Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writers: Upton Sinclair (novel), Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay)
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar (Ghoulardi Film Company)
Photography: Robert Elswit
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, David Willis, Martin Stringer, Matthew Braden Stringer, Jacob Stringer, Jospeh Mussey, Barry Del Sherman, Harrison Taylor, Stockton Taylor, Paul F. Tompkins, Kevin Breznahan, Jim Meskimen
In trying to pin down a masterwork by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, how does one choose between the crude originality of Boogie Nights (1997), the high-concept complexity of Magnolia (1999) or the lyrical power of There Will Be Blood? The answer: Daniel Day-Lewis.
All three deserve to go down as great films, but There Will Be Blood seems even greater, like the collision of two of modern cinema’s brightest forces, Anderson and Day-Lewis, the impact of which has left us with a sprawling masterpiece. The film is Anderson’s best attempt at social commentary, expanding upon his explorations of modern suburban Los Angeles in Boogie Nights and Magnolia to explore California’s frontier origins and what those roots say about American ideals.
The film is mind-blowingly unique. Time called it “one of the most wholly original American movies ever made.” And once you’ve taken the time to truly digest what you’ve just seen, there’s only one logical conclusion: that Anderson is one of the best, if not the best, young filmmaker out there today.
Loosely based upon Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, the film opens in 1898 California where Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) prides himself upon being an oil man. His advice to fellow frontiersmen explains his motivation: “Out of all men that beg for a chance to drill your lots, maybe one in 20 will be oil men. The rest will be speculators, that’s men trying to get between you and the oil men to get some of the money that ought, by rights, come to you.”
Enter Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who comes to town to convince Plainview to follow him home to New Boston, California, where the Sunday family sits atop a mountain of the black gold. Plainview obliges and brings his young son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) with him to buy the Sunday ranch. There is, however, one stipulation: he must use his profits to help fund the town church, run by Sunday’s radical preacher “brother” Eli (also Dano).
With great ambition, Plainview builds the young town’s infrastructure and makes a hefty profit. But tensions rise when an explosion renders H.W. deaf and a man claiming to be Plainview’s half-brother Henry arrives. All this while Plainview and Eli are locked in a ruthless rivalry for control of the town, a rift that builds toward the titular conclusion.
Shock, Awe & Accessibility
By the time the film’s title comes to fruition, viewers will be left in shock, awe, and, for many, a state of confusion. There is most certainly blood. To this, Ebert writes: “Those who hate the ending, and there may be many, might be asked to dictate a different one. Something bittersweet, perhaps? Grandly tragic? Only madness can supply a termination for this story.” Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers does him one better: “Lovers of formula and sugarcoating will hate it. Screw them. In terms of excitement, imagination and rule-busting experimentation, it’s a gusher.”
Indeed, if you go to the movies to see the usual formula play out, to take comfort in that structure to which you are so accustomed, this is not the movie for you. There’s a chance you will find it epicly slow, become tripped up over Dano’s “two-faced” role, and find it hard to relate to such an unsympathetic hero as Plainview. But no matter your initial reaction, I promise it’s worth the challenge of a closer look.
Dano/Day-Lewis: Power Performances in Plain View
All viewers can at the very least appreciate the powerhouse performances. Dano’s turn as the “false prophet” preacher is something you’ll never shake. Two church scenes are seared into my brain. The first, shows Dano exorcising arthritis from an old woman’s hand, shouting “Get out of here ghost!”
The second is a trailer-made scene where Dano brings Day-Lewis to his knees, commanding him to confess his sins by screaming, “I’ve abandoned my child!”
Which brings us to the most powerful aspect of the film — the Oscar-winning tour-de-force of Mr. Day-Lewis. Is there any doubt now that he is the best actor working today? Consider his legacy already — an Oscar winning parapalegic in My Left Foot (1989) (echoed in Blood‘s broken leg scene); Michael Mann’s lead in The Last of the Mohicans (1992); the falsely-accused Irishman in In the Name of the Father (1993); and the viscious Bill “The Butcher” in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). With such a list, it’s hard to imagine anything topping it, but There Will Be Blood easily did. The part won Day-Lewis every award imaginable — Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG, NY Film Critics, LA Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, IFTA. So when came time for the Academy Awards, there was no doubt who was going to win the Oscar.
Call it the most powerful male performance since DeNiro in Raging Bull (1980). Day-Lewis plays the character with the restraint of a tight belt buckle on a fat man, a man trying desperately to restrain his own evil but knowing he’s going to pop in the end. You can sense it during his fireside chat with Henry: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. … I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone.”
Plainview makes for a fascinating character study, one perhaps easier to digest if you consider it backwards. Everything you need to know about his character is right there in the end. Consider Plainview’s similarities to Welles’ Charles Foster Kane or Pacino’s Michael Corleone, sitting alone in his empty estate, having driven away everyone he loves, and all for the hunger of power.
It’s the same hubris that dooms James Dean’s oil-driller in Giant (1956), the same pioneer greed that consumes Bogart’s gold-seeker in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). How fitting that Day-Lewis play the part with an air of Madre director John Huston, whose Nathan Cross in Chinatown (1974) seems somewhat of a template for Daniel Plainview.
In fact, if you were to trace a line through film history in its depictions of California’s being built on a literal foundation of greed and corruption, Blood is the next natural step after Sierra Madre and Chinatown. All three insist America’s story of expansion has been one lined with greed, that there’s always been plenty of money to be made in taming and civilizing. The film celebrates the ambition of capitalism while examining its dark potential of excess, and thus There Will Be Blood should not be viewed as a narrative, but more a cautionary parable.
