We’re so close to the end of our Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective that I can practically taste it. Unfortunately it tastes like crude oil, which isn’t something you really want in your mouth. But perhaps my taste buds are simply confused by the sensory experience that is There Will Be Blood. While the movie doesn’t come with a scratch-and-taste card, Anderson’s 2007 film is plenty immersive on its own.
Inspired by Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, the picture stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a misanthropic, early 20th century prospector-turned-oil man, who buys up most of the land in Little Boston, California – a town that has no idea just how much of the precious liquid exists right under their feet. Daniel’s success is assured, allowing him to provide for his young, adopted son and partner H.W. (Dillon Freasier). H.W. keeps Daniel from checking out on the human race entirely, but local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) constantly tests Daniel’s patience in this regard.
A general plot description doesn’t really do the film justice. There Will Be Blood, much like Punch-Drunk Love, is a character study, and Daniel Day-Lewis is the perfect canvas for Anderson’s vision. Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, a lonely man who claims to have no need for other people. In a quiet moment he says, “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” This isn’t entirely true, though, as Daniel latches on hard to the orphaned H.W. as a baby.
When an accident seriously injures the boy, Daniel finds himself unprotected from the darkness within him. He can no longer connect with his son the way that he once did, so a great anger rises up within him. This is the same darkness we saw in Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk, but Daniel Plainview is much worse at controlling it. So when a new heir presents itself in the form of Daniel’s long-lost half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), Daniel grabs just as tightly as he did with his son, leaving H.W. behind.
Both of the Plainview relations cannot really compete with Daniel’s greed, however, an aspect of the man that is not lost on Eli Sunday. Eli can see the darkness in Daniel, in no small part because a bit of that darkness is in Eli as well. Both men use their darkness as weapons, but only one uses it so ruthlessly.
This battle plays out right up through the final segment, which is the only place where the film falters. A large time jump cuts out Daniel’s ascension to the über-rich, which is not a problem. Daniel was fated for wealth, the real story is how it changes him, or rather how it reveals the real monster that was always inside of him. That’s all fine, but Day-Lewis’s performance gets a little too outsized here. Daniel Plainview was always a showman (despite his claims to the contrary) and larger than life, but the famous milkshake line and the dialogue surrounding it edge on too big.
But it all works in Anderson’s grand tapestry of a hard-hearted man striving for greatness in an environment that is just as hard. Jonny Greenwood’s score gives scattered insight into this mindset, while Robert Elswit’s (and operator Colin Anderson’s) camera shows both the attraction and isolation of the California plains (actually shot in Texas). The film is probably most remembered for Day-Lewis as Plainview, but the deft filmmaking allows him stand out all the more.