There Will Be Blood (2007)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson; Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier
[4 out of 4 stars]
“I’m an oil man.” This is how Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) introduces himself to the citizens of Little Boston, California. Plainview’s business is indeed drilling oil wells, but I found that his claim is false. He is not a man. Behind a smarmy smile and a too-perfect mustache is a dishonest opportunist who tells his supposed half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) “I hate most people.” His voice is smooth and too rich, as if each morning he gargled the thick oil he had extracted from the earth the day before.
Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood takes place in the early 20th century near Los Angeles. Plainview is the owner of a drilling company, and Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) approaches him about a possible oil reserve under his family’s land in Little Boston. Plainview and his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) relocate to Little Boston, and there, they meet Eli Sunday (also played by Paul Dano), Paul’s twin brother. He is a pastor who delivers explosive sermons and keeps after Plainview in an effort to gain both funding for his church, and Plainview’s membership. However, Plainview’s focus is making money, and he does not want to join any group, whether it be a group of friends, a family, or a church.
Plainview’s isolation is one reason why he does not seem human. He cannot relate to people, nor does he want to. H.W, for example, is used mostly to obtain sympathy for his “family business”, and he abandons his son when he is no longer helpful. There is no love or understanding in what is perhaps the most basic of human relationships: that of parent and child. Plainview’s indifference towards his son becomes most clear when disaster strikes: a well explodes, killing a worker and deafening H.W. The oil quickly alights, creating a fountain of fire that topples the well. As Plainview watches the destruction, a man asks of H.W. “Is he gonna be okay?” Plainview responds simply: “No, he isn’t.” The man looks incredulously at him, but he remains where he is, staring straight ahead. The intensity of this scene is strengthened by its technical aspects: the deep, pulsing music, the way the figures appear simply as silhouettes framed against the fire, the long shots Anderson uses to film the scene. Such techniques make the scene more stark and fierce.
Although There Will Be Blood’s main conflict is between Plainview and Eli, the film is about more than the classic American clash of money and religion. Underneath the dirt, sweat, and oil are people, people to whom Plainview has no interest in even trying to relate. His intense hatred and lack of humanity are astounding. As he explains to Henry, “There are times when I look at people and see nothing worth liking.”
Yet, this deep hatred elucidates the film’s greatest shortcoming: what Roger Ebert calls “its relentlessness.” It is a film wholly unyielding in its aims, which is admirable. However, this very unwieldiness creates a main character so entirely unrelatable that the film itself becomes distant. It is stark and terrifying, but the intensity also becomes too much. Although I found myself unable to look away, Plainview is a character so full of hatred and so utterly devoid of empathy that I longed for a little nuance. That being said, I don’t think that the film’s relentlessness is enough to discount it; subtlety was clearly not Anderson’s goal, and he is at least consistent. Despite the film’s ruthlessness, what it sets out to do, it does brilliantly.