The Paul Thoms Anderson Retrospective concludes! Last time, I splurged about the stream-of-consciousness filmmaking techniques employed in Punch-Drunk Love. Now, we’ll see Anderson, once again, going on a wildly different direction with his period-piece about oil tycoon Daniel Plainview: There Will Be Blood.
There will be spoilers in this There Will Be Blood analysis (heh), and I will go into some detail on the film’s wild finale, so it’s better suited if you’ve already seen the film (Which you should). If you haven’t read the previous three installments of the retrospectives, you can do so by clicking these links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
Also, a variety of clips will be employed, so be sure to have a good connection to see them all. And fair warning to the squeamish: There is some violence in one of the clips. It’s off-screen, yet somehow remains brutal due to the sound-effects and the terrifying look on Daniel Day-Lewis’s face.
With all that being said, let’s drink some milkshakes as we dive right into There Will Be Blood.
“I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little, Henry…to have you here gives me a second breath. I can’t keep doing this on my own with these…people.”
Citizen Kane, widely believed to be the greatest movie of all time, and for good reason, was the story of a man who had only one goal on his mind: To get filthy, stinkin’ rich. He did all that he could to get to the top, and when he finally got there, he realized the hollowness of the life of luxury.
There Will Be Blood is the story of that same type of man, only taken to its largest extreme. The film begins with a man named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) mining for chunks of silver on his own, only to injure his leg by slipping from a loose ladder piece. This does not stop him in the slightest from acquiring the silver, as he literally climbs and crawls his way back to his camp all while dragging his limp leg. A few years later, he strikes oil and discovers his entry into starting a business, but it comes at the cost of losing one of his men. Daniel, the devilish opportunist that he is, ends up stealing the now deceased man’s infant son and brings him up as his own.
Years later, Daniel is now one of the leading oil tycoons in the business. He’s appealing to businessmen because of his ambition and success, and appealing to the public because he always has his illegitimate son by his side as a sympathetic face. Not much later than that, a man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) comes up to Daniel with a proposition: There’s a large plot of land with an ocean of oil underneath it. He sells that land to Daniel for a large sum of money, which brings Daniel to Sunday Ranch, where he meets Paul’s twin brother Eli (Also Dano), an evangelical preacher who partakes in over-the-top ceremonies. When Daniel doesn’t allow him to do a public blessing of the oil well, a bitter rivalry ensues between the two men that lasts almost a lifetime.
Both There Will Be Blood and Citizen Kane are portraits of the men behind capitalism, but Charles Foster Kane at the very least had his “Rosebud”. He reached that tipping point where he finally discovered just how empty a life solely based on wealth is. There Will Be Blood ends similarly, in only one sense, to Citizen Kane: With Daniel Plainview hovering through his luxurious mansion almost like a spirit haunting the grounds. But unlike Kane, while he is, at this point of the movie, a drunk lunatic who has lost any sign of humanity, he still doesn’t regret any of it. Daniel Plainview is a man so spiteful in his journey to wealth, that he has no problem giving up any semblance of humanity he has left.
Throughout this retrospective, I’ve been categorizing each of Anderson’s films. Hard Eight is the “least-favorite”, Boogie Nights is the “most entertaining”, Magnolia is the “best” (Though that’s arguable), and Punch-Drunk Love is my “favorite” (Or his most stylistically accomplished). There Will Be Blood, on the other hand, is very different from his other films. While almost all of Anderson’s films feature progressive pacing that always moves forward with the help of sounds, visuals, performances, etc., There Will Be Blood is a more somber, slower-paced film.
Instead of constantly shifting perspectives from a wide variety of characters (Like in Boogie Nights and Magnolia) or using an omnipresent score (Punch-Drunk Love, also Magnolia), there are many scenes that just linger in the mood or atmosphere, letting each situation play out, and milking it (Or drilling it? Eh?) for all its suspense. If anything, it actually has the most in common with Anderson’s first film Hard Eight, which was primarily a character study, done in a quiet, subdued fashion.
If I had to categorize There Will Be Blood, it’s undoubtedly his most “mature” film. Anderson hardly lets any stylistic touches overpower or even supplement the narrative. Of course, there is the Jonny Greenwood score (Which we’ll get more in-depth with later), but it’s used subtly and as a means to express mood rather than outright emotion.
Almost everything about There Will Be Blood is contradictory. It’s an American epic with a claustrophobic narrative. It’s a brutal film with not a lot of violence (By movie standards, anyway). And most peculiarly of all: It’s a character study filled with ambiguity. We’re never given any insight on who Plainview was before the movie began and we rarely get a glimpse of his thought-process unless he speaks it out loud. All we could do is evaluate what’s going on based on Plainview’s actions on screen. That is our only indicator of who he is as a man, and even then, you can not really trust a single thing he says or does.
