SPOILER ALERT: As with all my reviews, this one will discuss points of the film's plot. I encourage you to watch it before reading this review. If you have seen the film, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments!
At the end of the day, movies (and all art forms for that matter) are subjective to a point. I do believe that there are some common traits that make up good films. But, beyond that, each person will probably have different criteria for deciding which films are truly great in their eyes.
I acknowledge that There Will Be Blood has some great components. Paul Thomas Anderson makes some fine directing choices (including a very unsettling opening that contains no dialogue), the cinematography is memorable (including the scene depicted in the header image above), and Daniel Day-Lewis gives an absolutely remarkable performance as Daniel Plainview. But a great movie is more than just a compilation of great parts. It needs to bring everything together.
I do not think There Will Be Blood is a great film.
There are many who would disagree with me on that. In fact, the New York Times listed There Will Be Blood as its top movie of the 21st Century thus far. It lost out Best Picture at the 80th Academy Awards to No Country for Old Men - the film I listed as my favorite of all time. Obviously, then, I believe that the Academy made the right choice. Therein surely lies some personal bias on my part. As much as I try to separate the two films from each other, they came out in the same year and, thus, are repeatedly compared. The fact that I find No Country to be the far superior film makes me feel the need to "defend" it. For what it's worth, Roger Ebert clearly felt No Country was the superior film, calling it "a great film, and a perfect one" in his review of There Will Be Blood. But both of these films certainly deserve to be considered on their own merits.
I also feel compelled to give another caveat given how many other people find this to be such a fantastic film. That caveat is that I have only seen it once. I've heard many people (including Quentin Tarantino) suggest that this is a film that demands to be seen multiple times. The problem is that, for reasons I will discuss, I don't want to see this movie again. Rewatchability is a big factor in how I decide which movies I think are truly great. There are some movies that are very difficult to watch (such as 12 Years a Slave) but that I find to be so profound or beautiful in other ways that I will watch them repeatedly. I don't feel that way about There Will Be Blood. I would be fine if I never watched it again. But, for me to make such claims, I need to give you some reasons why I feel this way. So, let's do that by looking at There Will Be Blood based solely upon what we find on the screen.
Initially, There Will Be Blood seems like a film I would want to like. That begins with the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. If you were asking me to come up with a list of great acting turns, this movie would certainly find itself on the list thanks to the monumental performance given by Day-Lewis as the oil prospector Daniel Plainview. He begins the movie as a silver miner. As he is mining, he falls down the shaft and breaks his leg. But, down in the darkness, he finds silver ore. We watch as he pulls himself up and out of the shaft. We can also surmise (as Tarantino also suggests in his review) that Plainview is forced to pull himself across the rocky, dry terrain. Eventually, he gets all the silver he can from the mine. But then he finds oil, and he pulls himself up once more - recreating himself as an oil man.
This powerful opening sequence (and the whole film, for that matter) is a metaphor for American capitalism. America was built by people who pulled themselves up and found success. One misstep in this storyline is that the movie has basically zero significant female characters. I'm not saying that every movie has to have the perfect split between the number of male and female characters, but something just feels off about having none. The capitalism motif would undoubtedly work, however, if we were able to root for Daniel's success - as I feel like this opening scene is meant to get us to do. The problem is, as the movie progresses, I didn't find myself rooting for him at all.
In fact, I see Daniel Plainview as a ruthless, evil villain. There are many great examples of movie villains. In some of those cases, we have a protagonist that we can root for against the villain. The Dark Knight is a great example of this. The Joker is not all that relatable to us, but we have another character (Batman) to root for. The interplay between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is another wonderful example.
Another way that movies tend to handle a villain is to have the villain be the main character. In that scenario, we have to have something (could be a goal they are trying to achieve) to "root for" in a sense. Take, for instance, The Godfather. Nearly all of the main characters in that movie are people that we would consider to be bad. They murder, they commit fraud, they are criminals. And yet, we understand what it's like to be in a family. We understand and even relate to the desire to leave a legacy and give an inheritance to your children. Without even realizing it, we focus on those things instead of the fact that what is being passed down is this massive crime conglomerate.
But there is nothing to relate to and no goal to cheer for when it comes to Daniel Plainview.
He has my sympathies at the beginning when he falls into the mineshaft. And, as in The Godfather, we may even root for him to build a powerful oil business and leave an inheritance for his family. But Daniel quickly loses any and all benefit of the doubt with his blatant selfishness and will to dominate all else around him. And he clearly shows that leaving an inheritance is of no importance to him.
All of that would be fine, if we were given someone else to root for - a protagonist. I thought that Daniel's adopted son, H.W. Plainview (played mostly by Dillon Freasier but at various other points by Harrison Taylor, Stockton Taylor, and Russell Harvard) would be that protagonist. But, for most of the film, he simply seems to be another tool for Daniel's use.
We meet H.W. as an infant. His biological father is a worker on Daniel's oil rig. But the father dies in a drilling accident, leaving H.W. alone. Daniel takes him in. Here again is an opportunity to root for Daniel. He has done a good thing, right? Well, it is a good thing, except we then cut to scenes when H.W. is older, and Daniel is blatantly using him as a tool in his scheme to swindle people out of their land in order to drill for more oil. It is craven.
I found myself feeling bad for H.W., sure. But I don't really root for him either. I don't know enough about him. All I know is that he has had the great misfortune of growing up under Daniel's greedy, selfish tutelage. Near the end of the movie, H.W. will finally stand up to Daniel. But I found that moment did not hit home for me like I would need it to for this to be a great film. The groundwork was not laid earlier in the film for me to relate to H.W.'s character. This Slate article also outlines an argument for how the movie's source material (Oil! by Upton Sinclair) gave the movie an opportunity to give more to H.W.'s character.
