It's a favorite at Berlin and up for eight Oscars: P.T. Anderson's "There Will be Blood" has the taut energy and well-contoured cinematography that makes for an audience treat. An opening shot brings us into the high drama of oil speculation, with a great brown vista of a Western desert. A man digging for oil is nearly killed in the mine, but manages to escape and become lead protagonist, Daniel Day Lewis, a tycoon who is nothing short of evil, narcissistic, and scheming, a monstrous personality that of course (as the plot slowly reveals) hides his wounded past.
The film arches high, trying to rival epic masterpieces of the same genre, such as Sergio Leone's tough Westerns in similar morally barren landscapes and Francis Ford Coppola's stories of decadent men wrestling for power. We even have a painful father-son story that suddenly comes to the fore midway through the film, and some Godfatherish twists of plot (brother betraying brother) that one-up the Upton Sinclair novel "Oil" on which the film is based.
It is a film that has everything---but significance. Its look at a coldblooded tycoon is unnuanced and predictable--bad guys are bad, whether a tycoon or an evangelical--although it is a pleasure to watch, especially with Daniel Day Lewis' charismatic (and equally cold) "performance" of the man. Performance is correct: there is no subtlety to this teeth-baring character, nor to the plot, and the scene that is clearly intended to be a masterpiece of cinema, the closing duel between a phony church evangelicist and a vengeful tycoon, replete with campy rejoinders such as "I am the Third Revelation!" and bowling pins cum weapons, comes off as a cartoon because the stakes are too low.
Everyone loved the film. The cinematography is truly exceptional, with pondering wide shots on the oil land, swept with desolate brown dirt. The characters are stunning in their period costumes and deliberate mannerisms. Above all the original music score by "Radiohead" composer Jonny Greenwood keeps us at the edge of our seats as the climaxes (including my favorite, an oil derrick that explodes with splattering black oil high in the sky) keep coming and coming. But it is also a film that unlike P.A. Anderson's earlier "Magnolia" seems to have nothing particular to say.
Daniel Day-Lewis, as compellingly brilliant off-set as on (sporting a black floppy hat and a bright shirt with red petunias at the press conference), seemed to agree with the notion that the film had nothing to say. "It's a story. Already that's enough", was his response when a journalist asked if perhaps there was a metaphor here, a parallel to contemporary world issues. Handsome director P.T. Anderson grinned charmingly and agreed: of course one could draw parallels, here and there, but why bother.
Spectators themselves are eager to differ. "It's a critique of alpha-males," said one fan, noting the "meaningful" absence of women in the film. "It shows how the right is taking over the US , in church and state." The director's own response to the lack of women: "There just aren't that many women doing this kind of oil work," he said lackadaisically. "And we didn't need a love interest."
A big screen extravaganza, surely a winner of Oscars, but no insight or vision carries through to make it more than an entertaining wrestling match. It all seems too calculated and glib, from the first scene of overdone tension in the mine (will he have an accident? Will he? Will he?! Of course he will!) to the final shot of a tired tycoon.