Now, a character study like this simply could not work unless you have the performance to back it up. Luckily for Anderson, we have Daniel Day-Lewis, who is without a doubt our generation’s most intense method-actor in the business. Daniel Plainview may very well be the most fascinating character Anderson has ever written and portrayed. While he lacks the intimacy that brings us so close to Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan or Hard Eight‘s Sydney, Plainview more than makes up for that in terms of his mysterious allure and shocking business ethics.
As well-directed as There Will Be Blood is, it would be nothing without Daniel Day-Lewis. He lends the film a gravitas that you’d normally expect from Orson Welles himself. But Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t allow him go off his reins either. Daniel Day-Lewis remains controlled and subdued throughout most of the film, thus giving him that ambiguity needed to give Plainview his almost mythical quality.
Granted, things do, in fact, go off the rails in the infamous final twenty minutes of the film, in which all of the acting becomes ridiculously over-the-top, and the movie ends in a grisly murder. Because of this, many people consider it a sort of “perfect film EXCEPT for the ending”. There are just as many people who believe that the ending even ruins the entire movie. As for my take, I personally find that the movie builds up to this insane conclusion, but I can see why some people would have gripes with it.
But before we get knee-deep on the sticky ending (Lots of bad oil puns, today; apologies), we have to analyze what makes There Will Be Blood an evolution for Paul Thomas Anderson. Namely, there’s the audiovisual filmmaking element and the long-takes, two techniques that Anderson likes to employ constantly. Anderson’s use of long-takes in Boogie Nights was very stylish and showy, but he learned to use it to more subtle effect with each consecutive film. His audiovisual filmmaking reached its apex when he crafted the wildly subjective Punch-Drunk Love. Now, for There Will Be Blood, he’s more restrained with his audiovisual technique.
Like I said earlier, rather than delving into Plainview’s mindset, Anderson is more concerned with the events that happen around Plainview and objective reactions to said events. Whereas Punch-Drunk Love was an intimately subjective and abstract experience, There Will Be Blood is a concrete one. Yet, much like the rest of the conflicting qualities of this film, the film is still able to obtain a tinge of surrealism while still being so objective.
This is thanks to the Jonny Greenwood score, which–as I stated earlier–is able to create an uneasy, dread-laden atmosphere whenever it’s played. Much like the rest of Anderson’s filmography, music is essential in conveying emotion. Except while Punch-Drunk Love used it for the sake of subjectivity, There Will Be Blood uses music to instill mood. But if you think about it, music is the only means for this movie to convey emotion in such a cold story about an almost(?) heartless man. And even then, the score is sparse and simplistic, relying mostly on moody hums and wailing violins to give the impression that something just isn’t right.
The best example of Jonny Greenwood’s score and Anderson’s audiovisual techique is in the oil derrick scene…
First, there’s the brief moments in which we hear what Plainview’s adopted son H.W. hears when he’s defeaned by the blast. We’ve seen this deafening effect before (Most notably in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist). We’ve also seen this melding of audio and visual before in Anderson’s previous work, with the firecrackers from Boogie Nights, the musical segment of Magnolia, and the entirety of Punch-Drunk Love. While There Will Be Blood doesn’t use that much here, he still employs it at the most effective moments.
Then we hear the score kick in, starting with just some simple drum beats that get increasingly chaotic as we learn that things have gone from bad to worse. The oil derrick scene can be seen as the main omen that everything will end badly for Daniel Plainview, as fire literally belches from the ground like hell has broken loose. And the score conveys this chaos all too well.
What’s more interesting to discuss, however, is how the two main themes that Anderson uses are played up in There Will Be Blood. All of his films except for Punch-Drunk Love feature interesting takes on the father-son relationship. There Will Be Blood takes that relationship, and twists it to its darkest and strangest depths. It’s obvious that Plainview uses his adopted son as a prop when the film is just starting, but there are signs that perhaps he truly does love and care about him. And yet, thanks to the brilliancy of the writing and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, there’s still some ambiguity on whether that love was genuine.
Take, for example, this infamous scene in which Plainview screams out to a full congregation his deep regret of abandoning his son…
It feels completely and utterly genuine, does it not? Well, there are many who have interpreted this scene as yet another opportunistic business move for Plainview’s oiling. Before this scene, he was given the offer that a pipeline could be built on the Sunday Ranch land so long as he converted to Christ the Almighty. In the conversion process, he was forced to admit to the abandoning of his child in front of an entire audience. Was Plainview being totally genuine in his regret? Was his “conversion” a ruse? There’s enough evidence, which includes the nuance of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, to suggest that that’s a very probable “Yes”.
