“There Will Be Blood” is the story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an oil tycoon at the turn of the 20th century. Once a silver miner, Daniel strikes oil in a hauntingly quiet opening few minutes of the film. We see him establish himself as an “oilman” as he sells himself to townships across the western parts of the United States. Quickly, his reputation attracts a soft-spoken, yet self-assured Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who sells him information about the presence of oil bubbling up from the ground on his family’s ranch. When Daniel and his adopted son, H.W., travel up towards California to attempt to lay claim to the oil, Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Paul Dano) inserts himself as an adversarial player in Daniel’s exploits.
Unlike Daniel, Eli presents himself as a man of God. In fact, he is a self-proclaimed healer and minister of the town’s church, which, of course, is all a facade. Eli embodies the false shepherd trope, as his desire for influence and importance drives him to insert himself directly into the lives of his congregation and attempts to do the same to Daniel’s business. Eli does not respect the weakness of anyone and has learned to pray on the simplistic nature of those around him to get what he wants.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most capable filmmakers of the past 25 years. His films possess this uncanny and hard-to-define quality that allows them to endure. Maybe it is just as simple as the fact that he makes good movies that people enjoy. But that simplicity does not do works like “There Will Be Blood” enough justice.
As the director, Anderson expertly crafts a dichotomy of his players, as they each bear striking similarities despite major deviations to their outward approaches. He shows us a power struggle that exists between the two men as they both play an analogous game. Their relationship with the town is merely performative, as they promise that they can guide this simple frontier community through difficult times. Eli promises he can cleanse them of sin and bring them towards God, while Daniel says he can make them all wealthy while developing schools and roads. But it is all a show. But while Eli views Daniel as a cunning competitor, Daniel sees Eli as nothing but pestilence.
Daniel is primal, violent, and ruthless. Watching the film, you get the feeling that he might believe he is the only real person in the world. Sure, he interacts with others, but he never really processes the humanity of any of them beyond his own utilitarian vision for their presence and labor. The film shows this on many occasions, the most striking being when his oil rig explodes lights the town on fire and deafens H.W., Daniel sees this as a blessing because it proves the oil is abundant and his for the taking.
H.W., whom Daniel adopted when his father, one of his nameless workers, died in one of his rigs, serves as his tether to humanity. He cared for him to the extent that he was capable, which is merely a fraction of what true compassion is for normal people. Daniel claims he was merely a prop used to convince prospective associates that he was a moral family man with good intentions, which could be interpreted as a defense mechanism of a man who refuses to make a connection with another person. But even by Daniel’s standards, he loved H.W. more than he’s ever cared for another person. And while H.W. does not have any of Daniel in him genetically, he is still willing to burn down their cabin with stoic, unfeeling eyes that can only exist in a being that was raised by a true psychopath.
In my opinion, the greatest complexity is that Daniel’s nature does not elude his own notice. He is well aware of what he is, which makes his actions even more dubious. A self-described angry man, full of envy, he openly says “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” This contrasts with Eli, who has convinced himself that he is as righteous and important as he sells himself to his congregation. In most instances of real life, “evil” players often share the same outlook as Eli. It takes a truly deviant personality to knowingly be a bad person like Daniel knows himself to be.
These characters, as well-written, as they are, reach consummate status because of the performances of the actors who embody the respective roles. Daniel Day-Lewis is the most decorated leading actor of any era of filmmaking, some claiming he gave a great performance isn’t exactly moving the needle. As Plainview, Day-Lewis reaches an immersive level that few film actors have come close to matching. When he says he is an “oilman” it can be taken literally. He emulates a vocal pattern of a deeper pitch than natural until it almost secretes the very petroleum he drills for. His skin is always shimmering above a thin film of black sludge that makes it seem as though he has been bathing in the wells of black gold. The totality of the character created by the filmmakers, spearheaded by Day-Lewis’s ability to totally immerse himself, produced a character that has built the legs that have carried the legacy of this film for the past 15 years and will continue to do so into the future.
Dano has the unenvious task of acting against Day-Lewis; a challenge he rises to meet. He plays two characters: the twin Sunday brothers, Paul and Eli. Although they never appear on-screen together, and Paul’s time is significantly less than Eli’s, his characters’ impacts on the story are wholly unique and essential. Furthermore, Dano’s meek guise, youthful face, and high-pitched voice are a harsh contrast to the outwardly poisonous persona that his costar wields. It is Dano’s physicality that helps his characters hide their true selfish and manipulative natures. They are weapons used to disarm his prey and hide the fact that he is a predator.
The beauty of watching movies is that there is no correct way to enjoy them. And the best films provide enough substance that you can appreciate the final product from a multitude of perspectives. If you love cinema for the technical aspects, such as sound or cinematography, “There Will Be Blood” will not disappoint you. The musical score is often used sparingly, with large chunks of living noise chosen over musical compositions. In this case, the quiet sets the tone and is just as powerful as a melodic composition would be. But when the music is utilized, the tension of the story is greatly enhanced. With every moment, the sound you hear transports you to the western frontier. The crackling of the wood or the pumping of the oil rigs all captures the idea of what a western should feel like. Likewise, the film is shot in such a stimulating way. Beautiful well-lit landscape shots are contrasted by shadowy intimate conversations, where soft lighting gracefully bounces off of dirty faces. These aspects tell an essential part of the story without any words.
“There Will Be Blood” speaks to me because it explores some of the themes that pique my interest the most. Religious exceptionalism and exploitation in particular are a phenomenon that Paul Thomas Anderson puts a tremendous emphasis on, and the depth at which this idea is explored provides multiple angles in which to dissect the moral implications of the actions depicted. Do all sins deserve forgiveness? Does religiosity equate to moral supremacy? Does a rejection of structural religion really signify freedom or cunning? Does a single bad-faith actor delegitimize the entirety of the idealism they carry with them? Is there more power to be had by thriving within a corrupted system than to existing alone outside of it? Anderson creates a film that compels you to ask these of yourself.
Given enough time, I could compile a list of superlatives to award this movie but rambling of that nature might actually deter engagement from the deeper conversations a film like “There Will Be Blood” deserves to be a part of. The truth is that the combination of acting, cinematography, music, costumes, set design, and writing all complement each other perfectly. Each element on its own is worthy of praise, but the way they fit together is what makes a film reach the caliber that this one achieved.
I give “There Will Be Blood” a solid “A*”.
*I want to change my rating system up from numbers to letter grades. In hindsight, the numbers I awarded in my old reviews don’t fit since I don’t have a structural rubric for how I came up with the numbers. This new system feels more appropriate for the subjective nature of my reviews.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Runtime: 2 Hours and 38 Minutes