Best of the Decade #10: There Will Be Blood

The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.

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Pitch Black
Matt Connolly on There Will Be Blood

At the time of its release in December 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood received a wave of critical kudos, praising its formal control, bravura central performance, and idiosyncratic take on the Upton Sinclair novel from which it is loosely based. Among the multiple lines of critical and cultural discourse surrounding the film, however, one particularly stands out: the notion of There Will Be Blood—with its central conflict between cutthroat oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and zealous small-town preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in 1911 California—as a kind of demonic origin tale for the state of contemporary American political culture, with narrow-minded religious fervor and bald-faced capitalistic excesses forming two sides of the same tarnished coin. There’s validity to the amount of ink spilled on this issue. Certainly There Will Be Blood’s historical setting and employment of easily definable archetypes—the minister, the oilman—invite us to consider the social forces these characters represent and the influence these forces had, and continue to have, within American culture.

Still, I think that the amount of critical discussion about this idea stemmed as much from its historical moment as from the content of the film itself. There Will Be Blood hit theaters during the twilight of the Bush administration, when many film critics felt particularly free to pepper their cinematic commentary with (mostly left-wing) political critique. It should come as little surprise, then, that reviewers drew direct lines between the film’s withering view of runaway capitalism and Christian dogmatism and the rapidly imploding GOP coalition of laissez-faire businessmen and religious fundamentalists that, in their eyes, so royally screwed up the country for the better part of the decade. See what the past hath wrought! Never mind that, as an allegory for the contemporary conservative movement, There Will Be Blood leaves something to be desired. (What to make, for example, of the fact that the representative of religion ends up bludgeoned to death by the avatar of capitalism?) Such a reading felt more like an expedient bid for cultural relevancy than reflective of the film’s true modus operandi.

Indeed, a principal reason why There Will Be Blood continues to reverberate in rich and perplexing ways lies in its refusal to let generalization overtake eccentricity. The blustery banalities and sweeping assertions of the conventional historical epic give way here to the ominous, the ambivalent, and the particular. For all its visual grandeur and allegorical possibility, There Will Be Blood is in many ways a brazenly specific story of petty rivalry and one-upmanship, revolving around a central protagonist whose loneliness, anger, and bone-deep suspicion of the world around him leads to some pretty weird behavior. Yet small-scale never gives way to quirky irrelevance. Anderson doesn’t blow up the historical epic so much as deflate it, letting out the hot air and refilling it with strange and intoxicating fumes. Laser-precise character study merges with wider cultural critique, until the viewer cannot tell where Plainview’s wormy peculiarities cease to be the hallmarks of a single, twisted mind and begin to stand in for every American go-getter whose “individualistic” streak means little more than the channeling of greed and paranoia to a pragmatic end.

The amplification of small, searingly intimate character moments marks many of Anderson’s films, in which narrative ebb-and-flow depends more upon the evocation of intensely felt emotion than the whirring of plot mechanics. When I think back to, say, Boogie Nights (1997), the details of why its de facto family of porn stars disperses halfway through the film seem less vivid and important than the falling-through-the-floor desperation that the characters—and audience—collectively experience in that devastating 1980s downfall montage. Plot does matter to a point; you can’t really accuse a director who ends a film with a deluge of frogs falling on Los Angeles of not considering narrative twists. But watching an Anderson film is often like listening to a symphony, where fluctuations in tone and mood demarcate major narrative shifts rather than carefully placed plot reversals. Perhaps this is why he can get away with something like the “Wise-Up” sing-along in Magnolia (1999). Cross-cutting between wildly disparate characters all connected by the same existential despair, it stops the film in its tracks but also proves the purest distillation of its broken, beating heart.

Though he moved through the decade from Altman-esque mosaics to single-protagonist character studies, Anderson retained this penchant for refracting his plots through the prism of his socially maladjusted heroes’ anxieties, suspicions, and stubborn hopes. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is a romance stripped of all meet-cute niceties, the screen pulsating with a neurotic passion tied directly to Barry Egan’s (Adam Sandler) twitchy, shredded nerves. Anderson continues this trend here, laying out the steps of Plainview’s accumulation of wealth and power, but only so we can see how professional success deepens his misanthropy. Like one of its protagonist’s oil derricks, the film’s primary narrative movement is vertical rather than horizontal, descending ever further into a single site and dredging up its gushing, pitch-black contents. And as Plainview’s world becomes consumed with sights real and (increasingly) imagined, the film imbues his ego-driven psychological turf wars with a wild-eyed grandeur too queasily intense to dismiss as simply mock epic. This is not to deny the strains of black humor that course throughout the film, in large part created by Day-Lewis’s matter-of-fact delivery of Plainview’s bizarre threats (rarely has the promise to break into a man’s house and cut his throat been so funny).

There Will Be Blood practically vibrates with a sense of building unease, like a low-grade fever that slowly warps the mind. From the initial fade-in to the shadowy mountains resting ominously over the desert, a profound malevolence seems to brew underneath the desiccated Western landscape and ramshackle towns, bursting to the surface in fits and starts like the sudden explosions of gas and oil that kill various workers throughout the film’s first half. Anderson cultivates this atmosphere of free-floating discomfort by pushing forward his signature auteurist move—the tracking shot—in a truly breathtaking direction. The mobile camera very much defines Anderson’s cinema: its virtuosity; its interplay of character and milieu; its balancing of intense character empathy and authorial distance. When we, say, follow along with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) on his solitary stroll through a bustling casino in Hard Eight (1996), it tells us everything we need to know about his simultaneous comfort with and detachment from the glittery, gaudy world in which he operates. Those eye-catching tracks remain throughout this film, particularly in the stunning sequence when a gas explosion deafens Plainview’s adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and turns the derrick into a kind of flaming monolith against the darkening desert sky. And Anderson and DP Robert Elswit once again prove their joint mastery of light, color, and composition, drawing upon a rich palette of sandy browns, brilliant blues, and blinding whites to craft some of the most stunning images of Anderson’s career. I mean no disrespect when I say that There Will Be Blood is the first of Anderson’s films in which I wasn’t constantly aware of his hand on the wheel. The camera becomes an unblinking observer rather than a restless explorer, calmly documenting the characters in long takes as their actions segue from quietly bitter to violently outlandish. Extreme shot length and creeping track-ins further this eerily composed aesthetic; characters become but one aspect of a mise-en-scène whose bleak beauty at once complements and overwhelms their bestial behavior. When combined with the atonal maelstrom of Jonny Greenwood’s score, these scenes become akin to watching a slow-motion car crash, our fixed position making the sudden eruptions of chaos all the more disturbing and surreal.

Yet, if Anderson’s formal strategies have shifted, his empathy remains intact. For all its unsparing depictions of Plainview’s avarice and contempt, There Will Be Blood never quite allows us to forget his shriveled and lonely heart. It comes through in moments of solitary contemplation, as when Daniel broodingly watches a train pass, sunlight and shadow shifting across his face as the more melancholy strains of Greenwood’s score surge in the background. As Plainview tells a group of potential clients early in the film, he is an oilman, but he’s also a family man. More specifically, he is father to H.W., the orphaned son of one of Plainview’s workers who is unceremoniously killed in the opening of the film by a falling piece of equipment while working underground. Father-son relationships of various kinds have been central to Anderson’s films since Hard Eight, and the bond between Daniel and H.W. (whom he takes in as an infant and who is nine-years-old throughout most of the film) is one of his most delicately observed familial bonds. He often places Day-Lewis and Freasier within distanced, wide-angle compositions, allowing us to notice nuances of physical rapport: the way H.W. attempts to keep up with his loping father as they walk across the long, lonely plains; the mixture of awkwardness and affection with which Daniel musses H.W.’s hair.

