Men die violently in There Will Be Blood (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature film. They are impaled by the tools of the oil trade in late 19th and early 20thcentury America. And they are murdered. When they die, their blood mixes with the oil they extract from the earth for Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the gangly, monomaniacal speculator at the center of Anderson’s epic, epochal film. A combination of Captain Ahab and Elmer Gantry, Plainview is a pioneer and a voracious bringer, an evangelist full of promises for the hardscrabble farmers whose land he buys from under their feet. Their land won’t support enough wheat for a loaf of bread, but oceans of oil underground make them forget that. Plainview is an oilman. He is also the miasma that brings death, heartbreak or ruin to everyone he touches. Life around him flourishes briefly then is blown apart, like the runaway oil fires his men extinguish with blind fear masked as courage and wheelbarrows full of dynamite.
Based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood is grand and minutely detailed by turns, much like Plainview. The film mirrors the man. “I hate most people,” he says while talking to a man who claims to be his brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.” Plainview shares almost nothing about his life with Henry or anyone else. His inner self is radioactive. Even H.W. (Dylan Freasier), the boy Plainview raises after his father dies in an accident at one of Plainview’s wells, can’t escape Plainview’s toxicity: after H.W. loses his hearing in a well explosion, Plainview abandons him on a train, which will take H.W. to a special school for the deaf. The oilman has no room in his design for the boy who stood mute at Plainview’s side as he met with landowners desperate to hear his promises of hope and schools and bread.
Plainview meets his match in Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher as driven as Plainview and whose eyes share Plainview’s vicious gleam of intensity. Sunday builds a church on the land Plainview buys from Eli’s father and as his congregation grows, he draws men away from Plainview’s well. Sparks that light a deep pit where Plainview struggles as a young silver miner in the film’s opening frames foreshadow the fractured relationship that forms quickly but uneasily between Plainview and Sunday. They are mongoose and cobra.
Director of photography Robert Elswit runs a school for young cinematographers in There Will Be Blood. From intimate close-ups that capture Plainview’s oil-soaked skin and hair – not to mention the pain and inner turmoil that shape Day-Lewis’s performance – to beautiful panoramic vistas that suggest the great films of John Ford’s American West, Elswit’s painterly images mirror the mythical and biblical engines that drive the film. Grand in theme yet simple in execution, like the script itself, Elswit’s images fit, glove-like, the mood, tone and atmosphere demanded by Plainview’s onslaughts of emotion. Canted angles signal a loss of control. Quiet, sharp articulation signals a rarer moment of something like tenderness, as when Plainview cradles the infant H.W. soothingly soon after the death of the boy’s father. The oilman has few moments like this. He cares deeply about Sunday’s younger daughter Mary, whom H.W. tells Plainview is beaten by her father when she doesn’t pray. One lovely scene captures the growing bond between H.W. and Mary, who will later wed: she carefully mimics H.W.’s movements as he learns sign language from his patient teacher.
When the first oil well with any meaning behind it begins running, we hear the bright, celebratory music of the finale of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Until then, we’ve heard only the aching strains of Jonny Greenwood’s score for chamber ensembles and orchestra, accompanying, flitting, rising, insinuating, fading, disappearing. Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead, who has scored Anderson’s The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014) has done more than write a musical accompaniment to Anderson’s tale of obsession. He has created a sonic equivalent to the film’s startling imagery and spare dialogue. He has given music new meaning in cinema. It is non-diegetic music, of course, but it redefines the term. This is music that doesn’t just amplify what we see. It explains and reinforces – reveals – by becoming a sonic window into the soul of Plainview and his thoughts and obsessions. It helps the viewer understand the characters, their actions, their inner workings. It is the soundtrack to the Bible and Greek mythology. And it refines feeling and meaning from what we see onscreen.
When H.W. is thrown violently by the well explosion, primal sounds of woodblocks, bows on instrument necks, drums and other percussive instruments beat a throbbing iambic rhythm as he tells Plainview, “I can’t hear my voice.” A few minutes later Plainview dances on the ocean of oil under their feet. “No one can get at it except for me.” While Plainview contemplates his new source of wealth, his friend Fletcher (Ciarin Hinds) asks about H.W. and checks on him. Greenwood’s rhythmic cacophony fades with Plainview’s interest in his “son.” Silences are as revealing as dialogue, as revelatory as Greenwood’s minimalist chords that bend and throb with the weight of emotion. Skittering strings dance like raw nerves, their pizzicato musings dissecting what Elswit’s camera cannot. His minor-key excursions into the heart of the orchestra parallel Anderson’s into the heart of his characters.
The battle between Plainview and Eli endures to the final scene, their mutual hatred stronger and thicker than the dark blood that oozes from Eli’s head after yet another act of violence. Like Greenwood’s score, violence becomes another character in There Will Be Blood. Violence is not just a trope or a theme, to be studied by students or scholars. Violence is part of Daniel Plainview’s world. It lives and breeds inside him, poisoning his soul. The title promises that as part of the birth of the American love affair with oil, blood will be spilled. No birth can be successful otherwise.
There Will Be Blood (2007 USA 158 minutes)
Prod Co: Paramount Vintage, Miramax and Ghoulardi Film Company Prod: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson Phot: Robert Elswit Ed: Dylan Tichenor Art Dir: David Crank Mus: Jonny Greenwood
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Dylan Freasier, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds