Saturday, October 9, 2010

Critical Analysis: There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson's unforgettable masterpiece, There Will be Blood, is not just the best film of 2007, but also the best film currently released in the 21st Century, and has been widely regarded as one of the greatest film making achievements of all time. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil (1927), and set in the booming oil fields of the West Coast at the turn of the 20th Century, we follow Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), a rugged independent oil prospector who hits it rich with the strike of a lifetime in a town called Little Boston. But his fortunes come at a price, as he finds himself wallowing into madness in self-exile, sickened at, but never regretful of what he has become.


From the opening seconds it is evident we are in for something very special. The first fifteen minutes feature no dialogue at all, but a number of beautifully captured sequences that follow the rise of Plainview from endeavouring silver miner, utilising basic primitive tools and risking his life seeking samples in self-constructed chasms into the earth, to ambitious oil prospector and eventually into a greedy and ruthless business tyrant. We begin in 1898 with a shot of the mountains, and accompanied by Johnny Greenwood's haunting electronic score, we enter a mine where we discover Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is void of oxygen and is vigorously chiseling away.

When he discovers a large piece of silver, he climbs out of the hole rigging the site with dynamite. When attempting to pull the piece and his tools up the shaft, the dynamite explodes forcing him to lose it all within the rubble. When climbing down to retrieve his prize, he falls badly. With luck on his side he finds his first small fortune, exclaiming through the pain of his shattered leg, "there it is." He then pushes himself down the mountain over endless rocky terrain, favoring a severely shattered leg, to make his claim. We see the gritty determination of this man and the extreme lengths he is willing to go to become a success. With his interests turned to oil in the next sequence, set now in the year 1902, we see Plainview develop a more revolutionary method of removing oil from the derrick, but it ultimately comes at a price, as Plainview adopts the young son (who becomes his business partner, H.W) of one of his colleagues killed through a construction fault.

The first lines of dialogue, and ultimately the last ones in the film, are appropriately spoken by Plainview. He reveals to a group of indecisive landowners hoping to make money from the oil they possess beneath their land; "I am an oil man" and then proceeds to try and convince them that few speculators out there better at this job than he is. With many speculators often attempting to position themselves between the drillers and the landowners, he possesses the power to speculate the worth of a site and draw up the contract, but also work alongside his drilling connections to ensure the job is completed efficiently under his personal watch. Hiring him would disable the requirement of expensive independent contractors. He is a steely businessman, who we know withholds critical information about the true value of the oil, seeking to take advantage of naive and docile land owners, who are simply grateful for even a small share. His hatred of people is obvious and no one in the film is endowed with such greed as him. He builds a reputation following successful drilling at various sites throughout the state of California.


One evening he is approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who sells information directing him to the town of Little Boston, where the oil-rich land can be bought cheaply. Daniel and H.W (Dillon Freasier) inspect the property and set up camp, posing as quail hunters. Establishing that oil is very plentiful, Daniel extends an offer to Able Sunday and his devout Christian family to purchase their land, and the surrounding properties as well. Walking all over the landowner, Daniel meets his match through headstrong local priest, Eli Sunday (Dano again), who isn't happy with the contract declaring that the land possesses immense value through it's oil and demands that Daniel present $5,000 to fund his church and congregation. Daniel is clearly aggravated, but he reluctantly agrees, and construction begins.

His discovery is tainted by a pair of serious accidents; the first is an on-site mistake that results in the death of one of the workers, and the second a large gas explosion within the derrick that deafens H.W. Visually, this is the most spectacular sequence. As the pressure of the gas breaks apart the construction, oil gushes through the opening and begins to rain down on the workers as they struggle to release the supports and rescue H.W. Catching alight, it turns into an enormous fiery red furnace, with smoke billowing into the air, completely blackening the sky surrounding Little Boston. Daniel's discovery has reached a new level.

One day a visitor (Kevin J. O Connor) appears at Daniel's house, claiming to be Daniel's half brother, Henry. He has the appropriate identification so Daniel takes him in, and includes him in his business. Representatives of standard oil try to buy out Daniel's interests in Little Boston, but Daniel rejects their deal, wishing to strike a deal with Union Oil and build a pipeline to California coast. During their mission to plot the path of the pipeline, Daniel grows suspicious of Henry's story, who finally reveals that he had done time with the real Henry in prison, but he had died of tuberculosis. He murders and buries the impostor.


