An Ocean of Oil: Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood
There Will Be Blood doesn’t start like any other Paul Thomas Anderson movie before it. There is a sly, yet smart, quirk with Anderson’s early work. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love—while dealing with life, sex, death, forgiveness, and love—each had a lighter-than-air touch. Quick cuts, swift pans, experimental flourishes, and high-key scores by Jon Brion, were what Anderson was known for. But in 2007, five years after his last movie and nearly ten years into his filmmaking career, the director made it clear he was deviating from his signature style.
The film fades in, showing off the New Mexico desert landscape. We then see Daniel Plainview’s birth as a businessman in the film’s first, silent 15 minutes. He first finds gold in a thrilling set piece where he breaks his leg after a mine explosion but still manages to drag himself to the nearest claims office to verify his findings. He then strikes oil in California and takes custody of a child whose father is killed due to a freak accident on site. All of this is set to the ominous score by Jonny Greenwood, which breaks from former Anderson composer Brion’s lighter tones and is as an unnerving as the soundscape in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
It’s a cold, unwelcoming world Anderson throws us into. It’s unfamiliar, but it feels like he’s been making grand Western epics like this his whole life. His long-time collaborator, cinematographer Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for the film) helps create hypnotic imagery, placing Plainview against mountainous terrain and fire-blazed oil derricks. The harrowing backdrops attempt to match the Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview, and comes pretty close. Really, nothing tops Day-Lewis’ once-in-a-lifetime performance—the thing about Day-Lewis is that he has one of these once-in-a-lifetime performances every five years or so. Day-Lewis’ Plainview, crawling through the desert at the start of the film, dragging his long legs across the dust, is an indelible image, and one that captures the 1900s’ desolate setting and Plainview’s resilience.
Up to 2007, Boogie Nights was the only Anderson film not set in present day. It’s hard not to fall in love with late ‘70s, early ‘80s L.A., but other than that, every other Anderson film had its feet set firmly in the modern age. There Will Be Blood sets the course for the filmmaker’s next ten years; The Master and Phantom Thread capture the 1950s post-WWII, and Inherent Vice captures the impending end of the hippie movement in 1970. The only time he’s gone back to the present was for the documentary Junun, but the Mehrangarh Fort locale is yet another step away from the breezy, modern-day L.A. setting we’ve grown accustomed to seeing with early Anderson.
Longer takes, wider angles, and a more grounded characterization make for a traditional drama, paving new ground for Anderson. And, if There Will Be Blood is the peak of his career, you can see the trails present in his early films. Plainview shares Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan’s unbound anger and insecurities, and as Egan finds redemption by Punch-Drunk’s end, Plainview falls deeper into his pit, walling himself off from society, pushing away from a makeshift family; this acts as an inverse to Boogie Nights and its tale of finding happiness in an unhappy place. Hard Eight and Magnolia dealt with fathers and father figures; Plainview’s adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), becomes a tool in his deal-making arsenal, why also being as close to family as Daniel’s ever had. The tearful, bedside resolution between Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) and his father could be a redemptive moment in the far future between Daniel and H.W., but here we’re in the midst of the divide between the two, as H.W. grows into a young man who recognizes his father’s malevolence and decides to leave his side.
Plainview’s anger is aimless, directed towards his business adversaries, his grown son, and God himself, whose proxy is Pastor Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). There Will Be Blood targets cold-hearted capitalism on one hand, but takes its aim at the church with the other. Anderson shoots Sunday’s sermon like a cult leader roping in his flock, with Plainview’s exasperated glances bookending Dano’s explosive performance, all captured in one take. Shades of Magnolia trickle in; “Respect the cock!” is replaced with, “Get out of here, ghost!” Sunday’s presence over Plainview is extended through his church’s control over the town Plainview’s oil drilling is set. Sunday becomes another adversary for Plainview. It begins with a war of words, then escalates into Plainview shoving Sunday’s face into the mud after asking where God was when H.W. lost his hearing during a drilling accident. Plainview, in his own demented way, is asking for the same divine intervention that fell onto every character at the end of Magnolia, but meets the holy with disdain, practically laughing in its face during his forced baptism scene, “Please, give me the blood, Eli. Let me get out of here. Give me the blood, Lord, and let me get away!”
No god intercedes and the fact that Plainview doesn’t receive a just end makes There Will Be Blood Anderson’s coldest film. There is no redemption; Plainview is no Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), he doesn’t save the day for two lost souls in love. He’s no Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) or Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who both find their respective places in life. No. Plainview meets his enemy, sees him asking for help as a brother, and beats the life out of him. While dark, the film’s last lines and outro music is a hell of a punchline. A capitalist kills God, saying, “I’m finished!” as if he just finished lunch, and the same music that played over the oil well opening ceremony earlier— Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, 3rd movement, "Vivace ma non troppo"—plays over a shot of Sunday’s head gushing blood, with Plainview beside him, exhausted after his presumably final encounter with humanity.
Unlike any other character before or after, Anderson makes Plainview into an unsaveable void of a human, driven by power and the wealth he uses to hide himself away from the world. He says halfway through the film, “There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone…” He says this to who he believes to be his brother. He later finds out the truth that his real brother is actually dead and the man who he brought into the oil-drilling fold is an imposter. Plainview barely hesitates and as he shoots the man in the head, viciously murdering him. Day-Lewis evacuates his soul of any empathy at that very moment. That same look—the darkness in his eyes—is there once again when he strikes Sunday down at the end of the film.
The character of Daniel Plainview makes me think of line from Tombstone. Doc Holliday, in describing the madman Johnny Ringo, says, “A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it… [He needs] revenge… [For] bein’ born…” Could Plainview have been saved? Or was his blood-soaked, self-inflicted loneliness his destiny from the get-go? Later, we’d see Anderson’s The Master end with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) letting his companion Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) go, with both finding closure in their own distinct way. And in Inherent Vice, Doc (Phoenix) and his ex, together again, drive away into an unknown fog. It’s Plainview’s drive, built from the film’s opening sequence, with him crawling to that claims office with a piece of gold in hand, that telegraphs Plainview’s fate. There is no heart-warming closure for a man so driven by his own thirst for money and power. It’s as simple as that. Anderson’s players in his other films were never as earth-shatteringly determined as Plainview, and they each have their appropriate, satisfying comeuppance. In stripping away his signature flourishes, which ran from Hard Eight through Punch-Drunk Love, and centralizing the story to just one man’s oil-over-familial-blood journey, Paul Thomas Anderson created something distinct and not in line with anything he’s done before or since, creating an American masterpiece that still holds its power a decade later.