Published on December 20th, 2007 | by Padraic Coffey0
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The origin of the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth film, There Will Be Blood, is the source of some contention. Loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, Anderson amended the original name, partly because his film bore scant resemblance to its source material, and partly to avoid obvious comparisons with then-President George W. Bush’s excursions into Iraq (the phrase ‘No blood for oil’ was a popular chant on many globally-held anti-war rallies). Kim Newman, the esteemed British film historian, suggested it may be derived from, of all things, the tagline of infamous ‘torture porn’ Saw II (“Oh yes, there will be blood…”). This certainly complements Newman’s other theory, that There Will Be Blood is an example of horror cinema surreptitiously influencing vastly dissimilar genres. However, like many things about the film, its interpretability is left deliberately open.
It may well mean ‘blood’ in the context of family, of which Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is hopelessly bereft. His past is only ever alluded to in ambiguous asides, which hint at an abusive paternal relationship. His attempts at forging close relationships with kin are dashed on all accounts; with HW (Dillon Freasier), the orphaned child of a co-worker he adopts as his son, and with Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), the estranged, alleged half-brother who materialises unexpectedly on Plainview’s Californian oil-refinery. Plainview is the personification of ruthlessly ambitious capitalism, driven by a desire not only to augment his own wealth, but to defeat and humiliate all those of a similar inclination. “I have a competition in me”, he confesses in an extraordinary monologue. “I want no one else to succeed”. Later, presented with the chance to trade in his shares to multinational Standard Oil for an enormous amount, he declines. “What else would I do with myself?”, is his reasoning.
There Will Be Blood begins with no opening credits, bar the title card, and therefore no literal indication that we are watching a Paul Thomas Anderson film. It marks an even further transition from his earlier work than Punch-Drunk Love, its immediate predecessor. The roaming cameras that glided so confidently through Boogie Nights and Magnolia are replaced by a more restrained visual style. Whereas Boogie Nights began with an epic tracking shot, and Magnolia a complex prologue detailing a trio of loosely related stories, There Will Be Blood starts with Radiohead-guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s oddly appropriate music, mimicking the sound of an impending train. We are then introduced to Day-Lewis’ Plainview, quarrying for minerals at the turn of the twentieth century. After a fall leaves him with a broken leg, audiences may (erroneously) expect the film to develop into 127 Hours-like suspense (though There Will Be Blood predates Danny Boyle’s film). But we are soon brought forward to 1911, when Plainview, now a successful prospector, sets about establishing an immensely profitable oil-refinery on land cheaply acquired from a naive goat farmer. A quarter of an hour passes before the first word in the film is spoken.
As with Punch-Drunk Love, the sprawling ensemble casts visible in Boogie Nights and Magnolia are absent, replaced by what is essentially a character-study of a single person. Focusing entirely on Plainview for the two-and-a-half-hour running length required an actor of immense skill to ensure audiences were not too dissuaded by the character’s sometimes repellent behaviour. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a superlative performance of ferocious intensity, scooping every reputable award that year from the Screen Actors Guild to the Oscars, where the film was largely overshadowed by the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (to which There Will Be Blood is often bafflingly compared; the two share little besides a vague semblance of the Western genre). Robert Elswit’s cinematography also took home an Academy Award.
The flipside to Plainview’s cold capitalism is the pious proselytising of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), son of the farmer Plainview has conned out of his land. Plainview recognises in Eli the insincerity of his own actions, and comes to view him with bottomless contempt. Anderson described the film as “a horror film about the birth of California” (to reiterate Kim Newman’s theory), but it is also a film about the early intertwining of big business and Christian fundamentalism, an association which persists in the United States to the present day. The offbeat pacing of There Will Be Blood may surprise viewers expecting a more punchy thriller, as promised by its marketing campaign. There Will Be Blood is not a thriller, but an arthouse drama, which marks a new level of maturity in work of Anderson, shaping up as the most gifted American filmmaker of his generation.