Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)

Academy Award wins: Best Cinematography, Best Actor (Daniel Day Lewis)
Notable Festivals: Berlinale

The year 2007 was a very special year in cinema for me. On a personal level, it marked the tenth anniversary of my own first short films, an occasion I celebrated with a limited engagement of a feature I co-directed at a local Portland arthouse theatre. On a wider scale, 2007 saw the release of three of my favorite films of all time (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, ZODIAC, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), by three of my favorite directors (The Coen Brothers, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson respectively). Now that we’re some years removed, these three films are generally considered to be among the very best films of that decade. Watching these films was a religious experience for me; I could only imagine that this was what it must’ve felt like to take in the first screenings of films from the French New Wave of the 60’s or the American crime dramas of the 70’s.

It was the height of a very special time in cinema, where visionary auteurs found homes for their passion projects in specialty studio shingles like Focus Features or Fox Searchlight. The aforementioned three films represented the apex of this movement, and were the culmination of an unsustainable model that would cause the whole house of cards to come toppling down only a year later (an implosion I would unwittingly experience firsthand during my internship at Warner Independent Pictures). Out of these three pictures, THERE WILL BE BLOOD cut through to affect me on the most fundamental level. My initial impression of the film was that it was a staggering achievement—I walked away convinced I had seen the modern equivalent of CITIZEN KANE (1941), and that a new contender for “best film of all time” had just been christened. Time has softened my hyperbole, but my conviction remains—THERE WILL BE BLOOD will stand the test of time as one of the greatest films ever made.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s conception was something of an unexpected lark. After the release of 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, director Paul Thomas Anderson was out of the public eye for five years, undergoing lots of personal and artistic growth, building his family, and finding inspiration from unlikely places as fan anticipation for his next project grew to a fever pitch. While experiencing a bout of homesickness during a trip to London, Anderson purchased a copy of Upton Sinclar’s novel “Oil!”, mainly because he liked the image of California oil fields on its cover. Transfixed by the novel’s cinematic potential, he began pulling further inspiration from the biography of real-life California oil tycoon Edward Doheny and John Huston’s classic 1948 film THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (which he watched nightly). He gave his project the lurid title THERE WILL BE BLOOD, constructing it as his own version of the great American epic—a grand statement on capitalism and the perversion of all-consuming ambition, embodied by one of the most original and compelling antiheroes in cinematic history.

In turn of the century Bakersfield, California, ruthless oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in a career-defining, Oscar-winning performance) is very rapidly accumulating wealth from his growing oil enterprise. Along with his adopted son HW Plainview and business partner Fletcher (Ciaran Hinds), Plainview negotiates the purchase of the Sunday Family homestead, located in the barren deserts of a village called Little Boston. Unbeknownst to the Sundays, the land has an ocean of oil underneath it, just waiting to be drilled by Plainview and his cohorts. His supremely profitable enterprise brings unprecedented growth and prosperity to the inhabitants of Little Boston, turning it into an overnight boomtown. However, success has its dark side, which Plainview learns as he grapples with Sunday’s son, Eli (Paul Dano)—an aspiring evangelical preacher who extorts Plainview into building a church for him and his flock. The two viciously lock horns in a battle that pits capitalism against theocracy for the soul of Little Boston. Anderson has painted in THERE WILL BE BLOOD a dark portrait of greed, corruption and power that forces us to confront the ugliest aspects of our American ideals.

Day-Lewis’s portrayal of blackhearted Daniel Plainview possesses shades of Bill The Butcher from Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), only more intelligent and sophisticated in both temperament and taste. He simply looms larger than life, and in the process becomes a legendary screen villains on par with Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula or Heath Ledger’s Joker. As Plainview’s ideological foil Eli Sunday, Dano could have very easily been overshadowed by his co-star’s scene-shredding gravitas. Fortunately, Dano more than holds his own with an amazing performance as a vain, manipulative so-called Man of God whose intentions are just as slimy as the “devil” he endeavors to destroy. THERE WILL BE BLOOD focuses mainly on the duel between these two unconventional titans, thus eliminating the need for Anderson to recruit any of the members of his personal acting company. Working with a suite of fresh new faces, Anderson’s focus is invigorated.

Despite the changing of the guard in front of the camera, Anderson still relies on most of his usual technical collaborators: producers Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar, editor Dylan Tichenor, and cinematographer Robert Elswit who won the second of the film’s two Oscars for his stunning work. Anderson’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio is perfectly suited to capture the dusty, earth-toned vistas and sweeping, confident camera moves. While Anderson’s visual language doesn’t change physically, the dynamic of its intentions has. Elaborate camera moves project a grand scale that evokes the work of John Ford and John Huston and lends the picture an overall air of myth. The grandeur is almost overwhelming, and would risk coming off as supremely pretentious in the hands of a less-capable director. Thankfully, Anderson’s confidence and mastery of his craft assures the tone attains the right balance of gravitas.

Anderson scores a new collaborator in production designer Jack Fisk, who had already become a legend in his field for his work on Terrence Malick’s films. With THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Fisk does what he does best: bringing an authentic, lived-in period vibe designed to place us firmly in the time and place of the story. Fisk’s attention to detail is truly incredible—everything falls within Anderson and Elswit’s established color palette, and nothing rings as false or out of place.

