The Texas tea bubbles up from the ground reluctantly at the start of the new Paul Thomas Anderson film, like primordial blood loosed from stone. Three decades (and roughly three hours of screen time) later, the blood oozing across the slick floor of a private Beverly Hills bowling alley looks suspiciously like crude. In between, There Will Be Blood keeps us rapt with a big, bold, iconic drama about those truths we hold to be self-evident — that a man is what he makes of himself, that if you’re not for me you’re against me, and that whoever has the most money and toys in the end wins.

Taking a radical departure from his signature portraits of contemporary life in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love), Anderson has dug back into the annals of the American West for his latest inspiration. The time is 1898, the place a dark mineshaft somewhere in the vast New Mexico desert. Aboveground, three tall peaks keep watch like ancient sentries. Down below, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) forages for silver, alone but for a pickax and some dynamite. And for the first 15 minutes of There Will Be Blood, we do nothing but watch this man, his skin blackened by earth and ore, as he chisels and blasts his way down one shaft and then another, first for precious metals and later for black gold.

The images (shot by the cinematographer Robert Elswit) are primal and spare, as if we were seeing footage from the early days of motion pictures chanced upon in some forlorn vault. On the soundtrack, there is only the persistent hiss of the desert, the clang of drilling equipment and the dissonant shrieks of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s original score — music that sounds like a howl rising up from deep within the earth itself. The rest is silence, save for a single word — “No” — heaved out by Plainview after he steps on a faulty rung and tumbles down one of his shafts. Even with a badly broken leg, there will be no quiet exit for Daniel Plainview.

The time is now 1911 and the place California. Plainview is a bona fide oil man with a $5,000 weekly income and a well-honed sales pitch for property owners on whose land he wishes to speculate. Then there comes a boy (Paul Dano) with an open, trusting face and a voice that says he’s not nearly as simple as he seems. He tells Plainview that his name is Paul Sunday and that his family’s Central Valley farm is so rich with oil that the ground runs black. So Plainview goes there with his own angel-faced son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), in tow, and when he arrives there, he finds another Sunday boy who looks eerily like the first — a twin? — only this one’s name is Eli and he has the distant, amused look of quiet men with secret plans. He will broker a deal, he tells the oil man: his family’s land for the money he needs to build a church.

You could say that the rest of There Will Be Blood is about the construction of two holy sites upon this arid stretch — one, Eli’s “Church of the Third Revelation,” a beacon of faith; the other, Plainview’s oil derrick, a monument to commerce. Both are attended to by true believers. Both measure their success in numbers — barrels per day versus sheep in the flock. And each spews forth its own kind of terrifying hellfire. Not that Anderson, who based There Will Be Blood on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! and on certain key events in the life of California oil tycoon Edward Doheny, oversells the metaphor. He spends most of his time immersing us in the punishing details of everyday life in rural America at the dawn of the 20th century, for men of oil and cloth alike. There are the mud and the heat and the strenuous manual labor. There is the proximity of accidental death or injury, as in one spectacular sequence where the exploding gusher that turns Plainview into an overnight millionaire renders H.W. deaf for life. Above all, there is the lust for power and legacy.

If the style of There Will Be Blood is decidedly naturalistic, its resonances are distinctly mythopoeic. The story feels less invented than divined, as if it were lying there all along, like the oil in the ground, waiting for Anderson to discover it. And the characters seem to tower above the edges of the frame, figures torn from legend. If they are not particularly “likable” (a trait much overvalued by movie audiences and some critics), it is impossible not to be compelled by their grand designs — to conquer the earth, to appease the heavens. As for those who have claimed that the film goes “over the top” in its final act, set in 1927, it strikes me that the film ends in the way that it must. Like most stories of kingly men who have vanquished all challengers to the throne, it culminates in madness.

It is hard to overstate the case for this movie. The performances are titanic — chiefly that of Day-Lewis, who resists the temptation to engulf the scenery the way he did in Gangs of New York, instead playing Plainview close to the vest, with flashes of fatherly affection, charismatic hucksterism and soul-corroding greed. To hold the screen against that — against one of the great screen actors of his generation in probably his greatest role — is no mean feat, and yet the Janus-faced Dano (seen last year as the nihilistic son in Little Miss Sunshine and the sullen burger flipper in Fast Food Nation) makes it seem that way. His fulminating evangelical furor is enough to raise the hairs on even the back of Daniel Plainview’s neck. The period detailing, by which I mean everything from the sets to the costumes to the haunting peasant faces of the smallest background players, is subtle but exquisite. Then there is Anderson, who has set out in what are generally inhospitable times for mavericks and visionaries in American cinema, with the crazed ambition of those writers (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Richard Yates) and filmmakers (Ford, Griffith, Welles) who endeavored not merely to do good work, but to compile every thought and feeling they’d ever had about this country into one mammoth, summary achievement. It’s a fearless drive worthy of his own protagonist. With There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has taken a stab at making The Great American Movie — and I daresay he’s made one of them.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD | Written and directed by PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, based on the novel Oil! by UPTON SINCLAIR | Produced by JOANNE SELLAR, ANDERSON and DANIEL LUPI | Released by Paramount Vantage | ArcLight Hollywood

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