters' psychology. While there are moments of beauty aplenty in both the scenery and Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, Anderson's focus on them to the exclusion of character development overtakes both narrative tightness and dramatic observation. [Both Zach Campbell and Daniel Kasman speak to these flaws; Danny, like me, seems to find a positive side to some of them. Dan Sallitt takes a somewhat harsher view of Anderson's missteps in character development.]
The ambiguities in There Will Be Blood are one component of what makes it the best American film of the year*, and also what keeps it from truly being a Great American Film.
[* I've missed some highly-acclaimed American films this year. I'm still trying to catch up with some of them.]
There Will Be Blood strives to be a movie about America in a grand sense, a portrait of a nation with a frontier and frontiersmen. But Anderson's films fails to capture the essence of the frontier, the conflict between civilization/progress and the outlaw spirits who tame the wilderness to make it safe for development. It also fails in part because its ambiguities sometimes seem unintentional. Anderson's film isn't a deft enough in controlling the information and emotional trajectory that informs the viewer's experience. This isn't, in the long run, a criticism; unlike countless contemporary filmmakers, he is reenvisioning his methods of constructing movies. This return to the zero of his narrative approaches very nearly succeeds in There Will be Blood (so nearly, in fact, that on second viewing I wouldn't be surprised to find it holds up quite well). Anderson's quest to make an American masterpiece fails only because it is too ambitious for Anderson as a filmmaker at the present moment. It's ironic that Anderson's ambitions cause him to fall just short of success, as if he were a Great American Filmmaker already himself.
I've only seen the film once; I would like to see the film again to solidify (or change) these reactions. It is full of impressive elements and beautiful moments. The cinematography is impressive, and Day-Lewis delivers some of the most memorable lines in movie history. For all of its momentary glories and visual intensity, There Will Be Blood never makes it past the point of interesting project and failed reach for the title of Great American Film. It's a near-miss, but a miss nonetheless. For the time being it may look like a masterpiece, if only for the lack of ambition of other contemporary American filmmakers. But we shouldn't let this illusion get in the way of a more substantive truth: Paul Thomas Anderson might well have a Great American Film in him after all.