Just like daytime TV is obviously intentionally horrible to get the unemployed back in the workplace as fast as possible, I sometimes suspect movies always show big rich industry barons as miserable sacks just so the rest of us will feel better when we go back to our dirt-floored shanties.
Yes, these railroad and newspaper and oil tycoons may be able to buy us and use us as mobile doorstops, or buy a fancy new puppy and then replace the puppy every time it starts looking more like a dog than a puppy, but they're sad people.
So we can tuck ourselves under our ripped-up-phone-book blankets at night knowing we may never own a boat or an indoor circus or one of those small Eastern states, but at least we're happy. Well, content. Not suicidal, anyway, and even if we did start to get ideas about hopping their tall iron fences and redistributing some of that wealth -- which, logically, would only make the tycoons less unhappy -- one of their hired Pinkertons would probably crack our skulls right open. A massive head wound might make daytime TV halfway bearable, but then when we sold enough stolen copper pipe to be able to go see the industry baron in There Will Be Blood, we'd see "1898" on the opening scene, gasp in horror, then rush right back outside believing the movie-showing-place had flung us 110 years into the past where we'll be eaten by saber-toothed tigers all over again.
At the tail end of the 19th century, Daniel Day-Lewis is a two-bit gold miner. The discovery of oil welling up from the bottom of his pit changes everything.
Over the next few years, he builds his claim into a small but profitable power, becoming reputable enough that a kid looking to make a quick buck comes to Day-Lewis with a tip: back near his family's ranch, there's been an earthquake, and oil's just bubbling out of the ground. The big oil companies have been buying up land nearby, but so far they haven't found the true strike.
Adopted son at his side, Day-Lewis convinces the locals to sell him their land. He's a family man, he says, a plain-speaking, personal businessman, and his success will be their success. Till now, young preacher Paul Dano has had undisputed sway over the citizens; Day-Lewis' sudden influence, along with a broken deal to donate money to the church, sets them at odds.
Episodic in feel but deceptively cohesive, There Will Be Blood's story of a man compelled to money and power is shot so the significance of what's happening often isn't clear until much later in the movie. The menacing score hints at what's up -- you could set this music over a grandma chatting with her pet parakeet and it'd still give me the spooks -- but it isn't until pretty deep into things that you start to realize there's something off about Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis appears in a new film approximately as frequently as the moon is blown up by rocket-powered dinosaurs. Usually, the results are almost as awesome. Without his presence to drive things along, the movie's plot, which lacks a well-defined central conflict, might drag in places. With him, it's hard to look away; when writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson cuts loose with a scene of simple, brutal violence or an amped-up confrontation that always feels like it's a half-step away from bloodshed, Day-Lewis looms like he's 12 is feet tall.
A lot of the time, There Will Be Blood just seems to be making up its own rules as it goes along. Most of the time, that's a recipe for capital-F Failure, for movies that you wish could be incarnated into little humans so you could slap pointy hats on their heads and make them stand in the corner and think about what they've done.
There Will Be Blood isn't one of those movies. Its unsettling, neuron-searingly memorable scenes alone would make it interesting, if a little loose. Tied together under the life of a man willing to tell any lies and destroy anyone who threatens the amassment of his empire, its dark and subterranean storytelling is slowly drawn into something that feels inevitable.