Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, and Ciarán Hinds
Runtime: 158 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
The promises of the Old West corrupt. One hundred years ago, Manifest Destiny signified the American persona. Potential boundless fortune justified heading out into empty country for harsh living, enduring black mines and dismal conditions, risking life and limb in hopes of “making it”. Western pictures traditionally dwell on such ideas, and the antitheses of them, showing us the depths to which men sink. Dramatized and indeed romanticized, Westerns put forward characters so desperate to succeed that all other ties are secondary; we see vanity progress past selfishness and reach extreme heights of narcissism; we see an all-consuming desire for wealth and victory…
No prospector or money-hungry tycoon ever depicted on film, dare I say not even Charles Foster Kane or Gordon Gekko, matches the abscess greed and maniacal, brilliant cruelty of Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil aficionado Daniel Plainview, the portrait on display in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
Barely more than a single word of dialogue is spoken for the first 20-minutes of the film. Plainview’s words mean nothing until he strikes it rich; without independence and wealth, he is nothing, much like America before the Revolution. Within that blissfully-shot near-silent opening, we hear but one word, uttered to punctuate Plainview’s desire: “No!”—spoken when his find is threatened by a broken leg. He whispers to himself about his treasure, though he should be screaming in pain. His humble beginnings show him as the sole hand cultivating a silver and gold mine in 1898. After years of successful mining, he strikes oil. Several more years later, Plainview describes himself as a family man, though his “child” is just another tool of the trade. He travels with his young son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) around Texas, managing his many oil fields and talking his way into new prospects. His wife, he says, died during childbirth.
Plainview speaks with determination and rationality, with a suspect façade of honesty. As viewers, we know better than to trust him; but for small towns that might be swept away by big oil companies, his business tact seems more human, more reasonable than the alternative. And when a young man named Paul Sunday (played by Paul Dano) offers Plainview knowledge to a massive potential lease in the untouched territory of Little Boston, his cut-and-dry negotiation veils the watering mouth of his inner creature. Within weeks, Plainview has ripened the proposed land, gloriously asserting himself as the progenitor of their once-dead town, now adorned with rich wells, irrigation, schools, and agriculture because of his oil project.
Eli Sunday (also Dano), a local evangelical priest who claims to be a healer and vessel for God, likewise names himself a savior. The Sunday family’s acreage is the first plot purchased by Plainview in Little Boston, in a deal negotiated with a promise of $5,000 towards Eli’s burgeoning church. Plainview is not a religious man, but his blatant Pyrrhonism is swallowed, however thinly. Keeping up the veneer, he endures much, even baptism into Eli’s church—the means to an end. When the front is no longer needed, we see the dog’s lips unfurl to reveal the wolf underneath. As Plainview says, “I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” This includes indulging the likes of Eli Sunday and his fervent sect of Christianity, making the community’s representative feel like he has won, if only so later on the faux victory can be used against the righteous servant.
Plainview’s eventual domination of Little Boston hinges on securing practical transport of the oil sea flowing under the town’s immeasurable acres. Building a pipeline one hundred miles to the ocean is his only option, and less expensive than shipping by way of railroad. Oil barons approach him with an alternate proposal: settle out for one million dollars so they can transport the oil via railroad, which they own. By this time Plainview is alone, his son sent away in lieu of an accident that left him deaf. The man making this proposal advises Plainview to take the money and look after his family. To the audacity that someone would advise him how to run his family, Daniel responds, “One night, I'm gonna come inside your house, wherever you're sleeping, and I'm gonna cut your throat.”
Though Daniel seems to use those around him for personal gain, I have no doubt Plainview’s family life was once important to him, enough so that its betrayal sent him down his narcissistic path. His reaction to his son’s accident, for example, is one of fatherly concern, but lesser than his desire to contain the burning oil spring that caused it. Before H.W. is sent away, a man named Henry (played by Kevin J. O'Connor) arrives and claims to be Daniel’s half-brother, the son of Daniel’s father and another woman. Daniel’s guard subsides with Henry, resulting in another betrayal that progresses Daniel’s isolationism and hatred of people beyond graphic threats.
Though Day-Lewis’ performance is the one everyone talks about, Paul Dano creates livid outbursts during Eli’s religious sermons, notable in the aforementioned baptism scene. Originally, Anderson hired another actor (whose name has been kept hush-hush) as Eli Sunday. Three weeks of shooting later, Anderson saw how Day-Lewis’ obsessive method acting intimidated the other actor, hindering the performance. Dano was hired as replacement and found himself inspired by Day-Lewis’ famous dedication. I am in awe of their numerous scenes together. Watch the brimming moment when Plainview knocks Eli into the mud, hysterically slapping him across the face like a cruel older brother teasing a weak sibling; no doubt Anderson’s characteristic sardonic humor is laced into the scene, showing Plainview as a type of untouchable schoolyard bully. Watch how both men seem to know that the other is a charlatan, working to get the upper hand; each has their moment of victory, both piercing, to reflect their respective monsters. But Plainview get his last.
There Will Be Blood is first and foremost a character study, not without its comparisons to Citizen Kane, told over the span of roughly thirty years to show Plainview’s cruelty. I think it is a mistake to label him mad. Perhaps deranged, a symptom peaking in the film's last scenes. But part of me wonders if his progressive derangement develops with his success, or is simply revealed because of it? Do his accomplishments induce his cruelty, or do they (finally) allow him to unleash and indulge something that was always there? Day-Lewis’ performance supports either interpretation, as he swells throughout the picture until fully absorbed to murderous extremes in the film’s final, frightening-yet-splendid scenes.
