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.
Sunday, too, is self-made in his way, having anointed himself the evangelist of a new gospel that apparently is still coming in. That this young promoter bargains over the price of a lease doesn’t much bother Plainview, who expects as much in business and also expects to win. But the oilman rips himself away with barely concealed anger when Sunday tries to seal the transaction by clasping his hand in prayer. That’s too ambitious; that presumes Plainview could be merged into a cozy fellowship ruled by another man’s say-so. Never mind that Plainview himself delivers orations on friendship, family and community when he’s speaking in public, to sell his services or smooth the way for his operations. In private, he trusts and loves no one but H.W.; and when his relationship with the boy is ruptured–call it fate or another catastrophe of mechanics–Plainview’s scorn for Eli Sunday turns into violent hostility.
For all its detailed attention to the building of an industrial fortune–the competition to acquire property, the management of men and equipment, the drive to control both production and transport–There Will Be Blood develops into a contest of wills between Plainview and Sunday, and so resolves unexpectedly into an argument about faith. Or, to judge from the malefic exuberance of the final scene, perhaps it’s an argument against faith.
So where, you might ask, is the revolution? Admirers of Oil! and Nation readers may be disappointed to find that Anderson has chucked out the people’s soviets, along with the rest of the novel’s politics: the labor agitation, the factional debates, the translation of generational conflict into class struggle. If There Will Be Blood had pretended to give an accurate picture of its era, this would have been a fatal omission.
But few things can be as useless as a historical drama of historical interest–which is what Anderson would have risked making had he incorporated material that’s wholly outside the experience of most of today’s viewers. Instead, he’s reasonably used his period characters to suggest contemporary political meanings. In Plainview’s speeches, you hear a forecast of the present-day public entrepreneur, with his promises that the market (meaning himself) will shower bread, sunshine and good schools wherever he makes a buck; while in Sunday’s preaching, you hear the voice of every modern fundamentalist election-broker who declares that Jesus alone (meaning himself) can set our society right.
In reality, as you may have observed, these two figures have been allied for decades. Anderson’s twist is to set them against each other, in an imaginative reordering of society so radical that it almost qualifies as political in itself. He distorts history, the source novel and your sense of the contemporary scene. And what do you get in exchange? Just the invigoration of seeing God and Mammon going for each other’s throat.
Of course, if Plainview and Sunday were allegorical, there would be no satisfaction in the spectacle. The antagonists have to be fleshed-out vessels of the promised blood; and so I come to Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Plainview.
You can see how Day-Lewis pieced together the outward elements of the characterization: the slight stoop and limp that testify to old injuries suffered in the pit; the huffing and wheezing that suggest years of breathing rock dust and oil fumes; the grand, baritonal way of forming words, which Plainview must have copied from the era’s classiest stump speakers; the habit of pausing and working his jaw, which betrays the agitation simmering beneath every show of patience. Other actors, too, could have figured out such signs. Day-Lewis establishes them and then makes you forget their presence, much as you ignore the scaffolding of the oil derrick once the forces of nature come blasting through. The emotion that Day-Lewis taps seems so spontaneous, and so volcanic, that his performance ought to be listed in the end credits as a special effect, along with the computer-generated imagery used for the fiery gusher. Even here, of course, there must have been calculation. I imagine that in preparing the performance, Day-Lewis might have worked backward from his biggest moments, planning when to hint at restrained fury, when to release a note of sarcasm or contempt and when to let loose an outburst, always increasing the magnitude toward the climax in the final scene. But this still says nothing about the complexity of the characterization–for example, the way Plainview will pet and imprison H.W. in a single gesture–or the wonderful paradox of an actor’s displaying such power while being attentive to everyone else in the scene. Instead of blowing away his fellow players, Day-Lewis makes them all better by the sheer intensity of his focus on them. To mention only the most obvious case: the admirable Paul Dano, who could have played Eli Sunday opposite any Plainview and been memorable, meets the challenge in Day-Lewis’s eyes and makes himself uncanny.
If there had to be one word for There Will Be Blood, in fact, I suppose “uncanny” would do. The score, composed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (with a major assist from Johannes Brahms), wraps you in a brooding, unnerving, exhilarating atmosphere in which massed strings can swarm like uneasy flies or shriek like a siren. The cinematography, by Robert Elswit, confronts you with a high, desolate terrain that sometimes, in the shifting light and color, resembles a crouched and breathing beast. Plainview wants nothing to do with the otherworldly, and given the screenplay’s construction, he emphatically gets the final word on that subject; but the sounds and images contradict him.
There was something uncanny as well in the season’s other downward-spiraling western, No Country for Old Men–that Calvinist horror show stalked by Javier Bardem as God’s own bogeyman. Why the Coen brothers should believe in the total depravity of humankind and the need for grace (withheld more often than given), I really don’t know; but they turned this worldview into an exceptionally well-made movie. It’s so immaculate, it will provoke anxiety in you for two hours straight without so much as mussing your hair.
There Will Be Blood, by contrast, is flamboyant rather than immaculate, not just well made but brilliantly and intuitively expressive; and it leaves you feeling shaken but also a little stronger. Maybe Plainview wins his argument against faith, but he loses a deeper argument with H.W.–one about trust and kindness. His loss; your gain.