The film concludes years later (now in 1927) and we find an extremely wealthy Daniel, now living in self-exile. He is visited by H.W, who expresses his wishes for his father to dismantle their partnership so he can pursue his own interests in Mexico. Daniel is disgusted, and mocks his son's deafness and reveals his adopted origins. Now a recluse and an alcoholic, he has a second visitor an unspecified time later, Eli Sunday. Eli is now a radio host, but soon reveals that he is desperate for money. He comes to Daniel with an offer to broker the Bandy tract, the only land in Little Boston that Daniel never owned. Daniel agrees, but only if Eli will reveal himself to be a 'false prophet'. After much vigorous berating, Eli confesses. Daniel explains that the has already drained that land through his surrounding wells, sending Eli into a state of shock. Daniel, in a fit of rage, chases Eli around his bowling alley and beats him to death with one of the pins. We see blood seep from Eli's battered skull, as an exhausted Daniel sits down and comically says to his butler, "I'm finished." This final sequence is truly outstanding.

With a resume that includes the incredible trio of Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and Punch-drunk Love (2002), it was a long five years before Paul Thomas Anderson released There will be Blood. He has now established himself as one of, if not the best, working director in Hollywood. With a style comparable to an obscure collaboration of techniques utilized by Kubrick, Welles and Griffith, Anderson has proven to be a chameleon. His films really defy genre, but are all wildly different from one another. With his most original film to date, Anderson has attempted to create an epic masterpiece and has gloriously succeeded. While the central narrative is quite contained to Plainview's individual downward spiral, the film itself is epic in it's scope.

The derrick constructed in Little Boston is Plainview's ivory tower, sitting isolated above his worker's tents, it is a monstrosity that completely empowers the rest of the town. Dominating the former spectacle of the church, it quickly becomes the town's icon, the bearer of wealth, the promised bringer of agriculture, employment and education, and prompts Eli to start renovations on his church to compete with Plainview's powerful position. Able Sunday, when commenting on the arrival of Plainview, believes he was sent by the good lord to save them. Plainview initially promised to turn Little Boston into a thriving empire and all the luxuries the townsfolk have long prayed for.


For Little Boston, Plainview must have, at first, seemed like a God. Plainview is certainly not otherworldly, he is merely a mortal, but an incredibly evil one. Having only used his adopted son H.W as a cute pawn to draw in contracts, as soon as his son is severely deafened by a gas explosion at the derrick and deemed useless, Daniel sends him to the care of somebody else. As Eli clearly made everyone aware during his taunting of Daniel during his baptism, he heartlessly abandoned his child on the train. But, on repeated viewings, it is evident that he abandons him long before then. Following the gas leak, with Daniel covered in oil and silhouetted against the raging fire, he presides over his burning and billowing creation, and unmistakeably resembles the Devil. Greed is spread across his face, and not even the feared well-being of his son is enough to challenge his dream. With his life's fortune within his grasp ("there's a whole ocean of oil beneath our feet"), Daniel abandons his humanity in front of the furnace, and descends as a result into a tormented life of alcoholism, madness and wrath.

So if Daniel is a metaphor for the Devil, Eli must be representative of God right? Eli's thriving congregation is also at the mercy of false ideals, and Daniel quickly establishes that Eli is as much of a conman as he is. Convincing his congregation that he possesses healing powers bestowed upon him by God, Eli is a revelation to the townsfolk. But Daniel, a man of no faith, is obviously not convinced and challenges Eli a number of times, culminating in Eli's failure to cure his son's deafness. Daniel assaults Eli and drags him into the mud, childishly slapping him around. But Eli's deceit of his friends at the hands of his self-appointed religious power masks another evil; his attempt to cash in on Daniel's oil successes. The promises of capitalism spreads to even the most devout and honest. But it is certainly debatable whether Plainview is in fact worse than his hypocritical moral reflection. Plainview remains honest, despite being a conman and a murderer. Eli is revealed as a fraud by the conclusion, and he pays for his pretensions with his own blood.

