“There Will Be Blood” - Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007) is one of the most popular American films of recent years and has attracted a fervent critical following.  Film critic Murtaza Ali Khan has called the film a “haunting masterpiece” [1] and has ranked it on his lists for the “100 All-time Best Movies” [2] and the “50 Best Hollywood Movies of All Time” [3].  The film was listed tied for 75th on the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of world film directors for the “Greatest Films of All Time” [4].  And New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott this year (2017) rated it as the best film so far of the 21st century [5].  

This gripping tale of greed and revenge in the early 20th century US oil industry featured excellent production values across the board, which is reflected in the fact that the film was nominated for 8 US Oscars.  Particularly notable was the Oscar-winning performance of lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who completely immersed himself in the role of a hard-driven self-made oil entrepreneur.  Day-Lewis, who first attracted attention with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), is famously selective of the acting roles he takes on, having only appeared in five films since 1998.  Nevertheless, over that time he has won two Oscars and was nominated for a third.
There Will Be Blood, which was very loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, certainly has an epic feel to it, and it has been compared to several past classics concerning overweening American ambition and greed, such as Greed (1924) and Citizen Kane  (1941).  To me an interesting film for comparison  is Giant (1956), particularly in connection with that film’s oil industry personage, Jett Rink.  But perhaps the most significant film to consider for comparison purposes is John Huston’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Both Huston and his famous film about deadly greed among some gold miners in the old American West apparently had an important influence on There Will Be Blood’s writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.  Commenting on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Anderson said of it [6]:
“It’s about greed and ambition and paranoia and looking at the worst parts of yourself. When I was writing ‘There Will Be Blood,’ I would put ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ on before I went to bed at night, just to fall asleep to it.”
Anderson also gave a copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Daniel Day-Lewis and urged him to use it as a basis for developing the character he was to portray in There Will Be Blood.  Indeed some people have suggested that Day-Lewis’s deep-throated voice in There Will Be Blood even sounded a lot like that of John Huston [7].

The story of There Will Be Blood concerns the events and life of oilman Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) over a period of about thirty years – from 1898 to 1927.  Much of the action, though, is focused on a key period around 1911.  And over the course of this extended narrative, there are two main currents:
  • Material worth -- activities and interactions that have affected Plainview’s material circumstances,  his wealth and power.  For the first half of the film, this appears to be the main focus.
  • Self-worth – activities and interactions that have affected Plainview’s own sense of dignity.
It is this second current, concerning Plainview’s obsession with his self-worth, that eventually becomes the dominant theme of the film.  It centers around his interactions with three people in his life, all males, who have profound effects on Plainview’s feelings of being in control.  This all plays out over the course of the film’s four main sections or narrative acts.

1. The Rise of an Oilman 
The first 13 minutes of the film, which are without dialogue, trace the early days of Daniel Plainview and show just how gritty is his determination to succeed at all costs.  He is first seen in 1898 prospecting in his lone mineshaft for minerals.  When a broken ladder causes him to plunge to the bottom of the shaft and break his leg, he still has the pluck to discover evidence of silver there and somehow make it to the assayer’s office to stake his claim.

Next he is shown in 1902 working with hired workers on his silver mine.  An accident leads them to discover oil in the mine, and it turns Plainview into an oilman.  There is an emphasis here on showing the raw and dangerous nature of the mining work.  An accident kills one of Plainview’s workers, so Plainview adopts the man’s baby boy, named HW.

By 1911 Plainview is huckstering his budding oil well business to local landowners around the Southwest.  When making his pitch at local gatherings, he always has HW at his side to show people he is a family man.

2.  A Promising Option 
One day a young man named Paul Sunday (played by Paul Dano, who had recently starred in War and Peace, 2006) informs Plainview, for a price, about his parents modest ranch in the poor area of “Little Boston”, California, that he thinks has oil under its ground.  Plainview visits the ranch to see if he can buy the land cheaply by not  telling the family about the oil prospects.  There he meets Paul Sunday’s twin brother, Eli (also Paul Dano), who is an ambitious young preacher and faith healer and who demands Plainview invest $10,000 help him build his new “Church of the Third Revelation”.  From here on in the story, Plainview will find himself in competition with Eli Sunday for the influence and control over the local people in the area. 

There are similarities and differences between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday.  Daniel is aggressive, rugged, manly, and direct; he appeals to rationality in order to persuade people.  Eli, though, is more soft-spoken and insinuating; he appeals to Biblical revelation.  But both men, in their own ways, turn out to be equally duplicitous.

Finally a lethal accident during well drilling causes their relationship to erupts in open confrontation.  Plainview says Eli is distracting the men with his preaching and leading them into having careless accidents.  But Eli says the accident was due to the fact that he was not given the opportunity to publicly bless the new oil rig in front of his congregation.

Shortly thereafter there is an oil well blowout and gusher, the blasting force of which severely injures HW, causing him to permanently lose his hearing.  But in the event Plainview is of two minds – concern for HW and ecstatic joy over the new wealth that the gusher signifies. The filming of this blowout is spectacular and is one of the most memorable portions of the film.

But Plainview’s concern about HW seems to be more about how the boy’s deafness has interfered with his own life and pride.  He subsequently erupts in rage in front of Eli, slapping the young man around in an expression of his own frustration.