Anderson’s reinvention of his visual aesthetic extends to the music, where he finds an inspired, creative refreshment in his collaboration with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood. The music in Anderson’s films have always erred on the side of quirky, but in THERE WILL BE BLOOD the musical character shifts from Jon Brion’s curiously endearing compositions to something more classical and avant-garde. Greenwood uses harrowing, discordant strings to pervert the conventional orchestral sound into a droning echo of Anderson’s portrait of brutal capitalism. Anderson supplements Greenwood’s compositions with classical source cues like Arvo Parte’s Fratres suite or Brahm’s Violin Concerto in D Major, creating a distinctly Kubrick-ian vibe.

At the center of the film is a tense dynamic between Plainview and his adopted son HW, a precocious and intelligent little boy whose increasing rebelliousness earns him a one-way ticket to an expensive boarding school far away. The elder Plainview is too consumed by his drilling operation to properly raise his son, and in the process inadvertently turns his little business partner into a competitor. Anderson’s career-long exploration of family dynamics takes a left turn in order to reflect Plainview’s empty soul. Plainview uses HW to project the appearance of an affable family man, even as he takes over people’s land and robs them of their potential fortunes. In eschewing a conventional plotline or story-arc, the emotional climax ofTHERE WILL BE BLOOD hinges on this tension between Plainview and HW, which comes to a head when HW is a grown man and expresses a desire to move to Mexico with his wife and start an oil company of his own. Plainview sees this as an act of betrayal and rejects HW as his heir while revealing his true lineage. It’s a pitiful power play that affords Plainview a temporary, petty victory, but it’s clear to the audience that he’s damned himself to a short-lived future of loneliness and regret. In Anderson’s eyes, tragedy ultimately befalls those who choose to permanently turn away from family. Plainview’s ultimate tragedy is that for all the material wealth he could accumulate, he would always be emotionally and ideologically bankrupt and didn’t have the wherewithal to recognize it.

Anderson’s other thematic fascinations are present in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, albeit in surprising ways. His stories and characters are inherently Californian in nature, meaning that they always reflect some aspect of the Golden State’s rich cultural heritage. The oil boom that fueled the rise of cities like Los Angeles is depicted here during its infancy (however, the film was shot, ironically, far away from California in Malta, Texas). The fields of steadily-rocking oil derricks profoundly shaped California’s geography and culture, and one need only to look at the expansive oil fields of LA’S Baldwin Hills to see that oil continues to drive California’s economy to this day. THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s true genius is in its understated relevancy to our modern age, and how our actions can reverberate over the course of a century. Despite all of our technological advances and progress as a society, we’re still down there in the muck, bludgeoning our way to prosperity.

Anderson’s filmography is greatly interested in sexuality and the human dependency on it. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is notable in this regard for its curious omission of all sexuality. Plainview is driven purely by greed, and hasn’t the slightest care of what other people think of him, much less the opposite sex. Even the process of obtaining a son comes to him by way of something resembling more of a business transaction than the result of a sexual act. The absence of Plainview’s sexuality in itself is a profound comment on the intricate relationship between ambition and sexual longing, and how non-sexual pursuits like wealth and power can still be fetishized and obsessed over.

Anderson’s classical, formalist style had been used to subversive effect in his previous work, but his full embrace of it inTHERE WILL BE BLOOD points to his maturing into a very different kind of filmmaker, one whose work is infused with an almost Orwellian sense of self-aware importance (oftentimes mistaken for pretension). The palpable influence of Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, and Martin Scorsese in previous films gives way here to the unimpeachable greats—John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, John Ford. As a whole, THERE WILL BE BLOOD feels very Kubrickian, its opening prologue running for a full twenty minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken (a surefire nod to the Dawn of Man sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)). This choice doesn’t come from a desire to deliberately emulate Kubrick, however—instead it comes from a place of supreme confidence in Anderson’s skills as a visual storyteller. In seeing Plainview doggedly persist against a series of debilitating mishaps to get his first oil well up and running, we learn more about the ruthlessness and intelligence of the character far more than a dialogue scene could ever tell us.

Of course, Anderson’s knack for memorable and striking dialogue continues to be put to incredible use here. While there’s less of it, Anderson manages to concoct some of the most-quoted lines in recent film memory. The film would’ve been legendary enough even without the inclusion of Plainview’s “I Drink Your Milkshake” monologue, but its inclusion brings Anderson’s full vision over the top and into the territory of unimpeachable greatness.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD was hailed as a masterpiece when it was released, with critics praising its metaphors for a modern-day thirst for oil, an unquenchable commodity that is widely believed to have driven us into a needless war with Iraq under President Bush. It is arguably Anderson’s most successful film, with a wide swath of nominations at that year’s Academy Awards (and two wins, but none for Anderson himself). Anderson dedicated the film to the memory of his hero Robert Altman, and in doing so, he closed the book on the first part of his career—a career that Altman had directly influenced—and began an exciting new one, marked by laser-focused character studies and a sense of grandeur unmatched by any other filmmaker working today.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.

Credits:
Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, Scott Rudin, JoAnne Sellar
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
Production Designer: Jack Fisk
Edited by: Dylan Tichenor
Music by: Johnny Greenwood