Depending on your interpretation, the father-son relationship in There Will Be Blood is either the coldest out of Anderson’s filmography, or the most tragic. Because whether or not you believe he truly did love H.W. in some way, their relationship still ends on this sickly note…
The most heartbreaking thing about this particular father-son relationship is that no matter your interpretation, there’s no denying that this is one of the few scenes in which you can tell without a shadow of a doubt that Daniel Plainview means what he says. And the reason why you can tell is actually because of the over-the-top acting, believe it or not. It’s as if he’s overcompensating for all his deceit and his grinning on the outside, and he’s finally letting all of his emotions out when he screams “bastard from a basket” at his only “son”.
Interestingly enough, as his son is leaving, we are shown a flashback of H.W. playing around with his father as a young boy. This shot has always tantalized me. Was it shown as a reference to indicate that all of that love and compassion back then was a lie and he never meant it? Or, perhaps even more sad, that it was truly genuine, and it was only shown to display to the audience the hideous transformation that wealth has brought to Plainview’s soul? Whatever the answer is, it’s a very ugly depiction of human nature responding to wealth.
Now, there’s another theme that I wanna discuss in this film. This theme isn’t a “regular” theme in Anderson’s movies. In fact, it was never brought up in any of his previous work: The fallacy of religion. The reason why I felt like it would be interesting to analyze this theme in There Will Be Blood is because Anderson’s upcoming film, The Master, deals very heavily with religion, but of a different sort (While I obviously haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s been well-documented that The Master is a fictionalized telling of the founding of Scientology).
One of the main taglines of There Will Be Blood actually incorporates the title. It begins with “When faith meets ambition,” and then ends with the title, “There Will Be Blood.” Obviously, this refers to the final scene in which Daniel finally confronts Eli Sunday in the private bowling alley in Daniel’s mansion. In fact, it applies to pretty much the entirety of their feud and the inevitability of the outcome.
In general, whenever religion conflicts or fuses with business (or politics if you wanna get into some real screwy territory), it almost always leads to disastrous results. But there’s something more to Eli and Daniel’s rivalry. If you think about it, while they’re both opposites, they’re opposites running parallel to each other. Much like how Daniel ended up bringing up his own false son and lead him through a life centered all around lies, Eli brings up an entire crowd with his own false gospels and phony exorcisms.
But it’s also interesting to compare how both Eli and Daniel deal with situations regarding their “brothers”. Daniel, in an earlier sub-plot, starts to become close to a figure who claims to be his long-lost brother from a different mother (Sidebar: He literally uses the phrase “I’m your brother from another mother”). Turns out, as these things typically do, that the man actually isn’t his brother and is just some sort of creep who either just wants his money, has some weird obsession with Plainview, or most likely both. Meanwhile, Eli also has a brother: Paul, who we only see in one scene as the man who convinces Daniel to buy the Sunday Ranch (And as Roger Ebert noted, the plot could be even shiftier than initially noted since we never see Paul or Eli in the same room, but that theory is unlikely).
In the final scene of the film, Daniel actually tells Eli, “You’re not the chosen brother, Eli. It was Paul who was chosen. You see, he found me and told me about your land. You’re just a fool.” He then follows that up by saying “It was Paul who told me about you. He’s the prophet. He’s the smart one.” Yet another contradiction this film embodies: Daniel and Eli are both equals and opposites all at once. Both use lies and deceit to gain success, but through vastly different means. And whereas Daniel was the “smart brother”, Eli is the lesser.
Two polar opposites, but made from the same clay and for the same purpose. But there’s perhaps a more interesting difference: Whereas Daniel voices aloud his contempt for the rest of the human population, Eli is a liar on a spiritual level. In many if not all cases, that’s much worse. Their rivalry ends with Daniel, arguably the lesser of two evils, beating Eli to death with a bowling pin. Warning, the following clip contains some brutal off-screen violence.
What Anderson suggests with the rivalry of these two forces is that for all their differences, capitalism and organized religion have more in common than you’d think. You can argue that what he’s implying is that capitalism is in itself practiced almost like a religion, or perhaps even more cynically, that maybe organized religion is no better than capitalism.
But, as fradulent as Eli was, he still “represented” something powerful. That thing he represents is the “belief in the existence of God”.
There’s a third theme that I need to discuss, and while this theme isn’t as intensely personal as the father-son relationship, or as socially dense as the capitalism/religion dichotomy, it’s perhaps the most omnipresent theme because it defines Daniel Plainview’s entire arc. It’s the second theme I discussed throughout this retrospective that Anderson likes to call back to repeatedly: Alienation and loneliness.
There Will Be Blood is primarly about Daniel Plainview’s descent into madness coinciding with his rise in wealth. However, it’s more than just that, actually. Daniel Plainview’s journey is also a descent into the far recesses of alienation from society. Slowly and surely, Plainview ends up losing many of his colleagues either to death or to disagreement (“I’m gonna come to you, inside of your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and I’m gonna cut your throat.”) one by one. Then, it gets to the point where Plainview ends up abandoning his own family just to make it to the top; as signified by the abandoning of H.W. after he’s deafened, and by the murdering of his fake brother. (Fake or not, he was still one of the few people who Plainview confided in).
