There Will Be Blood is an epic, but a strange one at that. Lavishly scaled, with a time-frame spanning over decades, it certainly has the structure and the ambition of an epic. However, unlike most epics, it does not present us with a grand narrative: it is neither interested in providing us with a full-fledged storytelling nor in giving us a comprehensive character-study. This movie seems to operate more with the logic of images than with that of a narrative or characters.
I don't think this movie makes an attempt to understand and explain Daniel Plainview. We do not really get into the depth of his psyche, nor do we get to witness a sweeping exposé of his life. Everything we get to know about him is obvious and right in front of us. His name is Plainview. PLAIN VIEW. The view is plain. It's just flat out there. There is nothing concealed or left out. Everything is on the screen. What we see is what we get. And what we see is a man who cannot be categorized or summed up. He is as viscous as the oil he drills and as complex as the inscrutable expressions on his face. The depth is on the surface.
The story itself moves like oil. It moves slowly, lingering at places where one would not generally expect it to linger. We get several long scenes whose purpose seems to be more about wallowing in the complexity of the images than about advancing the plot. Anderson, it seems, is interested in forming a completely new language of cinema, one that is neither tethered to a narrative, as most mainstream movies tend to be, nor severed from it, like most independent, experimental movies. There is definitely a story in There Will Be Blood, but it's told in a rather unexpected manner. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia were movies that had linear storytelling (albeit with multiple narratives), but with Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and the recently released The Master, Anderson clearly seems to be more interested in telling a story through the logic of images than through the logic of narratives.
A lot of people have linked There Will Be Blood with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The connections definitely seem reasonable. Like Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood charts the journey of an imposing egoist, from his humble beginnings to his lofty, lonesome heights of success and madness. Citizen Kane was, in one sense, a movie about the futility of attempting to understand or explain a man with a mere word. "I don't think any word can explain a man's life." Anderson seems to understand this very well. There Will Be Blood has a lot to do with the distinction between words and images, and Anderson, being a filmmaker, seems to privilege image over words, especially in this movie. The first fifteen minutes or so of this movie is completely wordless, just like the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (other obvious nods to that movie are the bowling alley which has a perfect symmetry like the room that we see in the climax of Kubrick's film. Likewise the composition of the shot when Plainview smashes Sunday's skull is similar to the one at the beginning of Kubrick's film where the ape smashes the skulls with a bone. Plainview, by the end, even begins to walk like an ape.)
When we do get words, they seem to be mostly declarative and assertive. "Ladies and gentlemen, if I say I'm an oilman, you will agree." Likewise, he seems to be dictating the end of the movie when he utters his last words "I'm finished." Even the title of the movie itself is at once a prophecy and a declaration: There Will Be Blood. The images in this movie, however, are in sharp contrast to the words. They are not declarative and straightforward, but uncertain and complex. We get a lot of close-ups of Daniel Plainview's face and yet we are never certain of his expressions. His face exudes multiple expressions all at once, which belies explanation or categorization. This ambiguous and multivalent nature of image as compared to the declarative (and almost dictatorial) nature of words seems to be the subject that this movie is mainly interested in.