Based on Oil!, a 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair, There Will Be Blood contains echoes of Citizen Kane, Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons. The story of a misanthropic oilman slowly but surely building an empire in early 20th-century California, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film often achieves epic status, but is compromised by overacting and a nasty tone that can be off-putting.

The film opens in 1898, with taciturn Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) working by himself to unearth black gold in the barren hills of central California. Following a serious accident while he’s on the job, the action shifts abruptly to four years later, when Plainview is now drilling with a small team of men. This time, a mishap kills one of the crew, leaving an infant orphan which Plainview decides to raise as his own.

Jump forward again to 1911, when most of the movie’s action takes place. Plainview is now a modestly successful oil tycoon who, trailed by son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), roams around a series of small towns buying up oil leases. One day he’s approached by a strange young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who claims his family’s otherwise barren piece of land contains oil. Plainview decides to investigate, and when H.W. discovers black gold literally bubbling up from the earth, he cuts a deal with the Sunday family that initially looks okay, but is actually highway robbery on Plainview’s part.

Complications and conflicts ensue. Paul Sunday’s brother Eli (also played by Dano) is a charismatic preacher who believes he has the healing touch. He wants Plainview to help fund his church, as well as become a member, but the wily oilman will have nothing to do with any form of religion.

Then tragedy strikes. A mishap on an oil rig causes a fire and explosion, which deafens poor H.W. This only heightens the tension between Plainview and the preacher; in one of the film’s most striking scenes, Plainview nearly beats Sunday to death, accusing him of being a charlatan who can’t even cure H.W.’s deafness. Fact is, his love for H.W. seems to be Plainview’s only human connection. During a drunken evening with Henry (Kevin O’Connor), a drifter claiming to be Plainview’s long-lost half-brother, the oilman admits he hates most people, and just wants to earn enough money so he can separate himself from the rest of humanity.

And so he does. The final section of the picture takes place in 1927, with Plainview, now absolutely wacko, living in isolated, Kane-like splendor in a huge mansion. During this sequence Plainview breaks with his now adult son over a business disagreement, and has a final confrontation with Eli Sunday that ends the picture on a bizarre, almost apocalyptic note.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know what to make of There Will Be Blood, which has been meticulously made and contains some astonishing set-pieces (the oil rig explosion is particularly outstanding). As a commentary on greed it’s really nothing new, although the historical setting hasn’t exactly been raked over by previous filmmakers. Practically a one-man showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives another one of his astonishing, burrowing-into-the-role performances, There Will Be Blood nonetheless centers on a pretty reprehensible human being whose actions become less sympathetic, and more bizarre, as the story unfolds. Unlike in Citizen Kane, there’s very little feel for what made Plainview what he is, and because of this, the tragic element is almost totally missing from the film. Anderson’s attempt to also put a God-vs.-Mammon spin on the tale (Dano is excellent) holds a certain amount of interest, but in the end Eli Sunday is nearly as creepy as Plainview, and when the two are onscreen together, the scenery-chewing can get to be a bit much.

There’s no question There Will Be Blood is, in many ways, a major work from an extremely talented director. But it is also a flawed, and at times distasteful, piece that will turn off as many viewers as it turns on. Is it art? Undoubtedly. Commercial? Probably not.