He’s given a chance of redemption when he decides to have his son back, but this chance is squandered when he ends up alienating himself from society (Signified by how he holes himself up in his mansion) and then alienating himself from his adopted son a second time (“Bastard from a basket!”). Then, just when you think he couldn’t sink any lower, Daniel literally descends to the lowest level of his house (His private bowling alley), which is where he ends up murdering Eli. It is at that point that, despite Eli’s own falsehoods, Daniel’s murdering of Eli suggests that he has literally alienated himself from God, or whatever higher presence there is assuring him that he’ll end up burning in hell.
There is so much more I could discuss when it comes to There Will Be Blood because it is about so many things. It’s easy to see why many consider There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece. It’s purely original filmmaking in its grandest, most assured form. There is nothing else like it, and there probably won’t be anything else like it. Not only that, but there’s also never going to be a filmmaking like Paul Thomas Anderson. His melding of grand scope and intimate drama melded with his audiovisual techniques and one-of-a-kind style make him one of the truest forms of the word auteur in modern cinema.
And with that, the Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective is complete.
Oh, but while the Retrospective may be over, the experience isn’t. Stay tuned for my review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming film The Master sometime next week.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to wait for The Master! Just…one…more…day…
Fun PTA Trivia:
- In Hard Eight, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) mentions Sydney’s (Phillip Baker Hall’s) friends, named Floyd Gondolli and Jimmy Gator. In Boogie Nights, Phllip Baker Hall plays a character named Floyd Gondolli, while in Magnolia, he plays a game-show host named Jimmy Gator.
- Many of the main characters in Boogie Nights are based on or take inspiration from real people in the porn industry. Including William H. Macy’s character (Yikes).
- I live in the San Fernando Valley, and it felt kinda cool that many of the characters in Boogie Nights reference many locations and street names that I am actually familiar with (Like Reseda Blvd., Lindley Ave., Sherman Way, etc.). However, the most notable mention came when the college kid in the limo of Jack Horner’s car said he was from CSUN. CSUN is the University that I’m currently enrolled in.
- Paul Thoms Anderson’s main inspiration for the writing of Magnolia‘s script was actually the music of Aimee Mann, which ends up featuring heavily in the film.
- One of the books Stanley Spector reads in Magnolia is Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, which is a real book written by Ricky Jay, who also narrates and stars in the film.
- In the bar that William H. Macy goes to to flirt with the bartender in Magnolia, there’s a chalkboard with two teams written on it: “The Frogs” and “The Clouds”. Both frogs and clouds feature prominently in the film.
- Also in the background of the bar: Someone playing the video game Frogger.
- In the “Seduce and Destroy” infomercials in Magnolia, there’s a number displayed on the bottom: 877-TAME-HER. There was a point when you could actually call that number, and you’d get an actual recording from Tom Cruise saying he’ll help you “get the sauce you wanted”. The number doesn’t work anymore, sadly.
- Paul Thomas Anderson actually offered the role of Frank TJ Mackey to Tom Cruise by visiting the set of Eyes Wide Shut to offer it. I can only assume that Tom Cruise wasn’t the only person he intended to meet.
- Punch-Drunk Love was partially inspired by a TIME magazine article that talked about a real man who used the Healthy Choice pudding scam for frequent flyer miles.
- When Barry (Adam Sandler) punches the office wall and he rests his bloodied hand on the harmonium, you can see the cuts on his knuckles spell out the word “LOVE”.
- Paul Dano wasn’t originally supposed to play Eli Sunday on There Will Be Blood. He was only meant to play Paul Sunday, while Eli was given to another actor. He ended up replacing the actor, and the script was changed so that Paul and Eli were identical twins.
- The set for There Will Be Blood was right by the filming location for No Country For Old Men. While testing pyrotechnic effects for the big oil derrick scene, the billowing smoke intruded on a shot that the Coen Brothers were shooting for No Country, causing them to delay their shoot for a day. Both films ended up being the front-runners during that year’s Academy Awards.
- According to one of the producers of There Will Be Blood, the movie wouldn’t have been made at all if Daniel Day-Lewis declined the role. Thankfully Daniel was actually a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous film Punch-Drunk Love, and accepted.
- Many of the characters in There Will Be Blood were loosely based on real historical figures. The movie itself is a very, very loose adaptation (If you can call it that) of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!
- The bowling alley in There Will Be Blood was originally intended to be painted almost entirely white, giving it a Kubrickian look similar to A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was reverted back to its original color after it was decided on that the bowling alley was to be given away after filming.