In these scenes, Day-Lewis finds some of his subtlest and most moving moments. All the talk surrounding There Will Be Blood’s audacious final sequence has had the somewhat dubious effect of labeling Day-Lewis’s performance as one of fearless, operatic intensity or, worse, scenery-masticating excess. I’m not going to deny the bold theatricality of those concluding moments, nor will I claim that the entire performance doesn’t have a certain stylization to it: the John Huston accent; the limping gait. Yet the power of the final scene derives from Day-Lewis’s slow burn, the gradual shucking of humanity that occurs over the course of the film. And in these moments with Freasier, Day-Lewis conjures up a private emotional history between father and son that goes beyond merely “humanizing” a difficult character. When Daniel desperately clings to his son after the derrick explosion leaves H.W. deaf, the image attains the primal pull of a pietà.

Despite this, Plainview’s understanding of familial bonds remains fundamentally narcissistic, finding value in another person because he can see himself in them. Daniel’s tragedy, then, lies in his complete lack of blood ties, leading him to push away his surrogate son and murder his treacherous would-be brother, Henry (Kevin O’Connor), whose brief appearance proves one of film’s richest, strangest interludes. In the end, Daniel’s true mirror image, or at least his philosophical soul mate, is arch nemesis Eli. Linked by deceitful brother figures (Eli’s twin, Paul, initially tipped Daniel off about purchasing the Sunday family’s land for its oil), boundless ambition, proclivity for the theatrical, and use of respected institutions to further personal goals, Daniel and Eli’s escalating series of humiliations against one another spring from the same desire to control and dominate the world around them. Their tango of public embarrassments and emasculating slaps is at times chokingly funny in its ritualized degradation, and it also represents the purest distillation of Daniel’s polluted, kill-or-be-killed worldview. Anderson will often place these figures on opposing side of the frame, crafting an image equal parts reflection and confrontation. Rather than the aforementioned “conservative creation myth,” There Will Be Blood seems to be positing a deeper critique of American mythos, in which one’s most profound connections lie not in the bonds of family but in the struggles with our competitors in the pursuit of power and material gain.

This is no more evident than in the film’s much-discussed final movement, in which Daniel and Eli bring their rivalry to a bloody climax. We’ve flashed forward to 1927 via a truly exquisite cut from young H.W. and friend Mary jumping off a low wooden ledge to their wedding day sixteen years later (can you think of a more elegantly simple evocation of matrimony’s exhilarating and mutual risk?). This radical disjuncture in time places the viewer in a somewhat ambivalent place: easily able to understand the corrosive tensions between the grown H.W. and Daniel—now fueled by alcohol-induced paranoia and stewing in his massive, dimly lit mansion—yet distanced due to our lack of concrete knowledge about what has occurred in the elided span of time, not to mention the unfamiliarity of the grown actor (Russell Harvard) now playing H.W. As cruelly affecting as Daniel’s disavowal of H.W. is, our emotional investment in their parting feels secondary to the final meeting of the film’s true kindred spirits.

It’s hard to know what more there is to say about this finale, which inspired many fervent discussions (and almost as many YouTube parodies). Set in that Kubrickian underground bowling alley that’s simultaneously the antithesis of the film’s dominant outdoor milieu and a harkening back to the subterranean hole where we found Daniel at film’s beginning, this ending is squall-like in its brief, frothing fury before subsiding into a surreal, after-the-storm equilibrium. It’s funnier than I recalled, with wildly idiosyncratic insults that surpass the much-quoted milkshake capper in sheer hysterical meanness (Daniel to Eli: “You’re just the afterbirth, Eli, who slithered out on your mother’s filth. They should have put you in a glass jar on the mantelpiece.”). It’s jaw-dropping and insane and ironic and mysterious: pregnant with metaphoric meaning yet too madly specific to ever just be metaphor. Yet for all the ways Anderson explodes There Will Be Blood with this finale, our last glimpse of Daniel Plainview remains completely and, in a way, hauntingly true to everything that has come before. Spent from his labors and gazing intently upon the precious liquid he has just extracted, he sits utterly, inevitably alone.

Go to #11.

*****

More on There Will Be Blood from Reverse Shot.

"Burn, Baby, Burn," by Jeff Reichert (Winter 2007)

Stop Smiling review by Michael Koresky (Winter 2007)

Top Ten of 2007 (Winter 2007)