There Will Be Blood

United States, 2007

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

With Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Dillon Freasier (HW), Russel Harvard (HW as an adult), Paul Dano (Paul Sunday/Eli Sunday), David Willis (Abel Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry)

Up and down, narrow and wide: the film’s first part features gorgeous long shots on mountains overlooking the rocky place where a lonely man toils to dig gold, a struggle with the flinty, stony nature that visually swings from dark close shots deep down the well he has dug to sun-scorched images of the flimsy rigging he built up, the over-straining wielding of the pickax giving way to the punishing pulling of ropes. The efforts end up in a depressingly bittersweet note: he does find gold but a rung of his makeshift ladder gets broken, so he must complete the task with a leg badly broken. But he does it: this a really tough and resolute guy whose drive to get rich turns him into an amazingly resilient, enduring, and successful adventurer – as the buyer’s hand fills the columns of a ledger in a close-up a wider shot right away shows him patiently lying on a stretcher, splints holding tight his leg. Rage to win big prods him into taking willfully risks and carrying on undaunted, even if the outcome comes with blood tainting the expected bundle of greenbacks.

A really tough and resilient and clever guy- and a bigger-than-life ego: Daniel Day Lewis

The year is 1898 and this wordless and masterfully shot episode, which is actually like a prologue to the wider story, does not last long, enough to make plain what kind of man Daniel Plainview is. The next episode is as short as this one; time is now 1902 – years fly by, rushed along by the man’s ambition. The stuff that is fiercely sought is now oil. Daniel Plainview is a boss, running a small team of workers digging the ground. This is even dirtier and dicier than the previous job: the camera graphically captures how workers wallow and slog in the rising black, thick mush, the liquid sullying them and the camera’s eye. The danger is readily illustrated by the tragic death of a man, who has been showed several times before holding a baby, a kind of human presence definitely implausible in such a place. No explanation is given about this baby boy; after the accident, he is just taken care of by Daniel Plainview; but wasn’t he rather the dead worker’s kid? That part of the film lets more words getting exchanged but it remains mostly a silent, intense observation of men toiling hard and patiently to grab from the Earth what they need, a remarkably detailed survey on how oil was found and exploited decades ago.

Another leap in time brings the feature to year 1911 – and the main story. “I’m an oilman”, he proudly says, confidence and cunning lighting up his face as he negotiates the buying of a promising field that he bluntly decides not to grab. Daniel Plainview is a successful businessman making a pile from fields he explored. He is a slightly bend and worn man now but remains wiry and willful. Tagging along him is his son HW, now 9, a quiet child whose attire and demeanor give him the look of a diminutive personal assistant to the boss. He never strays from a father whom he loves; daddy’s business is the education he gets, and there is no need to go to school; anyway, the strong attachment of the man for the kid would keep it impossible.

A meeting with a peasant eager to cash money to make a fresh start, Paul Sunday, allows Daniel Plainview to make what is on the face of it a good bargain: a tract of barren fields with oil oozing on the surface, possibly one of his biggest finds in years of work. He manages to get the owner, farmer Abel Sunday, Paul’s father, sign up the deal, even though he must accept the conditions spelled out by the other son of the farmer, Paul’s twin brother, Eli, a would-be preacher who wants to establish his own church.

But the bargain turns out to be a harsh, confusing battle for life, a radical experience testing Daniel Plainview’s temperament. If the fields did yield huge amounts of oil, exploitation is marred with accidents, one killing a worker and the other hurting badly HW, who becomes deaf. Competition with a bigger corporation, the famous Standard Oil, is fierce. Both the oilman and the preacher clash, the former irked by the style and moral arrogance of the latter who is still waiting for the grant promised when his family’s field was bought. In an even more bizarre and unexpected twist, Daniel Plainview must cope with the arrival of a half-brother, the man his father had from another marriage, Henry. How can the gruff, lonely adventurer strike a bond with a diffident, sad fellow coming from a past he has so far dismissed? How can he help, look for, educate a son who is a cripple? How can he achieve his goal, earning the fortune he needs to retire safely and nicely? How can he handle the stubborn presence and real seduction of Eli Sunday? Surprises and troubles have caught him into a whirlwind questioning his confidence, challenging his natural-born obstinacy and brutality as the narrative intertwined many strands while moving irrevocably forward in time.

A long talk through the night with Henry has made things clear: trusting the fellow, the lead character uses his trademark plain speaking to articulate who he is. This is a man who does not trust anyone and bears no illusion: the more he sees the world the more he despises it. The film has emphasized the point: he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, wore himself up to get what he has and ended up trusting only his efforts. This is a solitary man who had luck and wants to keep folks and emotions at bay. Yet he embraces Henry and makes him a new assistant, while HW is confined to a distant special school. But when Henry makes an innocuous remark about the past he did not expect Daniel Plainview suspects the man is a fraud. Henry owns up this misdeed but is savagely punished by death, a shocking murder casting definitely Daniel Plainview as a merciless, wild character, unconcerned with feelings and ethics. Even when a member of the church of Eli Sunday thinks he has the oilman cornered, having guessed the crime he committed, and compels him to be what he never wanted to be, a follower of Eli, things do not play out quite like the guy hoped: even as he gets a new baptism, Daniel Plainview betrays his hypocrisy. He remains an incorrigible player keen to do whatever it takes to pursue his goals and to keep his person and personality intact.

