Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary "There Will Be Blood" is a radical departure for the director of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." Though epic in sweep—it covers 30 years in the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fiercely driven oil baron in early-20th-century California—it's as singularly focused as those multi-character panoramas were sprawling. Because of its subject, its grand Western landscapes and its tycoon protagonist, Anderson's movie has already been compared, somewhat misleadingly, with "Giant" and "Citizen Kane." However, its uncompromising portrait of egotism and greed run amuck has more in common with Werner Herzog's hallucinatory "Aguirre, the Wrath of God." And as a harrowing account of an obsessively anti-social man, its emotional temperature is closer to "Raging Bull." What it shares with all of Anderson's work is a blistering intensity—and filmmaking that can make your jaw drop.
There will be no argument about Day-Lewis's staggering performance. His Plainview, who starts as a bearded silver prospector in 1898, strikes his first oil in 1902 and voraciously gobbles up land in central California until his power rivals that of Standard Oil, is in almost every scene of the movie, and he's never loomed so large. With his chiseled features and hawk eyes that miss nothing, he's a figure of intimidating intensity. But Plainview is capable, when he needs to be, of silver-tongued charm. Day-Lewis uses a John Huston-ish mid-Atlantic accent, with a drawling, magnanimous lilt that can twist into a vicious rasp when provoked. Plainview's misanthropy and his emotional isolation grow with his power. "I look at people and see nothing worth liking," he confesses in a rare moment of self-revelation. The only person Daniel's connected to (he'd never use the word "love") is his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who provides an innocent face when he's pitching his projects to the local marks. But when H.W. is struck deaf in a drilling accident, Daniel loses his lifeline to the world. It severs not just their relationship, but his increasingly shaky hold on sanity.
Plainview's rise runs parallel to that of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a baby-faced, country-boy evangelist Daniel meets when buying up the Sunday family land. Eli is as ambitious and cunning in his way as Plainview—he's a spiritual empire builder, and Daniel hates him for being his Bible-thumping mirror image. Their brutal rivalry, a series of escalating, back-and-forth humiliations that would be right at home in a Fassbinder movie, threads its way to the startling, near-operatic finale in 1927 at the magnate's palatial estate.
"There Will Be Blood" is ostensibly based on Upton Sinclair's muckraking 1927 political novel "Oil! " but Anderson just uses it as a springboard. With the hot-button topics of oil and religion on the surface, it's tempting to read political messages into the movie. This won't get you very far. Though he provides an acute depiction of unfettered capitalism, Anderson's no more interested in political allegories than he is in psychological explanations for his protagonist's avarice and spite.
Anderson may be the most naturally gifted filmmaker of his generation; he seems incapable of composing a prosaic shot. Magnificently filmed by Robert Elswit and designed by Jack Fisk, who re-created from scratch the makeshift towns that grew up around the oilfields, "Blood" has a physicality so pungent, you feel you're living in the past. The sense that you're witnessing a radically different kind of historical epic is reinforced by Jonny Greenwood's score (augmented with excerpts from Arvo P?rt and Brahms), which eschews period clich?s for modern dissonances that are, like the movie itself, both beautiful and terrifying. "There Will Be Blood" is ferocious, and it will be championed and attacked with an equal ferocity. When the dust settles, we may look back on it as some kind of obsessed classic.