There Will Be Blood (2007)

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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

Introduction

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.

Plot Summary

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 — there is most certainly blood — viewers will be left in shock, awe, and, for many, a state of confusion. To this, the late Roger 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, this is not the movie for you. There’s a chance you will find it epically 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 was hard to imagine anything topping it, but There Will Be Blood 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. It also teed up his third Best Actor win for Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012).

Call it the most powerful male performance since DeNiro in Raging Bull (1980), because it is. Day-Lewis plays the character with the restraint of a tight belt buckle on a fat man, a man trying desperately to suppress his own inherent 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 George Stevens’ Giant (1956), the same pioneer greed that consumes Bogart’s gold-seeker in John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). How fitting that Day-Lewis play the part like Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974).

Script Origins

Daniel Plainview’s echo of Noah Cross marks the completion of the same thematic parabola. That is to say, you can draw a connecting line from Chinatown to There Will Be Blood in depictions of California built on a foundation of greed and corruption. Both masterpieces insist that 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 excesses, 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 Upton 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.

The film’s Best Screenplay nomination was no surprise, as Anderson had already earned writing nominations for Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But There Will Be Blood marks Anderson’s justification as a complete 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 with his own stable of repeat actors, minus Philip Seymour Hoffman this time around.

Sight & Sound

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). Anderson and Greenwood would again echo Kubrick in The Master (2012), with a bizarre nude scene recalling Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

The importance of both Elswit and Greenwood are on showcase in long stretch of “silent” filmmaking throughout There Will Be Blood.  Note that there is no real dialogue for the first 14 minutes of the film, while subsequent scenes continue to go silent, like H.W. losing his hearing in a rig explosion.

A Master Director

P.T. Anderson proves his directorial mastery from the film’s very opening. The entire opening is told visually, in the purest sense of cinema, as the camera looks up from the bottom of an underground oil shaft as a broken ladder sends Plainview plummeting straight for the camera, down into the pits of hell. Later, we watch Plainview stare down into the shaft amongst a backdrop of swirling dust, creating an almost mythical pioneer figure pulling his evil from this open well into hell.

One of Anderson’s best instincts is to keep the camera rolling in places where others would cut, creating a complexity of movement between camera and subject. One long-take begins on 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. Anderson lingers far away from the characters, hearing their words without cutting in for a closeup, cementing them as elements of their environment.

Anderson also understands parallelism and symbolic imagery. Note the mirror images between two powerful shots: (a) Plainview kneeling in the foreground, turning his back to the camera as he worships at the fiery alter of oil; and (b) 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). As such, No Country and Blood will forever be linked in history, both 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. I declare a split decision, as No Country ranks higher on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, while Blood places higher on Entertainment Weekly‘s Best Films of the Last 25 Years.

Thematic Legacy

It’s hard to look at films in the moment and imagine how they will come to mark the times we live in. But Blood is its own Book of Revelation in what it says about America in 2007, or at least liberal Hollywood’s idea of America in 2007. The phrase “There Will be Blood” echoes the “No Blood for Oil” bumper stickers during the Iraq War with Plainview playing Uncle Sam, taming desert land for its oil and revealing humanity as a race of speculators driven by their thirst for blood and hunger 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. Atheists will see Eli as an anti-religious allegory, while believers will view him as a false prophet with a pathetic misunderstanding of God.

The key piece of dialogue in understanding these themes comes as Eli blames God for economic disaster: “He’s completely failed to alert me to the recent panic in our economy!” You’ll note that There Will Be Blood arrived a full year before the 2008 Wall Street meltdown that plunged the U.S. into recession. Thus, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men aren’t merely movies. They are warnings of greed that were both admirably ahead of their time and tragically ignored by the nation.

Similarly, top scholars have also warned of the brewing Hurricane Anderson. Five years before There Will Be Blood 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 Hollywood execs]. 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, as P.T. Anderson has left us a masterful commentary on greed and power. Men really do kill for oil, and as centuries pass, this human 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?

Citations:

CITE A:  IMDB Paul Thomas Anderson Bio
CITE B: Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times. “Radiohead’s Greenwood goes sinister for ‘There Will Be Blood’

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