Years fly by again: this is now 1927, Daniel Plainview lives in a sprawling and swanky mansion while HW has married Abel Sunday’s eldest daughter and reckons to be an entrepreneur on his own right. But he gets no support; he is actually insulted and told he is not the businessman’s natural son. As this key figure of the story leaves another, one comes in to pay a visit to the old man, who has become a cantankerous, callous, and sloven drunkard. Eli Sunday is still looking for money his lavish way of living and his work as a famous preacher demand. But he would be sorely disappointed, too, and even murdered.

The extraordinary narrative arc of Daniel Plainview ends in the most horrendous and astonishing way, in a bloodbath carried out in a stunning, incredibly well crafted and shot, outburst of rage. “I’m finished”, he tells his butler who has gingerly come to see what has been going on, a deeply sarcastic sentence as it seems the businessman simply wants to say he no longer needs the food he has been served up and that was lying nearby but that could mean he has done the only big task still waiting to be completed. The main section of the narrative can be read safely as the clash between the true believer and the tough businessman, the old rivalry between God and Mammon, the rules of the Religion and the opportunities of Business, a narrative swaying again between up and down, that is Heaven and Hell, narrow and wide, that is the material life and the promise of Eden. Maybe it is because he never took seriously Eli’s gift that Daniel had so many surprises and troubles, his story becoming a fall from grace and a failed redemption. And the repugnant behaviors of the oilman seem to call for such a moralistic judgment. But it is not that simple.

After all, all the words Daniel Plainview tells people he wants to convince are not empty: oil gives wealth and wealth sustains the community and brings modernity – and the film suggests that this modernity is real and for good. The man who can be a demanding and difficult boss does view his team as a family and tries to look after the workers. And even when he rejects his son at the end, it is hard to forget how tender and kind he has been to the boy – and indeed images from the past are rushed in the montage even as the young man is stinging from the hurtful words of Daniel Plainview.

On the other hand Eli Sunday, with his sanctimonious attitudes and hysterical preaching, rather calls to mind an Elmer Gantry than a George Whitefield. Eli is far more interested in the glory and fame of the preacher than in providing the same kind of help the oilman extends to his workers and the finale makes plain his hypocrisy – a previous incident already showed how merciless he could be, arguing with and beating his father. The real clash is rather between a self-professed man of talent and a hard-working man of riches who has detected that he is dealing with just a fraud. And that suspicion is enough to breed rage.

Or rather to stoke it further. The initial sequence has already demonstrated, by those savage and stubborn efforts how much passion, need, anger, obstinacy drive the man. The conversation with Henry suggested he had been unable to get along with his own father, that he has been thrown alone in the world, floundering to survive. What it is all about with Daniel Plainview is rage, the rage against fate, against poverty, against nature, the rage to survive, to thrive, to exist. His bloody and scandalous final outburst of rage fits in a wider pattern, it is the rage of a man who thinks he was right and good at thwarting an illegitimate ambition and who is glad to get over with the fight, to be finished, indeed, with it, and to stand at last alone and satisfied, satisfied of course from the viewpoint of his arrogance that has degenerated into bitterness and contempt.

This is a bigger-than-life character, at the same time coherent and compelling but unruly and unpalatable, a character hard to relate to most of the time but always riveting to watch. He stands for adventure, wealth, and fatherhood and yet creates chaos, misery, and hatred. He is actually a living ambiguity even if he projects assertiveness and decisiveness – and ambiguity colors what he gets from his efforts. If he is finished when the curtain drops the audience may have not been finished with him, still trying to size up the man, to come to terms with his dark character, to fit him within the long, complex history of the United States.

In addition to a splendid cinematography, great editing, and a superlative performance by the lead actor (obviously one of the best works Daniel Day-Lewis has ever put on screen), “There Will Be Blood” is impressive because, through the bold and nitty-gritty visual adaptation of a carefully written screenplay, it is such a lucid and passionate inquiry of the kind of powerful and contentious men who have built the nation, iconic and flawed men whose darker sides just add breadth and complexity to their charisma and strength rather than undercutting them. Told like an epic, and shot likewise, this portrait is also a tribute to a part of the American cinema keen on exploring how adventure, risk-taking, struggle with nature and men define strong, manly characters and make fine, engrossing stories, willing to delve into awkward personalities to re-examine past and present, embracing wide spaces and controversial plots. John Huston is an avowed inspiration to a film dedicated to Robert Altman. Director Paul Thomas Anderson proves here that he rightly deserves to be put in the same league as these two great filmmakers.

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