The film challenges the viewer to establish the greater evil of America's corporate identity, the stench of greed and Capitalism, or the sinister veil of Evangelicalism. When Plainview agrees to help the community by donating $5,000 dollars to Eli's Church of the Third Revelation, this deal forever stands between them, with Plainview flat out refusing to fund a congregation he so strongly rejects. There Will be Blood chronicles the rivalry between these two men for the “faith” of the community and demonstrates how each is willing to play dirty to get what they want. A much smarter man, Daniel's ruthlessness ultimately comes out victorious.


This can be analyzed on a much larger scale also. If you think of all the destructive world conflicts during the 20th Century, the loss of blood through battle, almost all of them were the result of religious difference or a thirst for wealth and power. We see here that Anderson's film, set at the dawn of the 20th Century, establishes that this rivalry will influence America's corporate identity for years to come. Set during the period of the oil boom, confused and naive landowners could really be told anything about the wealth this boom bestowed upon them. Plainview, who personifies the ruthlessness and delirium at the heart of the American Dream, was at the forefront to take advantage of it all.

In the slick montage tracing Daniel and Henry's initial plotting of the pipeline to the sea, they travel across some stunning landscape, which will all too soon to be partly destroyed by Plainview's construction, with it's blood drained (in the form of oil) and it's soul massacred. Throughout the film we often see oil 'gushing' uncontrollably from the derrick, as blood would from a cut artery. Plainview is raping the land, draining it of it's life. While these large themes are touched on, at times effortlessly through the cinematography, the film is more interested in the honest examination of the darkest reaches of human nature; namely the self-made man who likes and answers to no one, has a vision for the future and will let no one stand in the way of him reaching his goal. Daniel reveals to Henry, in one of the few revelatory moments of his character, that he has a competition in him and a sadistic desire for no-one else to succeed. In a commentary statement that captures contemporary America in it's rawest most tragic state, Daniel claims to "hate most people." Clearly not eliminating himself from fault, he "sees the worst in people."

Daniel Day-Lewis' Academy Award winning performance is the greatest one I have witnessed in my cinema experience. He lives and breathes this menacing character and his portrayal, even down to the most intricate details, is completely mesmerizing. Daniel Plainview immediately becomes one of cinemas most memorable villains. Paul Dano squeezes all all he can from Eli Sunday and his performance is also astonishing. Every feature of this film is perfect; Anderson's script is so dense and his direction adorned with such unbridled experiment-ism that it feels like an immediate classic from the beginning.

Robert Elswit's beautiful cinematography was also honored by the Academy, while Johny Greenwood's score stretched the boundaries of what was capable for a film score. It is impeccable. Critics have drawn comparisons to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and this is not unjustified. Like Charles Foster Kane, we are exposed to the journey of an ambitious man transformed from his humble beginnings into a greedy, self-centred tyrant, before retiring a self-exiled wreck. But Anderson's film is also one of the most important American frontier films ever released. A true auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson's unforgettable masterpiece is a flawless collaboration of perfectly constructed mise en scene and near-unfathomable madness.

My Rating: 5 STARS (A+)

11 comments:

  1. I saw the banner and had to check out if you'd written a review. I adore both There Will Be Blood (it's in my top 10) and PT Anderson's other films. Awesome read!

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  2. Thanks for reading and for the comment. It's in my Top 10 too. I love this film!

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  3. For me, this is definitely one of the best films of the last decade. If I have the energy and time, I might write an essay about the film in my Favorite Film Series.

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  4. Oh for sure. An American masterpiece. I want to delve into it again and write more. It't that sort of thought-provoking film. I look forward to reading your take!

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  5. I think this falls well short of a masterpiece. Where's the backstory that explains why this character is a murderous madman? I can't really infer anything from the story because it's not there. Lewis does a good job impersonating the late John Huston (director of The Maltese Falcon), but why? Why does he have this mistrust and hatred for everyone? Why why why.

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    1. It just occurred to me that following the death of a working man, Eli tries to tell Daniel that had he let Eli bless the well nothing as bad as that would have happened; only, shortly after Daniel's son loses his hearing as a result of a pressure wave, Eli presents himself to Daniel and requests a bonus... Talk about bad timing.

