An oil driller clashes with a small-town preacher in turn-of-the-century California.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, and Dillon Freasier
Review by Jon Kissel
The first-watch takeaway from There Will Be Blood is always the religion versus commerce theme, but Daniel is so towering that it’s not much of a contest. This doesn’t hurt the film, as it reinforces how potent religion can be if a worm like Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) can use it to manipulate the locals of Little Boston. Daniel extracts his wealth from this fervent community, and all that Eli can take from Daniel is a few minutes worth of humiliation. Both forces are shown to rhyme in how they benefit the most skilled practitioners, with further benefits trickling downward in jobs and improvements or spiritual aid. This atheist is never going to view these as even playing grounds, as I doubt the community one takes from religion is worth the dulling of critical thinking or the complacency that comes from believing in a better existence after death. The country wasn’t developed because of religion but in spite of it, and the film largely cosigns based on Eli’s church sitting comfortably in the pre-Plainview desolation. Both religion and commerce are shown to be corrupting influences, but at least people get something out of commerce.
What came through the most on this viewing is how much of a doting father Daniel is. He’s feral in the wordless opening, scrounging in the dirt for shiny rocks, hunched over a campfire, and bursting with the will to drag himself on a broken leg through the desert. After parlaying his silver into an oil concern, a random stroke of fate has a piece of equipment fall on a man with him in the pit, leaving Daniel unscathed and with the man’s now-orphaned child in his care. He will later profess how he hates most people, but this man does not hate this baby as he reaches up to play with Daniel’s mustache. It doesn’t hurt to have a cherubic kid sitting next to him while he pitches towns on selling him their oil rights, but that’s like having a child for the tax benefits. The real bonus is the company, the confidant, and having a little mentee to scamper through the bushes until he falls in an oil puddle. HW Plainview (Dillon Freasier) is a loved child, unlucky though he is to have a father incapable of teaching him how to adapt to the world when he loses his hearing.
HW keeps Daniel connected to the world and when they lose the ability to communicate with each other, HW adapts and Daniel gets worse. The first words that come in There Will Be Blood are Daniel’s as he makes a fair and straightforward pitch to a divided town. We see over the course of the film that whatever his other faults, he is an oil man who does what he says. With the exception of a payment to his archenemy Eli, he’s a fair dealer who treats his workers fine for the time and does indeed spray money over whatever community hires him. The townsfolk from that early scene, however, reject him and fight with each other, sending him and HW running west to underpopulated California. Guided by Eli’s brother Paul to the Sunday ranch, Daniel is able to get a drill going on their property. In the film’s centerpiece action sequence, the drill hits a gas pocket, sending HW flying and a plume of fire burning into the sky. The boy loses his hearing, and the father runs into the limits of his abilities to take care of him.
Daniel repeatedly tells people he doesn’t want to talk about his past or how he’s raising HW. He shuts off internalized thinking in the same way he closed the part of himself that can connect with other people outside of a stock sales pitch. It’s a conscious effort, but the other way to be still exists inside him. The nurturing part of him is there, buried under practiced repression. HW brings it out of him and how could he not? This is one of the great child performances by a kid who never acted before or since. PTA lucked into a local Texas kid who could shoot and be naturalistic next to one of the most mannered actors to ever live. For Daniel, losing his son in this way sets him on the direct path to a lonely mansion, a place from where he will one day sever what’s left of his relationship with a grown HW and immediately regret it. Daniel’s not a greedy person in the sense that he doesn’t particularly care about nice things, but he’s in a greed trap where a person’s life expands to fill their income and they’re thus never satisfied. The part of Daniel’s life that’s expanding is the ratio of commerce to family. Take HW away from him and have an imposter (Kevin J O’Connor) tell him his brother’s dead, and the space vacated by family is consumed by commerce, leaving only the tiny shred by the end that remembers how much he loved his son.
Shot on film in long takes and close-ups, There Will Be Blood has the look of a capital-M Movie. It could exist in any period of the last 100 years, as composed by whatever master filmmaker was working at the time. What makes There Will Be Blood stand out as modern is Jonny Greenwood’s score, a mixture of atonal melodies and percussive panic-driven soundscapes that could only have been composed by one of the musical masterminds behind Radiohead. I prefer Greenwood’s Phantom Thread score for listenability, but his There Will Be Blood effort is most synced with the film that contains it. There’s a mirroring that happens throughout whenever pieces get reused. The opening score of Daniel alone as a silver miner pops up again when he’s digging a grave for his fake brother, signifying another new phase in his life that starts with him alone. The Brahms piece that plays over the derrick opening and the end credits heralds Daniel’s opening blow to Eli and his literal final blow. Greenwood’s work backing the derrick explosion is an all-timer that adds levels of tension to an already tense scene. It all contributes to an alien feeling that accentuates the film’s stature as something made by beings operating at an unknowable stratum of expertise.
There Will Be Blood still surprises on this fifth or sixth rewatch. This time, the emotional punch as Daniel and HW grew apart hit the hardest. This isn’t a film known as a tearjerker, but the tragedy of the whole thing worked on me. I’ll likely pick up some new twinge or reaction the next time, and the next time after that. There Will Be Blood isn’t quite the favored son, but no one could ever call it the afterbirth. A+