"There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking," says Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the main character of There Will Be Blood. That seems to be the approach that Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer-director, has taken toward his cast of characters. His film is a well-made but empty portrait of a battle of evil against evil, greed against greed. In two and a half hours, there is no character development: the end is telegraphed in the title, which like the film itself is ploddingly unnuanced.
Day-Lewis's whiskered face is in the center of nearly every frame; his whiskey-soaked voice rasps over nearly ever measure of the bombastic, atonal score. He's an oil prospector in the Old West, but in his performance there's more Al Pacino than Al Swearengen -- the only thing missing was a hoo-hah. He's a compelling figure, but a one-note man. All he wants is oil. Occasionally he turns in friendship to his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) or brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor), but the relationships end badly and he turns back to his only true love.
The film proceeds episodically, beginning in 1898, when Plainview finds his first big lump of black gold, through 1902 when he first sees liquid begin to bubble, and finally to 1911, when he builds a successful derrick and learns of a new field literally filled to the brim with oil. These first shots are masterfully done, capturing the unholy grime of the prize and the sludge that surrounds it. Despite the occasional dialogue the opening scenes seem lifted from a silent movie. The rest of the movie retains that quality: powerful images and gorgeous scenery, backed by a loudly irrelevant score and an inanely chattering script, and fronted by snarling protagonists.
As soon as Daniel comes to the new site, he runs into problems in the form of the son of the owner of the first tract he buys. This son, Eli (Paul Dano), is a preacher and faith healer of sorts who builds a church that in short order claims every townsperson as a congregant save Daniel. Needless to say, the preacher is as blackguardly and unsympathetic as Daniel himself. Their moral struggle propels the rest of the movie. Daniel periodically attempts to redeem himself in his ministrations toward his son, who is struck deaf by an oil blast, and by opening up his inner monologue to his brother, who arrives unexpectedly after hearing of his success, but simply cannot do so. The minister is never afforded even a modest chance to win the audience over, but it's doubtful he'd do much with it if he could.
Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead composed the score, and it is a sorely schizophrenic thing, something like the Kronos Quartet playing Jerry Goldsmith's imitation of Arnold Schoenberg. Like the film, it's occasionally beautiful, but way too loud, and all its dissonance is on the surface. It suffers from the film's conviction that its characters are irredeemable. Like the images beneath it, the musical tension badly needs resolution; without it the dissonance is mere discord. The film is a jaundiced view of human misanthropy, but its jaundice is shown through the eyes of flawed men, men whose souls are as closed as H.W.'s ears. By the end of the film, the soundtrack makes deafness seem a blessing.
Like M. Night Shyamalan, P.T. Anderson the director may be hampered by P.T. Anderson the screenwriter. A collaboration with a more practiced hand, one who could match the period more eloquently, might have helped him restrain the movie's excesses and trade on its still profoundly beautiful cinematography. Anderson would have been a fantastic silent film director; the broad strokes with which he paints the characters would have been perfectly served in a medium which wholly relied on that. As it is, he remains a gifted but flawed filmmaker, with greater ambition than knowledge of his limitations, still in search of the masterpiece that should by rights be his.