There Will Be Blood. 2007. Directed & Written by Paul Thomas Anderson. Based on Oil! by Upton Sinclair.
Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Barry Del Sherman, Paul F. Tompkins, Randall Carver, David Willis, Kellie Hill, David Warshofsky, Hope Elizabeth Reeves, & Charles Thomas Doyle. Paramount Vantage/Miramax/Ghoulardi Film Company.
Rated R. 158 minutes.
To me, Paul Thomas Anderson is both all his own artist, as well as a combination of sensibilities ranging between Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. Hard Eight is an impressive little indie film that brings out Anderson’s wit. The first time I saw Boogie Nights, the way Anderson wrote, the way he directed, it felt incredible watching him come into his own. So vivid, definitely Altman inspired, as he was essentially a student of the master. Then came Magnolia, which in every way is a knockout masterpiece and solidified . I may be one of the small handful of people on Earth that loves Punch-Drunk Love with all their heart.
And then along comes There Will Be Blood. An ambitious project, and honestly one I never saw coming from him. But here he truly brings his Kubrickian style forward, capturing the earlier days of the original oil boom in America with passion, depth, and all its nasty, rugged glory. The beautiful composition of the shots, the pacing, the atmosphere and the look of the cinematography, everything culminates in a masterpiece of modern filmmaking. Anderson is a classic director in contemporary times.
One thing that always impresses me is how long we go at the beginning without any dialogue. The opening sequences are totally captivating, and there’s not a word spoken for about fifteen minutes, maybe more. Anderson is able to take hold of you tightly without requiring dialogue between characters, or even Lewis’ character speaking to himself. Only the sounds of the wind, the sounds of men working, dirt and earth being moved, so on. Incredible, really. This could easily lull you into a sleep if it weren’t engaging. Anderson’s script makes things so interesting, and watching is much better than having to listen. We glean everything needed to know about Plainview almost immediately, after only a few silent scenes with him.
Remarkably this story of turn of the century oil capitalism is a great parallel to our current day society. In Canada particularly, our economy is highly tied to oil pricing. So to see the cutthroat, ruthless nature of Plainview as an early fan boy of capitalist industry, it’s clear nothing has changed since. It’s only gotten worse. Marking the baby with oil is one of the very first signs of oil as a holy element in the film. For Plainview, and the other men he drills with, oil may as well be holy water. And the entire clash Plainview experiences with Eli Sunday represents the push of capitalism into the realm of faith, into the everyday lives of people.
Landscapes are naturally beautiful. In this film, Anderson makes the land look all sorts of ways, capturing the old look of California before it turned into what it is today. In certain scenes, the landscapes are foreboding, ominous, especially coupled with the score. During other scenes the natural settings are gorgeously optimistic, the sun rising and setting over the plains, everything looks so stunning and bright. And that’s all part of it. As man starts to take what he wants, imposing his will upon the land, things don’t look so bright anymore. They start to look dangerous, unsure. There’s a great mix of those, for lack of better phrasing, light and dark moments. Overall, the atmosphere of the film is grim, as the many scenes filmed in natural light are dark to begin with, and the music of composer Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) only adds to that making some scenes almost spooky. The naturally lit frames help give the film a feel of realism, which really helps because of the time period, the industry, and that further aids us in getting just how tough and wild the early oil days were for these men.
I have to make more mention of Greenwood’s score. It is an uncompromising, innovative series of compositions. From one moment to the next, Greenwood comes up with all the appropriate pieces to compliment Anderson’s directing. For instance, there’s a great sequence that leads us into Daniel’s decision of what to do with his newly deaf boy, which is accompanied by a tense, riveting piece of string music. Just before that when the oil well burst and a massive fire started, Greenwood used a lot of percussion, odd sounds of wooden blocks striking together, knocks, bangs; very chaotic and off-putting, yet in the perfect way for such an unpredictable few moments in the screenplay
Spoiler Alert: what follows contains a major spoiler in relation to the film’s ending. Do not go on if you’ve not yet actually seen the movie in its entirety, unless you want it ruined.
I’ve seen a few reviews that say the final scene with Daniel and Eli, the big confrontation, is overkill. So to speak. Well I say not at all. Because it, pardon my phrasing, hits the nail directly on the head. Sure, we could’ve gotten the monstrosity in Plainview clearly without having to actually witness this scene. However, I’m not so sure his hideous nature would be as purely evident. When he says “I‘m finished,” Daniel has ushered in the full throttle of capitalism as the new religion. He has effectively conquered religion, after all the twists and turns he and Eli went throughout their tenuous relationship.
We can’t forget either: Eli was capable of being bought. Even the priest had a price, he just never got it. So there’s a part of Daniel and Eli’s relationship which speaks to religion as being pliable, as well as the fact it is a business like any other, running on money, donations no less. So, essentially, Daniel had to kill him. In order for capitalism to take over completely and for it to subsume its duties, its function and purpose, Eli needed to be murdered. If not, the specter of religion would always be looming, for the capitalist. And just as Karl Marx said religion was the opium of the masses, so does capitalism come along and take its place. Effectively, Plainview ushers in the mid-20th century in America going forward, planting capitalist industry as the only way, even greater a faith than religion. So, if you find the scene too much or that it beats a dead horse, that’s your opinion. Me, I see this as the epitome of what the film is speaking to, at least in regards to the continuous battle between Eli and Daniel.
There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece. A 5-star bit of cinema. While it’s not my absolute favourite of Paul Thomas Anderson, it is up there. And it is perfect. There’s a certain gritty nostalgia in this film, yearning for a time before all the machinery and the bureaucracy. Even with all the literally bloody capitalism in the life of Daniel Plainview, his journey in the beginning of American oil is captivating. Watching this film is like peeking into the past, to a different place, and all the while it is a place from where society as we know it began. We’ve built all this off the staunch capitalism of men like Plainview, like it or not. Nevertheless, this is also just a downright wonderful bit of cinema, parallels and themes aside. It is a beautiful bit of work in every way.