By the time the boy lies moaning on the floor, spooned against a father who is helpless to soothe him, the earth has blasted open, fire has whooshed up through an oil derrick and a dozen roustabouts, dwarfed by their handiwork, have raced in all directions across the stony Central California hilltop, trying to contain the immense forces they’d set loose. When at last they could do no more than wait, some had stood silhouetted before the tower of flame, marveling as it raged against an indigo sky. Others had watched from a distance, the glow flickering over their faces, while greasy black clouds spread into lingering daylight to the west. After night fell, around the time the derrick toppled, the boss’s assistant had asked if the boy was all right. “No,” the boss had calmly said of his son, “he’s not,” then went on watching the fire. All this, to a clattering on the soundtrack like a gamelan of pots, pans and mixing bowls, beating out insistent variations on lub-dub; and still the gargantuan sequence wasn’t over. A fresh day had to break, and wagons loaded with dynamite shoved into the mouth of the fire, before Daniel Plainview could at last lie on the floor of his shack, to caress and restrain his damaged son.
Grim and gleeful, mechanistic and demonic, this tremendous set piece stands out as the most elaborate segment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood but is only one of the film’s half-dozen great dramatic eruptions. All of them are instantly recognizable as classic. Each is distinct in setting and style: the Wild West showdown, filmed in a panoramic sweep beside a rising lake of oil; the faith-healing service, in which the camera tracks a preacher’s dance back and forth through his pine box of a church; the scene of Daniel Plainview’s public humiliation, shot in steady, pitiless close-up beneath a cross of sunlight; the final confrontation between Plainview and his son, executed as an intricate pattern of cross-cutting within an office that’s all carved mahogany and shadows. There’s even a mad scene that rivals the big oil-strike sequence for virtuosity and violence, despite being shot with just two actors within a basement bowling alley.
You have, of course, seen other movies about the lawless West and the making of American fortunes. You’ve seen Charles Foster Kane, self-isolated and half-mad, tearing up his Xanadu. (You might as well know: that’s where this is going.) But in the aptly titled There Will Be Blood, Anderson tells the familiar story not as he’s received it from earlier films (much as he’s studied them) or even from his putative source, Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, but as a kind of social realist peyote vision. Utterly fluid yet coming at you in flashes, based on events of a century ago yet intensely present, the film seems as tangible as its desert hills and steam-powered machines but as unfathomable as Daniel Plainview: a rumbling abyss of a man, who will tell you he doesn’t like to explain himself.
In this, as in other ways, he is true to the historic character of America’s self-made men. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the nineteenth century’s industrial millionaires, “None had noticeable scruples or could afford to have in an economy and an age where fraud, bribery, slander and if necessary guns were normal aspects of competition. All were hard men, and most would have regarded the question whether they were honest as considerably less relevant to their affairs than the question whether they were smart.”
Though Plainview makes his great strike a little later than Hobsbawm’s subjects, in 1911, he too is a hard man, who will stake a mining claim even at the expense of dragging his smashed bones across a landscape of bleached rocks; a lying man, who despite his roughneck past affects a gentleman’s cooing, round-voweled manner to tell “plainspoken” truths, which aren’t; a ruthlessly smart man, who knows of no graver insult than “fool” and is at his most dangerous when he finds he’s been played for one.
Where he breaks from type–a departure that makes all the difference to the film–is in his disgust at that cruelest of hoodwinkers: the man of God. The old robber barons could abide the forms of religion when necessary, here dropping an endowment into a strategically advantageous church, there nodding to a sermon that blessed the accumulation of capital. But as much as Plainview aspires to hypocrisy, his one irrepressible, honest impulse is a physical revulsion toward the Almighty and His spokespersons. Reality to Plainview comes down to mechanics, and mechanics in his experience always threatens to become a chain of catastrophes: pulleys that malfunction at the worst moment, beams and hardware that fail to support enough weight, heavy drill bits that slip loose and fall until stopped by somebody’s skull. So in this universe of accident and calculation, it must be one more damned trick of chance when Plainview comes snooping for oil in Little Boston, California, his boy H.W. in tow, and winds up negotiating for mineral rights with smooth-faced Eli Sunday, a goat farmer’s son who has founded the Church of the Third Revelation.