Kevin J O’Connor
Paul Thomas Anderson
There Will Be Blood opens in 1895 with a man all by himself down a mineshaft in some isolated hills, digging in the dark for silver ore. He eventually finds what he is looking for and more, but the discovery is also almost his ruin, as he takes a nasty fall. The man is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and although he will haul himself out of that hellish pit and go on to make his fortune as an oilman, in a sense it is his destiny, chiselled into his self-reliant character, always to be alone, and always to be trapped in a dark hole of his own making.
In 1911, having already had some success with oil prospecting, Daniel follows a tip-off to the community of Little Boston in California, accompanied by his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and his right hand man Fletcher (Ciarn Hinds). There he finds oil aplenty, but also, thanks to a sprit of misanthropic competitiveness that has welled up within him, is set at odds not only with a rival oil company, but with local charismatic preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), with a man claiming to be his half-brother (Kevin J. O’Connor), and even with H.W., in battles of will that continue to haunt Daniel until, many years later, he is once and for all “finished”. And though it may take some two and a half hours to get there, rest assured that in the end There Will Be Blood lives up to its title.
Inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel ‘Oil!’ and Margaret Leslie Davis’ biography of the oil tycoon Edward Dehaney ‘The Dark Side of Fortune’, and shot in the same place (Marfa, Texas) where oil saga Giant was filmed in 1956, There Will Be Blood taps into a deep seam of American ideology and iconography. Here, however, qualities normally regarded as the bedrock of the American Dream – rugged individualism, rampant entrepreneurship and rags-to-riches mobility – are flipped over to expose a dark undercurrent of monomaniacal male solipsism. Daniel pursues his ideal of making it on his own with a ruthless fervour that borders on the psychopathic, allowing nothing, not even his relationship with his own would-be son, to stand in his way.
Daniel Plainview longs for, and loses, a man he can call his brother, while his chief antagonist Eli has permanently parted company with his own twin brother Paul (also played by Dano) shortly before we meet either of them. Of course, with their showmanship, hypocrisy and greed for power, both Daniel and Eli may seem more like bickering siblings than mortal enemies – but their conjoined dooms demonstrate what happens to humanity in the absence of brotherly love or family values.
Even though it is tightly focused on the arching trajectory of a single man, There Will Be Blood seems even more epic in scale than Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier ensemble pics Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). This is partly because its events span over three decades, partly because of the vast open landscapes in which it largely unfolds (filmed in sweeping wideshot by cinematographer Robert Elswit) – but it is mostly because a screen of any size will struggle to contain the sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes terrifyingly demonic performance of Day-Lewis, who chews the scenery the way a lion chews a lamb. With his booming voice and oversized moustache, he embodies masculinity gone awry – in a film where towers are erected, the earth is penetrated, sticky liquids spurt, and women, when they feature at all, are always kept to the margins.
Like many a violent accident (and There Will Be Blood is full of violent accidents), Daniel Plainview’s rise and fall make for a repellent yet utterly riveting spectacle. For it reveals no less than the horror of unchecked capitalism – making the choice of Radiohead‘s Johnny Greenwood to compose the film’s strident score seem remarkably fitting. Anderson’s vision is grand, ambitious, and thoroughly bleak – and the film’s ending is unhinged enough to bowl any viewer over.