The idea for the screenplay came to Anderson when he was homesick and picked up the Sinclair book Oil! because it had a painting of California on the cover. (A) After reading it, he became obsessed with the motivations of these oil men. And every night while writing the script, he put on Treasure of the Sierra Madre when he went to sleep, just to allow its themes to seep into his subconscious. By the time the film was released, it had been five years since Anderson’s last effort, Punch Drunk Love (2002), and thus There Will Be Blood seemed the culmination of a building creative force.
Blood‘s Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay was no surprise. Anderson had already earned writing nominations for Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But There Will Be Blood marks Anderson’s justification as an all-around filmmaker, as it was the first to earn him nominations as both writer and director, not to mention as producer. After a handful of films, he was beginning to build an auteur mindset, using similar casts and crew.
Sight & Sound: A Gift to the Senses
In order to reinvent the western epic for the 21st century, Anderson enlisted the Oscar-winning cinematography of Robert Elswit. Elswit had shot every one of Anderson’s feature films up to that point: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, before winning an Oscar for best cinematography in There Will Be Blood.
Anderson also required the eerie orchestral music of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. ”You can just do things with the classical orchestra that do unsettle you, that are sort of slightly wrong, that have some kind of undercurrent that’s slightly sinister,” Greenwood said. (B) Indeed, the opening shot of sinister strings bringing a black screen into dry desert landscape seems like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fittingly, Anderson and Greenwood would reunite on The Master (2012), echoing Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) in a bizarre nude scene.
The importance of both Elswit and Greenwood are on showcase in long stretch of silent filmmaking. Note that there is no real dialogue for the first 14 minutes of the film, and succeeding scenes continue to go silent, like H.W. losing his hearing in a rig explosion.
A Master Director
P.T. Anderson proves his mastery as a director from the opening of the film. The entire opening is told visually, in the purest sense of cinema, the camera looking up from the bottom of underground oil shafts, watching a line snap and Plainview plummet straight for the camera. Later we watch Plainview stare down into the shaft amongst a backdrop of swirling dust, creating an almost mythical pioneer figure.
One of Anderson’s best instincts is to keep the camera rolling in places where others would cut, allowing for a complexity of movement between camera and subject. One long-take begins straight on at a set of railroad tracks, pans right to see a buggy, then dollies with it even as it disappears behind buildings and brush.
Another long-take lasts three minutes as the camera dollies alongside an oil pipeline to watch Plainview reconcile with his son in the distance. We often linger as such, far away from the characters, hearing them talking but without cutting in for the closeup, an approach that cements them as elements of their environment.
Anderson also understands parallelism and symbolic imagery. Note the mirror images between two powerful shots, the first of Plainview kneeling in the foreground, back to the camera, watching a flaming oil rig in the distance, as if worshiping at the alter of oil. The second shows Plainview kneeling in the background of a church, facing the camera, repenting in front of a cross behind him.
There Will Be Blood would have certainly won Anderson the Oscar for Best Director had it not arrived the same year as No Country for Old Men (2007), which gave the Coen Brothers the Oscar they should have won for Fargo (1996).
It seems No Country and Blood will forever be linked in history, and perhaps they should be. After all, both were shot at the same time in roughly the same location, requiring the directors to work around each other’s shooting schedules so as not to appear in each other’s shots. Arguing the merits of each will keep film buffs busy forever. Currently it’s a draw, as No Country ranks higher on IMDB and rottentomatoes, while Blood places higher on Entertainment Weekly‘s Best Films of the Last 25 Years.
Themes & Legacy
It’s hard to look at films in the moment and imagine their place in history, how they will come to mark the times we live in. But there are huge indicators with these two, particularly in There Will Be Blood, in which current art meets social relevancy.
Consider the following readings of this “filmic” text and what it says about America in 2007, or at least liberal Hollywood’s idea of America in 2007. “There Will be Blood” is akin to the “No blood for oil” bumper stickers during the height of the Iraq War. The film is all about taming a desert land for its oil, the wealthy getting rich off the idea of “civilizing” foreign lands, suggesting humanity is a race of speculators, people driven by their desire for money.
In Anderson’s world, religious leaders are no exception. Just as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is proven to be a fraud in Anderson’s Scientology critique The Master (2012), Daniel Plainview humiliates Eli by forcing him to proclaim he is a false prophet, turning the tables on Eli’s forced confession of Plainview.
Whether viewers believe in a God or not, we all can see the false prophet Eli as pathetic in his misunderstanding of God: “He’s completely failed to alert me to the recent panic in our economy!” How fitting that the two pieces of cinematic art of 2007 — No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood — came just a year before a Wall Street meltdown that plunged the U.S. into the Great Recession. These two films aren’t merely movies. They are warnings of greed ahead of their time.
Similarly, top scholars have been warning of Anderson’s coming as a filmmaking force for the 21st century. In 2002, critic David Thomson predicted, “If [Anderson] is as good as he thinks he is (and I think he is), there are bloody battles to come [between he and the Hollywood status quo]. But no one has a better chance of offering us new narrative forms for our movies.” There Will Be Blood makes Thomson seem something of a prophet.
What P.T. Anderson has left us is a masterful commentary on greed and power, framed in the disturbing thought that men really do kill for oil, and their blood. As centuries pass, this blood trickles down into the earth and only creates more oil. Can it be that, to quote Daniel Plainview, we all drink eachother’s milkshakes?
CITE A: IMDB Paul Thomas Anderson Bio
CITE B: .  Martens, Todd. “Radiohead’s Greenwood goes sinister for ‘There Will Be Blood’“. Los Angeles Times.