We meet another character that, initially, we may think could be someone to root for. He is the local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Actually, we first meet his twin brother, Paul (also played by Dano). Paul comes to Daniel with land he'd like to sell. Daniel then visits the Sunday Ranch pretending to hunt quail. In reality, he is scoping out the land. He goes on to negotiate with Abel Sunday (David Willis) and Eli for a $10,000 sale of the land. The money will go to the building of a new parish for Eli's church - the Church of the Third Revelation.
Daniel is vile and repulsing, but I think I found Eli's character to be even more jarring. As someone whose faith is such a core aspect of identity, I found his craven attitude towards religion to be especially unsettling. He views the church like Daniel views business - a way to the top. He lords his power over his parishoners. And he attempts to wield that same power over Daniel. The two are set up as rivals, and that will become the key storyline of the rest of the film.
So, Daniel goes about drilling on the Sunday property. Here we are given one of the film's great scenes. It is a massive set piece where loose oil catches on fire and shoots up into the air. Amid the bedlam, H.W. loses his hearing from the explosion. This gives us what is possibly the movie's greatest shot - Daniel sitting watching the flames rise into the sky (pictured above). At the same time, we shudder to think that Daniel's greed has now taken H.W.'s father and his hearing.
At this point we meet another character, and this subplot is one I find to be completely unbelievable. A man named Henry (Kevin O'Connor) comes to Daniel's door claiming to be his half-brother. He tells Daniel some details about his family and hometown that convince him. Daniel hires him on as a worker.
But, come on, a man this selfish who has pulled himself up literally from the depths of the earth to have great business success would not fall for something like this. He would slam the door in the man's face! If you're going to create this craven, vile villain - be true to the character. There is no way you will ever get me to believe that Daniel Plainview would fall for such a ruse. This is why I wouldn't consider Daniel to be an all-time great movie villain even though I will be among the first to acknowledge that Daniel Day-Lewis gives an all-time performance. To embody this character takes a massive effort - one that Day-Lewis gives to the fullest extent. But I separate the performance from the character, because I think there is a key misstep in writing here.
H.W. doesn't take too kindly to there being a new person in Daniel's life. So he attempts to burn down the house with Daniel and Henry in it. I mention this to, once again, show that there truly are no likable characters in this movie. Every time you think there is someone to hold onto, they go and do something vile or selfish. My experience in the world has shown me that, yes, there are many people like that. But most people also have redeeming qualities. We all fall into selfishness at times. But most of us also try to look out for the good of others. Nobody does that in There Will Be Blood, and I think it is a poor representation of reality. As I said in my review of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, poor representations of reality can work if there are themes we can hold onto. But I found no such themes in There Will Be Blood.
The interaction between Henry and Daniel does give us two very important scenes. In the first, we get a clear view into the darkness of Daniel's soul. He and Henry are talking by the fire when Daniel says:
Competitors attempt to buy Daniel's wells for $1 million, but he rejects them in a fiery display of anger. This brings us to the second scene of importance between Daniel and Henry. I think it is the film's greatest scene. Daniel and Henry go to the ocean after suverying the land on a new property they are looking to buy. The cinematography by Robert Elswit (who won the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work on the film) is fantastic. Here, Daniel finally realizes that Henry is not his brother. Henry tells him that he knew Daniel's brother in Kansas. After the real brother died, Henry saw an opportunity. He assumed his identity and came to find Daniel. What kind of a person does that? Again, I'm just amazed by how completely unlikable all the characters in this movie are.
That brings us to the film's final scene. Many have applauded it. It even gave us a line ("I drink your milkshake!") that has become part of pop culture. Given the way the rest of the film goes, I guess this scene is inevitable. In an explosive exchange, we are given the culmination of the rivalry between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday. It is brutal. But more than the violence, I found the blasphemy to be especially jarring.
Plainview truly views himself as a god. In this final scene, he makes that clear. Even his final line ("I'm finished") has religious underpinnings. The title of the movie also is an echo of Scripture. It comes from Exodus 7:19 where God is talking to Moses during the plagues of Egypt. After watching the film, I wondered if these religious undertones might be a place where I could find a redeeming quality in the movie. But the more I looked, the more I didn't like what I saw. The movie seems to view religion in much the same way it views capitalism - a mechanism for greedy men. Here in the final scene, we're given a parallel to an earlier scene in Eli's church. Here, Daniel forces Eli to renounce his faith at the closing of the film. Daniel wants to believe that he has completely dominated all around him. He does that, but it ends the film on such an empty note. It is not reflective of my experience with faith at all. Surely there are some people who use the church for their own gain. But this film paints everyone with such a dark light. As the audience, we are left wondering what, if anything, there is to take from the movie other than a feeling of being covered in grime.
There are some parts of this film that are great. I give Paul Thomas Anderson and the entire cast and crew credit because they attempted to create an original work that is large in scope and vision. Because of this, I found myself watching this film looking for something, anything, to hold onto. But it gives you nothing. In the words of Daniel, I look at this film and see nothing worth liking. That is because the aspects of it that I initially like - the acting, the cinematography, the opening sequence and the scene by the beach - are completely overshadowed. This movie doesn't seem to like any of its characters, so I don't know why I should. I think it wastes a phenomenal performance by Day-Lewis - its greatest sin among many.
Note on content: This film has no sexual content to speak of, and a small level of profanity compared to other modern films. It does contain violence, especially in its brutal final scene. For Christians, the movie's depiction of religion may be upsetting. There are certainly very few, if any, redeeming qualities to find in any of the characters, in my opinion.