Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the greatest working filmmakers, and many believe There Will Be Blood to be his masterpiece. I think this is an incredible movie but one which lends itself to the ‘masterpiece’ category. It’s an ambitious story about one man, told over the course of about thirty years. “Epic” films typically deal with grandiose ideas, are concerned with how we live as a whole and are set over the course of many years.
To be an epic, in other words, a film has to be about more than just one person and one goal. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the complete focus of the movie, but it’s not hard to see him as the personification of any number of things, whether capitalism, pure ego or America as a whole. He’s a miner who becomes an oil man, complete with a steep rise and subsequent fall, similar to what we see in other epics, whether Citizen Kane or Goodfellas.
Despite a runtime in excess of two and a half hours, There Will Be Blood is pretty sparse. We follow all this time in one man’s life, several huge turning points, but most of the time spent with him feels quiet, even calm. We stare at Plainview’s face to see how he takes in the events of the story. There Will Be Blood is less concerned with the plot points and more interested in the motivations and reactions of the main character.
The specific plot points are almost an afterthought. It’s never surprising that Plainview strikes gold, figuratively, that he rises to the top or that he then falls to the bottom. It’s a type of story ingrained in this genre of “classic” movies, at least as I see it. This rise and fall is an integral part of movies like Goodfellas, The Godfather and other movies concerned with wish fulfillment. In these stories, a character falls into a situation in which they are basically free to do whatever they please. In movies like this, we share the character’s euphoria at this new opportunity, but we’re not forced to deal with the consequences of it.
In Goodfellas, Henry Hill becomes a gangster, and he’s basically the king of the town. Yes, he helps facilitate horrible violence, but the film acknowledges the alluring aspects of this lifestyle. We all want money, respect, power, etc. and a part of each of us thinks we deserve it. That’s the ego.
In Goodfellas, the second half of the movie deals with the fallout because we’re being told that this way of life isn’t meant to be aspired to and it’s certainly not sustainable. The character must fall from grace in order to comment on that rise to the top.
What’s fascinating about There Will Be Blood is that we get the same rise and fall, and it feels just as expected as in those other movies, but Plainview’s rise to the top isn’t built on hyper-violence or any specific misdeeds. He’s not gaming the system, he’s just fighting through the mud to beat his competitors. Plainview’s rise is made to feel sinister even though it’s quite ordinary, that familiar tale of rags to riches we’ve heard about all our lives.
A couple people do die along the way, and Plainview’s fight to the top is anything but smooth. Still, he doesn’t break any rules. He just strong arms the people around him and acts in a way many people still do today. This kind of person, this kind of attitude, is all around us. Daniel Plainview is the part of us that wants nothing more than to succeed at all costs and is willing to do anything to get there.
This is the part of us that needs to survive, that needs to forge an identity and gets there might looking down on the world around us. This is pure conviction.
And yet this is only part of what makes someone human but it composes all of Plainview. The end of the film, concerning his rivalry with God, shows just how far he’s fallen and that this kind of pure ego will lead nowhere.
So There Will Be Blood is told over three distinct time periods, charting Plainview’s financial success, and that’s it. It’s a simple story, but the importance is the arc more than the specific details. It’s very open to interpretation, and that’s what makes it so incredible. It’s because of how isolated and mysterious Plainview is that we can attach so much meaning to his character.
We have little to go on with understanding this character outside of two relationships with other men in his life. The first is with his son, HW, an adopted son of a miner who died working on Plainview’s crew. Just a baby at the time, Plainview adopts HW, and it’s something that makes us empathize with him but which he will later claim was a PR ploy, of sorts, to put a more wholesome face to his enterprise when it came to buying up land.
The other relationship deals with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young pastor, the son of the family on whose land Plainview drills and makes most of his fortune. From the start, Plainview fights with Eli, his capitalist desires directly conflicting with what he perceives as Eli’s misplaced energy.
The need to undercut Eli is mostly unrelated to Plainview’s main goal. He just seems so irritated by this young boy, so threatened by what he represents. Early on Plainview will refuse to give in to Eli’s request to bless the oil rig. He continues to spar with him, almost as if he just needs someone to fight, before eventually giving in and letting Eli baptize him.
The film ends in 1927, 16 years after much of the story takes place. Plainview lives in a large mansion, wasting away with nothing to do. He’s a shell of himself, and a final conversation with his son shows the end of their relationship (as HW is going into business and is thus Daniel’s “competitor”).
Then Daniel receives a visit from Eli who at first appears to have the upper hand, remaining calm while Daniel wilts in front of him, but then Eli’s desperation wins out. He reveals that a series of bad bets have left him with nothing, and he hopes Daniel will buy some previously sought after land from him. Daniel agrees to help as long as Eli can proclaim that he is a false prophet… and he does. It’s only then that Daniel says he doesn’t need the land because by drilling the land surrounding the other land, he’s gotten all the oil he needs.
He then torments and finally kills Eli before saying, “I’m finished.”
Maybe all “epics” are both this grandiose and this simple. There Will Be Blood feels like a poem, just as A Ghost Story (which I consider somewhat of an epic) or just like… I don’t know, Citizen Kane again. Side note, when looking for a film to compare something to, I think you can always just toss out Citizen Kane.
Movies like these are sprawling, gigantic, and important but they’re also about one thing, for the most part. I’ve read that this is a film about the history of America and about capitalism in general. It’s a rags to riches story in which the hero is at first something of a… well a hero. For the first 14 minutes of the film we watch Daniel bust his ass, alone and cold and determined. He’s going to succeed no matter what, and that’s a quality we normally admire in movies. The film then goes on to show that, even when he gets what he wants, his character remains determined to succeed, squashing the competition around him. That part of your character doesn’t just go away.
Daniel will never not want to succeed, so even when he has everything he will have nothing. There Will Be Blood is a story about the nightmares of capitalism, ambition, greed, etc. and it’s centered on oil, a word with such negative connotation and something so symbolic of insatiable hunger. It fuels our worst impulses, and the idea that you can be anything you want, have anything you want, is nice on the surface, but when you get it, what then?
In terms of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, There Will Be Blood is a dramatic departure from his previous works. This is his fourth feature film, following Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. There is something much more grim about There Will Be Blood. It aspires to more than those other films do, and it feels more ambitious than flashy.
I’d argue that this is PTA’s first film which doesn’t try to be ‘fun.’ The camera doesn’t pan or dolly with the same lightning speed as it does in those earlier films. It’s less technically showy, but it’s a spectacle all the same.
Up Next: Black Panther (2018), The Producers (1967), Bowling for Columbine (2002)