3.  Increasing Greed 
Now the relentlessly ambitious and increasingly impatient Plainview becomes even more greedy.  Rather than accepting a deal from Standard Oil to have his crude oil shipped out by railroad, he decides to have his own pipeline constructed for the distribution of his oil.  To do this, he needs to buy out the land rights between the Sunday ranch and the coast, from where the piped oil will be shipped out.  If he can succeed, he will become even wealthier.

At this point Plainview is approached by an out-or-work laborer named Henry, who purports to be his half-brother.  Plainview cautiously accepts Henry’s story and takes him on to help work on surveying for the new oil pipeline. Perhaps because of the presumed blood and family closeness he may feel for Henry, Plainview tells the man over shared whiskey things he wouldn’t tell other people.  During one such conversation he opens up to Henry about his true nature:
“I have a competition in me. . . . I want no one else to succeed.”
Later, though, Daniel becomes suspicious of Henry’s claims to be his half-brother. When Daniel finally exposes the man, he brutally kills him and buries the body in the woods.  The corpse is subsequently discovered by a neighboring rancher, and when Eli finds out about it, it gives him the opportunity to exact humiliating revenge on Plainview for the beating he had earlier suffered from the man.

Nevertheless, Plainview manages to get his pipeline built, thereby ensuring fabulous wealth to come.

4.  Finishing Off
The scene shifts to 1927 for the final half-hour of the film.  The enormously wealthy Plainview is seen living alone in his huge mansion and besotted with alcohol.  In this last act he has two final confrontations with two of the only people with whom he had had significant personal interactions – HW and Eli Sunday.   I will leave it to you to see what happens and will only comment that although both confrontations lead to narrative closure for the characters of HW and Eli Sunday, neither of these confrontations lead to any closure or self-understanding for Daniel Plainview.  His material worth is huge, but his self-worth is now abysmal. He remains what he always was: a man driven to succeed, but for what?  He, himself, doesn’t know.

There were three people in Daniel Plainview’s life who had some impact on his character, because they each in some way challenged him.  Daniel’s response in each case was hatred:
  • Henry “Plainview” fooled Daniel into believing him to be his brother.  Henry did not gain much from this trickery, but the normally savvy Daniel felt humiliated that he had been taken in.  His response was to shoot Henry in the head.
  • As a youth, HW had been used by Daniel as a prop, a tool.  When, as a grownup, HW expresses some reasonable and respectful independence, Daniel’s reaction is contempt. 
  • Eli Sunday had humiliated Daniel, which for Daniel was the ultimate crime. Daniel had already humiliated Eli once before, so on the final occasion, the inebriated Daniel couldn’t just play tit-for-tat. His pent-up resentment just had to go ballistic.
We can compare Daniel Plainview’s successful but empty career trajectory to that of Citizen Kane, but there is a difference.  Within Kane, as Roger Ebert remarked, there always lurked an inner “Rosebud” innocence [8].  With Plainview there was only selfish acquisitiveness and enduring resentment.  This points to a weakness in There Will Be Blood – Daniel Plainview’s relentless selfishness.  To him life is a sequence of competitions or games, if you will.  Each of those games is meaningless in itself and is only to be won or lost, with no larger goal in mind.  This is a character type we may sometimes encounter in life, but with which it is difficult to empathize.  And there is no countervailing or alternative character in this narrative that can attract our sympathies.  Eli Sunday is a contrasting, boyish personality, but he is just as much a phoney as Plainview.

Other less-than-ideal elements of the film include (a) the almost complete absence of women in this story, (b) the musical score, which is frequently intrusive (although the musical score does sometimes effectively back up the mood of certain situations), and (c)  the drawn-out, downbeat pace of the final act.

But There Will Be Blood has undeniable virtues, too.  One is the ground-level and gritty presentation of early-days oil drilling. The viewer is immersed in the raw, intense nature of those activities.  Another strong point is Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Plainview’s hard-driven personality, which contrasts well with Paul Dano’s more delicate presentation of Eli Sunday.  But perhaps the film’s strongest element is the relentless, moody tempo that persists throughout the tale.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “There Will Be Blood (2007): Paul Thomas Anderson's Epic Saga of Greed, Betrayal and Obsession”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (16 March 2012).   
  2. Murtaza Ali Khan, “All Time Best 100 Movies: Author's Pick 2017", A Potpourri of Vestiges, (11 January 2017).   
  3. Murtaza Ali Khan, “50 Best Hollywood Movies Of All Time That Are A Must Watch”, WittyFeed, (2017).  
  4. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  5. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, "The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far" , The New York Times. (9 June.2017). 
  6. Lynn Hirschberg, “The New Frontier’s Man”, The New York Times Magazine, (11 November 2007). 
  7. Philip Horne, “There Will Be Blood relations”, The Guardian, (29 July 2008).   
  8. Roger Ebert, “There Will Be Blood”, RogerEbert.com, (3 January 2008).  


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

What a brilliant analysis of a true cinematic gem of 21st century... many congratulations!

P.S. Many thanks for the citations :-)

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks, Murtaza. Your reviews are always stimulating and interesting.