There Will Be Blood (2007), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a study in how religion and capitalistic ambition interweave, compromise, and subvert one another. It shows how the value of and need for oil can transform a society, both for good and for bad. It also shows the corrupting influences of ambition and greed along with the darker undertones of the American work ethic and the American dream.
Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the main character Daniel Plainview with the intensity that characterizes his best performances. Only in the final scene does he descend into the boisterous overacting that we saw in The Gangs of New York. Plainview's driving ambition and basic misanthropy (he says he hates most people) eventually deny him meaning and satisfaction in his life. He doesn't like competition of any kind, including, in the end, what he sees as competition from his own son.
Plainview is corrupt in a certain way from the beginning. The opening scenes of the film (when there are long stretches of no dialogue, simply scenes of Plainview at work) emphasize how long and hard he worked. The first part of the film extends from 1898 to 1912—during this period Plainview does nothing but work. We first see him digging an oil well, by himself, in 1898. When he actually discovers oil, he hires a few men to assist him. He never explains his motives or thoughts in these early scenes. He just works—hard, manual labor, hazardous labor, in the dirt and grime—at first alone, then with a few men whom he rarely talks with. We quickly come to understand what we are seeing—one example of how thousands of men sought their fortunes through prospecting for gold or oil or silver. Part of the point here is to suggest that Plainview works hard to gain success and wealth, and that he continues to work long and hard after he has begun to enjoy success. Plainview, however, is a man who enjoys considerable success—he aspires to wealth, power, and the satisfaction they would bring. Yet there is a kind of duplicitous hollowness evident in him from early in the film. When one of his workers is killed, he adopts the man's child as his own but does not tell the child about the circumstances of his birth. He masquerades as the boy's biological father and tells one man that the boy's mother died in childbirth. He resists any prying into the details of his private life. The child believes Plainview is his father.
When Plainview is trying to convince the residents of a small community of the advantages of drilling for oil in their community, he speaks to them as a solicitous and moral family man. He says that he cares about family above all else and goes to some lengths to convince the townspeople by offering to make a donation to the local church and by building a school. Plainview does love above all else the boy he raises as his son—he loves the boy to an extreme. But as his life progresses Plainview seems to be less and less the man he presents to others. He insists so diligently on his devotion to community and family that we begin to doubt him. There is something disingenuous about him.
Ultimately, things begin to go wrong. The boy is injured in an accident and loses his hearing. Plainview at first tries to deal with the accident but then sends the boy away to live in an institution in California. Is he ashamed of his son—is this imperfection a blemish in his scheme? It's not clear whether Plainview believes this or whether he thinks he is doing what is right for the boy. When a man appears claiming to be his half-brother, Plainview takes him in and begins to talk to him in a way he has spoken to no one else we have seen him with. The interest Plainview shows in the man, and in the information he brings about his mother's death, suggests that at heart Plainview really is a man to whom family is important. But when the man confesses to imposture, having stolen the half-brother's journal and identity, Plainview is enraged and viciously kills, burying the body. Shortly after, when he needs permission from a landowner to run a pipeline through his land, he agrees to join the local church and confess his sins—this is the only way he can get what he wants—he's no church believer.
It's not exactly clear why Plainview believes he has failed. Are the wealth, the prestige, and the success not enough? Did he expect more? Did he not plan for a son with disabilities? But whatever the explanation, it's clear that what he has is not enough.
Plainview at one point tells the man posing as his brother that he wants to make enough money to go away and live by himself, away from other people. He tells the man that he hates other people, and that he hates competition in general. Later, when his son announces his intention to go to Mexico and drill for oil on his own, Plainview reminds him that he hates competition—what his son proposes to do is become a competitor. Plainview renounces his son and tells him that he is not his father. This is one of the most intense and difficult scenes in the film.
There are long periods of time in the film when Day-Lewis as Plainview says nothing. We can read him only by his actions, his hard work, his expressionless face. The film seems in no hurry to do anything—especially in the opening scenes the pace is slow—the long, slow scenes are contrary to almost any kind of filmmaking going on in commercial film today. The slow, ponderous, fascinating scenes cast characters against the land in a way that reminds one of Terrence Malick in Badlands (1973) or Days of Heaven (1978). But here there is no visual lyricism, no sentimental paean to the land and the people who inhabit it. Here the colors are washed out. The landscape is huge and expansive and often unvaried. It's the kind of land we encounter in Frank Norris or Jack London. There's no calculated beauty here, though much of what we see is in its own way beautiful. The ponderous slow scenes help us to feel the years of hard labor that Plainview endures in order to get what he thinks he wants.
This is a tale of the late Gilded Age, it reminds me of Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, but certainly seems consistent with Upton Sinclair, whose novel Oil (1927) provided the source for the film—I haven't read Oil so cannot say how much of the novel makes its way into the film.
This film has an unusual and highly interesting soundtrack. Much of the music for the film is composed by Radiohead artist Johnny Greenwood. It's minimalist and discordant music in many ways, out of synch with the scenes it accompanies, but finally very appropriate. Compositions by Arvo Pärt and Johannes Brahms are also featured. The third movement of Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major plays a powerful role in the film's finals scenes, as if to impose lofty and impersonal judgment on Plainview's decline.
The film is dedicated to Robert Altman, one of Anderson's inspirations—Altman's influence is clearly evident in Magnolia (1999). But the director it most reminds me of, especially in its use of music and in its removed, distant, impersonal treatment of characters is Stanley Kubrick, especially the Kubrick of 2001 (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987)--these are films about the transformation of men, and transformation is certainly one of the interests of There will be Blood. I was constantly reminded of Citizen Kane (1941) and how Kane's ambition gradually corrupts and isolates him—Plainview goes through the same process.
One of the characters whom we least understand is the preacher Eli Sunday. He takes every opportunity to ask Plainview to highlight his work as minister of the church—he asks for a donation to the church if oil comes in. He wants to make sure that the roads Plainview plans to build will run by the church, he asks Plainview to name him in the blessing for the new oil well. People in the local community follow Sunday as if he is some sort of prophet, and we begun to feel suspicious of him from an early point. When he is revealed as the hypocrite and poseur that he ultimately proves to be, Plainview is once again enraged. Sunday's piety had haunted Plainview throughout the film as a kind of index or standard against which Plainview might measure his own behavior. When Sunday proves to be as hollow and corrupted as Plainview, then the emptiness of the world at large is revealed. Religion in this film is a social force that manipulates and deceives, just as Plainview himself manipulates and deceives.
As forceful as this film proves to be, as withering as the final scenes are, and as fascinating a portrait as it offers of Plainview, we are ultimately left without a full understanding of this man, of what he desired from life, of what would have satisfied him, of why he was who he was. All we are left with at the end is ambition, greed, hypocrisy, self-destruction, desperation, cruelty, hollowness. The empty house that Plainview inhabits in the latter half of this film is a perfect emblem of the emptiness he embodies. Is this portrait of Plainview as an oil man, the generator of American wealth, the enactor of the American Dream and proponent of American values—community, education, faith, family, hard work-- suggestive of a larger meaning?