Accenting Day-Lewis’ haunting performance is the equally haunting score by Radiohead’s lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, of whom Anderson was a fan before filming began. It was reported that Greenwood initially had doubts about scoring the picture, but Anderson kept him on, convinced that the score would be as unique as his band’s sound. With momentum and atmospheric dread, Greenwood’s sharp cinematic score manifests with Bernard Herrmann-like energy, combined with ethereal, cutting sounds and pensive tones, always classicized. His music too seems to swell, making Anderson’s nearly three-hour picture move forward with an ever-booming pace.And what of Citizen Kane? I have read several reviews for There Will Be Blood where critics compare the two. I was staggered to read of disappointment, with some critics expecting a Rosebud-esque device to answer those unanswerable questions about Plainview. There Will Be Blood does not begin by asking: Who is Daniel Plainview? Not in the forthright way Citizen Kane presents its thesis. Expecting an answer would be missing the point. If hell-bent on answers, I would recommend that those critics searching for Plainview’s Rosebud rewatch how Anderson sketches out Plainview's cruel logic from the first scenes. When his worker dies in an accident, he sees fit to adopt the man's child, later to become H.W.. While Anderson makes it clear Plainview uses the child as a bargaining tool to generate sympathy and create an appealing “family man” image, we see tenderness and regret in his eyes at the boy's fate. He reacts with violent barking when his family dignity is threatened. He becomes particularly angered when forced to admit he abandoned his boy.
From the first 150-pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, Anderson adapted the beginning of his motion picture; everything afterwards is purely his (hence the title change and source credit as “inspired by”). Anderson has always worked heavily from influence, be it Robert Altman or Aimee Mann; his skill comes in creating inventive vision from his sources. Sinclair loosely based his Plainview on Edward Doheny, the turn-of-the-century precious metals prospector who dug himself into pitch, thus oil, eventually becoming head to PanAmerican Petroleum and Transport Company. Anderson enlarges Doheny’s more eccentric, Charles Foster Kane-isms; for example, the Xanadu-like ranch in California called Greystone Mansion, complete with an in-house bowling alley, is not unlike Plainview’s palace in the film’s last scenes.
Anderson’s influence also derives from the late writer-director John Huston, be it from his filmic work or off-screen persona. When approaching this Western, more specifically a movie about prospecting and greed, Anderson found Houston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre an invaluable resource. According to an interview with New York Times Magazine, during his script writing process, Anderson would put Treasure on in the background and even sleep with it on for inspiration. The 1948 film starred Humphrey Bogart, Walter Houston, and Tim Holt as desperate men whose sudden gold strike tears them apart with violent suspicion and paranoia. Huston’s film is an archetypal examination of greed’s insatiability.
For Day-Lewis, Huston’s off-screen personality offered a crooked posture and unique voice to further characterize. Huston’s low-toned, direct voice can indeed be heard in Day-Lewis’ performance, but not so that we feel a caricature or impersonation was developed. Plainview remains an invention comprised of obsession and hatred, of anger and spite for everyone around him. Watch Day-Lewis brood as he does—ever-working cogs within Plainview’s head, eyes, and on his brow are conveyed with electric urgency. Even in seemingly idle scenes, Day-Lewis is altogether active, a swell of energy fluctuating beneath the surface. The process is at once excruciating and exhilarating to behold (and as brilliant as Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot), as the established method actor moves beyond representation and into full-on embodiment of this colorful, hard, world-turned-upside-down character.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of today’s best new filmmakers. With a mere five pictures under his belt, each one stands worthy of applause. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love each contain a quirky cinematic artistry meshed with surprising dramatic capacity. There Will Be Blood is his best film, signaling an evolution in his work to expansive places of invention and genre experimentation.
2007 marked a welcomed (and quality-impressive) recovery of the long-dying Western, with the classicized action yarn 3:10 to Yuma, contemporary masterwork No Country for Old Men, historical epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Anderson’s profound character study. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Plainview represents an archetypal Western role by involving himself so compulsively with dominating the oil-abundant countryside, therefore pampering his grotesquely portrayed narcissism. And yet Plainview grows to become an anti-Western character and symbol of the more recent American identity, eventually seeking to avoid self-reflection, self-understanding, and self-domination; his search ends by blossoming into a post-industrial giant, then reaching contented complacency, with a monstrosity few movies have ever shown, or would have the guts to show.
In Plainview’s hands, Manifest Destiny becomes and individualist’s enterprise to isolate himself from everything. He is perhaps an extension of American Exceptionalism, indeed American Capitalism, as the method by which Plainview maintains his power and wealth and autonomy is oil. Plainview always gets away with it, makes his desired deal, deceives, and most importantly, wins. His unsympathetic uses of people coupled with his deceptive expression of godliness reflect a national hypocrisy existing in America today. This symbolism presents itself subtly, emerging upon consideration of Anderson’s whole picture, like reflecting on a painting from a distance. (This is the second time Day-Lewis has portrayed a vile personification of America; see Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York for the other.) And if Plainview is a representation of America, Eli Sunday captures religion, specifically Christian sects. There Will Be Blood renders both institutions, at their worst, into false-front ideologies for greed, money, and power.