A story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business.
‘There Will Be Blood’ is an epic tale of an oil prospector at the turn of the 20th century, centred on Daniel Plainview, one of the most ruthless creations in cinematic history. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film takes a view on the most American of themes, such as the pursuit of the American dream and the quest for riches at the turn of the century, where man will stop at nothing for power and money. The opening 15 minutes of the film are essentially wordless, but it continues to be one of the most intense opening sequences to any film, showing Plainview and several others on the dangerous hunt for oil, with the ominous nature of the barely capable equipment brought to the forefront of our minds by Jonny Greenwood’s relentlessly unsettling score. This is a dangerous time, and it’s full of dangerous men.
At the time of its release in 2007, it went up against a film of similar themes of greed, violence and the nature of the American dream in ‘No Country for Old Men’, which also depicted a ruthless force of evil in Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. Where Chigurh felt almost supernatural, Daniel Plainview feels all too real as a depiction of the ugliest excesses of capitalism, and he is brought to life superbly by a typically powerful display from Daniel Day-Lewis. Daniel Day Lewis’s performance is incredibly intense and most of the time he keeps a lid on the more cartoonish aspects of the character, particularly as his character becomes more and more unhinged as his desperation comes to the fore. The true nature of Plainview is shown through his relationships with two young men; his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a preacher on the ranch belonging to a family who Plainview takes advantage off for the oil hidden under their property. Both young actors put in remarkable performances to match Day-Lewis on the screen.
Paul Dano in particular is terrific, acting as an interesting counterpoint to Plainview and his worldview. His Eli Sunday is a deeply religious man who can see through Plainview from the outset, and Plainview constantly tries to undermine his influence in the community he has steamrollered through in the pursuit of oil and power. In his only film role to date, Dillon Freasier is quiet and understated, and the relationship between he and his adopted father helps to show where Plainview’s priorities lie, with his love and care only going so far as it doesn’t interfere with his business interests. Throughout the film, we rarely see Plainview interacting with a female, or with anyone that doesn’t help to further his interests, and whilst this sheer bloody mindedness could have made the character one dimensional, Anderson’s direction and Day-Lewis’s performance build this into an unstoppable momentum that fully invests the audience in watching each and every one of his despicable moves.
SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE ENDING
Several years after first seeing the film, I’m still not sure what to think about the ending. It’s undoubtedly a powerful sequence that takes Eli and Daniel’s relationship to a brutally appropriate endpoint, but at the same time it’s rashness serves to undermine the back and forth of their encounters up to this point. ‘There Will Be Blood’ could never be said to be a subtle film, and a lot of the sheer enjoyment comes from the uncurbed excess and greed that comes from the performances and the script, but this is the one part where it feels like Anderson may have pushed things a little past the natural endpoint.
Overall, ‘There Will Be Blood’ is an outstanding film with terrific performances, with all of the technical accomplishments from Jonny Greenwood’s ominous score to Robert Elswit’s cinematography enhancing Anderson’s superb script. I’m not sure it’s quite a masterpiece, but it’s certainly a film I’ll enjoy revisiting in the future and it’s certainly one of Anderson’s best.
‘The Master’ will conclude our Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective, and it’ll hopefully not take us as long to get round to it as we did with this!
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard, Kevin J. O’Connor and Ciaran Hinds