[Originally posted on January 14, 2008 at AmericanFreethought.com.]
One of the most talked-about movies of 2007 is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Anderson has a reputation as a bold filmmaker unafraid to tackle strange and disturbing subjects: Boogie Nights, with its 70s porno backdrop; Magnolia, a mesmerizing three-hour-long epic in which half a dozen ill-fated characters meet their respective Waterloos; and Punch-Drunk Love, while probably the least of Anderson’s films, stars Adam Sandler in an unexpected non-comedy role. An eclectic body of work, to be sure; still, it would have been interesting to see how many critics would have picked There Will Be Blood as a P.T. Anderson flick without the man’s name appearing in the credits.
[Spoilers ahead—you’ve been warned!]
Spanning the first quarter of the 20th century (and loosely based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!), There Will Be Blood is the story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a gold-and-silver prospector who eventually scratches his way into the oil business. With his adopted son H.W. (newcomer Dillon Freasier) in tow, Plainview plays a game of speculator’s chess across the California landscape, using guile and sheer willpower to outmaneuver the more established petroleum companies in buying and leasing promising tracts from indigent farmers. Plainview isn’t dishonest per se, but he isn’t above the occasional lie of omission, or using H.W. to charm the locals into seeing him as a family man. (Ironically, Plainview is a family man, albeit a flawed and reluctant one. Although he’s a hard-bitten misanthrope, it’s clear he loves H.W. and goes to great pains in grooming the ten-year-old as his business-partner-to-be. In a minor subplot, he goes out of his way to protect a young girl whose father reportedly beats her if she refuses to pray.)
Plainview meets his match in a young evangelical minister named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who has established the cult-like Church of the Third Revelation in the California wilderness. Eli is a showman of the pre-televangelist era, staging elaborate services and convincing the locals that he can heal ailments with the laying-on of hands. Eli also bears an uncanny resemblance to his briefly-seen brother Paul, who collects a finder’s fee from Plainview and promptly disappears. It’s unclear if Eli and Paul are twins (they never appear on screen together), or if “Paul” was just a trick used by Eli to steer Plainview and his promise of riches to the tiny community of Little Boston. In any case, Plainview immediately sees through Eli’s snake-oil charlatanism and tries to undermine the baby-faced preacher’s sway over his flock, insomuch as it interferes with his drilling operations. The bad blood thus created sets the two men on a collision course, the end result of which is a confrontation of near-biblical proportions.
There’s a lot more going on in There Will Be Blood than the story of a greedy oil tycoon going head-to-head with a pious hypocrite. There is some obvious symbolism when it comes to names: “Plainview” the plain-spoken, pragmatic, and cynical businessman versus “Sunday” the religious fraud; the Secular versus the Sacred, with neither truly living up to their ideals.
Eli Sunday is unambiguously self-serving; still, it’s hard to say he deserves his ultimate fate. He is a liar and a leech on those unlikely to know better. He desires to make himself the wolfly shepherd over an unsuspecting flock. And he barely hesitates to debase himself, to reject his supposed principles, if it suits his material well-being. And for that he pays dearly.
Plainview is considerably more complex. He admits forthrightly, about halfway through the film: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” Yet we never see what originally drove Plainview to become what he is. We meet him in media res; already a prospector of implacable will, even before there’s any glimmer that he might succeed. His greatest failing is the inability to forgive, to show mercy, to drop his guard and let another human being see what makes him tick. He drops his guard only once in the film, while getting “liquored up” with a long-lost half-brother (Kevin J. O’Connor).
Plainview is not just a misanthrope—he’s also a murderer; not once, but twice. The first is a murder committed, seemingly, to pre-empt a betrayal (although Plainview himself commits a betrayal, even that has a slim justification behind it). His second murder is strictly gratuitous, although his role could be seen as fate giving a suitable comeuppance to the victim for a lifetime of dissemblance.
Although he never says as much, it’s clear that Plainview would describe himself as an atheist. As his name indicates, he has just that—a “plain view” of the world. But he fails to find any redeeming qualities in his worldly existence. For him, there is no pleasure worth pursuing; there is only escape from pain. His interactions with Eli Sunday are not something of which any self-respecting atheist would approve (although some might derive secret delight in the bitch-slapping he doles out to Sunday during the course the film).
A word on the film’s production values: Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered a masterpiece. The direction, the cinematography (particularly the use of landscape), the theatrical dialogue, and the unsettling score by Jonny Greenwood—all come together to deliver a hammer-blow of epic scale. Daniel Day-Lewis is hypnotic and unforgettable, channeling the late, great John Huston in a role that is sure to win him an Oscar. Paul Dano (best known as the Nietzschean brother in the hit indy comedy Little Miss Sunshine) shows he has the acting chops to go toe-to-toe with the best of them. The confrontational scenes between Day-Lewis’s Plainview and Dano’s Sunday are simultaneously hilarious and shocking.
I put high stock in movies that stimulate conversation, and with that in mind I highly recommend this film. The audience might suffer ten seconds of stunned silence as the credits begin to roll, but they’ll talk about it for hours, if not days. And they’ll never forget it.