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  6. I disagree that Daniel Plainview or what he represents is a villian in the modern west. The real villian is obviously Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Man. Daniel Plainview was a pioneer who understood death was random and adopted the child of a worker who died only meters from himself in the well. The same child he hugged compasionately when exposed to the well explosion. The man's compassion belies some believe considering the amount of times he was only meters from death himself. Of course such incidents create strong - focused pioneering men. Near death experiences do that to people, JFK in WW2 for example. Also, the first scene plays a haunting, eerie caustic track, as if something ominous is about to occur. The land itself, rocky, desolate and large - imposing itself on the viewer. The land itself is literally being attacked, challenged with the well being dug, Obvisoulsy a powerful figure is required for such a challenge. Finally, I disagree with the argument that Plainview disregarded his son's welfare post explosion. In all things Plainview is always focused on the task at hand whether it was watching his son set up a tent, teaching him about volcanic oil or shooting for quail or blasting a sprouting well. I would rather argue that he was immune or desensitized to OHS incidents when he fell down the well and saw his colleague's adopted son Father head crushed in only two meters from himself.

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  7. Thanks for the analysis. I favor a more psychoanalytic look at Plainview's character. We cannot ignore the important cues from Lewis's acting. The boy is the only one that receives genuine affection from him. We also see Plainview show real remorse when leaving the child on the train. We see how the guilt eats him alive from within with his explosive reaction to what he perceives as being told how to raise his family. We know at this point that Plainview is barely holding it together. Plainview's original addiction seems to have been ambition and the rewards thereof. He was still human and charming enough when he arrived in Little Boston. He constructed schools, maintained his politeness at all times, and even seemed reasonably well balanced and happy. But, by the time he had discovered the "ocean of oil", he had become totally intoxicated and lost in his own ambition. This was shown in the hellfire symbolism of the burning well and in Plainview's compartmentalised reply to his associates' inquiry about whether or not his son was OK, "No, he is not."...devoid of any emotion. We also saw his remorse when Sunday forced him to repeat that he abandoned is son over and over again during his baptism. His son was the only one who allowed Daniel to keep some faith in humanity. When he was deafened, the happiness that the boy brought vanished. Daniel did not know how to handle and process the pain of his boy having been so grievously injured. He may have been angry at god and this may have served to push him further into isolation and hate other people. In one way, Daniel sent the boy away. But in another way, he was taken from him by misfortune. After the boy went off, he had another opportunity to see the good in humanity with the return of his "brother". We saw Daniel's eagerness to make ties with a family member and we can make speculations about his possible lack of family ties back home. The crushing blow for Daniel came when he realised that he had opened up and been duped yet again. We see Daniel cry after this and then totally immerse himself in whiskey. From that scene on, he was a raging alcoholic. He had lost all faith in humanity. He could never again let his guard down, lest he be taken advantage of by others. I think Eli represents the very part of Daniel's own self that he is trying so hard to suppress. Eli is the oppositie of Daniel in many ways. He is a parasite rather than a do-it-yourselfer. He lets himself be bullied and cannot put up a fight. He cries about his plight and asks for help. He relies on illusions to gather support and power. Daniel, on the other hand, relies on himself and results to get support and power. He brutally suppresses his more human emotions of love and remorse for his child, just as he bullies Eli into submission. In the end, he finally kills Eli, the crying child, after he has completely destroyed his own relationship with his son and his body through rampant alcoholism. In the end, he had finally destroyed himself. To be sure, the son could be truly grateful to be free of the yoke of his father's personality.

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    1. This analogy from Justin Darcy is SPOT ON for me. I could not have expressed my sentiment of Daniel better.

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    2. Justin, excellent review, you should have your own column. Your analysis shows a deep understanding of cinema and writing. Really appreciate the dep analysis, you summed up most of what I was thinking about the film. The film was all about Daniel, not at all about "bleeding the land", that's a ridiculous summation of the film. Great work Justin, I'll search for more of your reviews in the future.

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  8. Great review thanks. Can you comment on whether Eli's brother, Paul, is real versus another false idea created by Eli for his selfish purpose, and if Paul is made up, can you address how his non-existence fits into your overall Psycho-analytical approach to the movie?

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