Comparisons with Paul Thomas Anderson's slow-burning There Will Be Blood and America's bullying foreign policy are not easy to ignore. The film, loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! is more a message than a story - but when Anderson isn't making a political comment, what a drama it is.
In 1911, the blustery, up-and-coming oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) is all smiles as he promises to inject money into the community - including a donation to the Church of the Third Revelation, run by the fiery faith healer Eli Sunday (Dano) of Little Boston, California, an area with 'an ocean of oil underneath it'. But Plainview is a parasite who wants to bleed the town dry before moving on: he cares for nothing, has no friends and no family - even his 'son' is the son of a former employee who Plainview uses to fool naive landowners into thinking he's a family man. He only wants what he can get out of people and only he should get it: "I want no one else to succeed". When the promised money isn't forthcoming, the natives, with Sunday as their spokesman, get a little tetchy.
For the most part, There Will Be Blood isn't Giant, it's Gargantuan; giving focus to the wondrous scenery is an in-depth character study of an amoral man who is driven by one thing and one thing only: greed. It's a greed so cold, so pure and so determined, that he banishes his 'son' when he becomes deaf, because he can no longer help him in the business. Day-Lewis's Plainview, like his role in Gangs Of New York, is a force of nature. The actor, thankfully, reins in that shouty, larger-than-life performance for a more reserved tone here and turns in, arguably, his best performance to date.
As Anderson explores all the facets of Plainview, he lets his message bubble quietly underneath before letting it explode, deflecting Sinclair's comment on the greedy oil business to make a damning diatribe on America's treatment of the countries it once gave a leg up to. Years later, the banished son returns to compete with his father in the oil business, while Sunday turns up looking for what he feels owed to him, his community and, most importantly, his church. Plainview devastatingly rebukes both, which could have far-reaching results.
There Will Be Blood is a film of opposites - the wordless opening fifteen minutes vs. the deafening finale; the beautiful and quiet scenery vs. the dark and unsettling score by Jonny Greenwood; the expansive plains vs. the intimate, up close and personal story; Sunday's 'franchise' (religion) vs. Plainview's 'franchise' (himself); the first half of the film vs. the second.
It's the latter that's more obvious than anything else. Anderson's film plateaus midway through, and is unable to continue its mesmerising character study any further - we know all we are going to know, and need to know, about Plainview. Paul Dano peaks too soon, as well. Dano has been threatening greatness for a long time in supporting roles in The King, Little Miss Sunshine and The Ballad Of Jack And Rose (proving the old adage that there's no small roles, only small actors), and in the first half of the film is more than a match for the heavyweight Day-Lewis. However, as the minutes tick by and he is called on for more, he's unable to meet the demands of this difficult role. He's one for the future, but is just far too puny to play a man like Eli Sunday.
The film feels a tad unfinished, too. Sure, Anderson has made his point by the close, but there was definitely more to deliver here than just a message. The director is one film away from being one of the greatest filmmakers that ever graced the screen, but despite There Will Be Blood being a genuinely brilliant piece of work, this isn't it. It's definitely going to happen, though - it's just a matter of time.