Paul Thomas Anderson has made cinematic epics before. He applied the stylistic touches of David Lean and Robert Altman to both Boogie Nights and Magnolia; however, There Will Be Blood is pure Anderson. Oddly enough There Will Be Blood is the first film Anderson adapted instead of writing an original screenplay. Anderson used Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! as the base for There Will Be Blood, but made so many bold departures that it was proper that he rename his film. Not only is There Will Be Blood the best film of the decade, but also it is so rich and textured that it will surely stand the test of time as a cinematic milestone.
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Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my all time favorite actors and Daniel Plainview is one of his absolute finest creations. Towards the beginning of the decade Lewis stole the screen as Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Like Plainview, the Butcher was a man with a strong presence that dominated the people around him. The characters motivations were even similar. At their core both men were motivated by greed. There are two big differences that define both men.
The first difference is the social status of each man at the beginning of his story. While Butcher starts as the leader of a very powerful gang, we first see Plainview alone as he digs for silver. He is a poor man, but he is determined to achieve more. This determination is what captivated me most about Plainview’s character. Much has been written about the long silent opening of the film but I didn’t really even notice it the first time I saw the film. I was so caught up in the story that nothing else mattered. When Plainview is digging he gets injured. He then proceeds to drag himself out of the hole he is in and presumably back to society. The last image we see from this moment is Plainview moving himself on the ground, as the camera pulls back to show the audience the extensive hills and vast emptiness before him. From this moment on we know that Plainview will do any and everything to achieve his goals.
The other big difference between Bill the Butcher and Daniel Plainview is each man’s sense of morality. The Butcher believes that America should belong only to natural born citizens. His ideas are misguided and result in horrific actions, but he thinks what he believes is correct. Plainview does not entertain any delusions about the justification of his actions. His actions are always self-serving and he knows it.
Quentin Tarantino’s big criticism with There Will Be Blood was with Paul Dano’s performance as Eli Sunday. He said, “It does seem a compromise.” I couldn’t disagree more. I was skeptical before seeing the film, but afterwards I wouldn’t want to see another actor in the role. The first time Dano is on screen it is as Paul Sunday, not as his brother Eli, the character he plays in the rest of the film. Paul comes to Daniel to sell him the location of oil. The oil happens to be on the Sunday’s property. Paul is not just selling the location of oil, but also the fate of his family to Daniel. From that moment Daniel’s future becomes forever linked to Eli’s and that of the entire Sunday family.
If Daniel Plainview is the embodiment of greed in business, then Eli Sunday is the embodiment of corruption within religion. Anderson does not paint a pretty portrait of either institution. While attention is first given to Plainview, Eli is as important to understanding the entirety of the picture. Dano does as good a job as any actor could, fulfilling his role. There is a certain symmetry to the shots in the film that feature Daniel and Eli that seem to suggest that the two men are equals; however, it is not important that they are equals in eyes of the director, or in the eyes of god. The only opinion that carries any weight in There Will Be Blood is that of Daniel Plainview. He sees everyone, other than himself, as bottom dwellers. He seems certain that they are as morally compromised as he is. He self-analyzes at a crucial moment in the film and says, “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” There is truth in this statement and yet, like most things in life, it is not an absolute. Towards the start of the picture Daniel takes charge of a young boy. He doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart. It is obvious that he sees an opportunity where he can help himself by appearing as a family man. Later in the movie when his “son” is injured, he tries to ignore his feelings of responsibility. Eventually his feelings of responsibility overwhelm him , and he takes charge of his boy. He protects his child. Daniel fulfills the role of a father even though he would rather ignore it.
I mentioned earlier that I am attracted to stories about fathers and sons. One of most interesting things about Daniel Plainview’s relationship with H.W., his “son” is that Daniel is not actually his father. While Daniel knows this, H.W. does not. This creates an interesting dynamic between the two individuals. Daniel becomes attached to H.W. but is always aware that he is not actually the boy’s father. This allows Daniel to shed any sense of responsibility for H.W. During an interview on Charlie Rose, Paul Thomas Anderson referenced a moment when he was writing There Will Be Blood when he realized that he was again writing about a father-son relationship. He said, “I remember writing a scene…with a nine year old and his father and I thought I’m not writing this again.” It’s true that many of the themes of There Will Be Blood are familiar. This does not make them any less interesting, nor any less valid. Dirk Diggler, Anderson’s famous protagonist in Boogie Nights, is a product of his family. He tells his mother, “You don’t know what I can do! You don’t know what I can do, what I’m gonna do, or what I’m gonna be! I’m good! I have good things that you don’t know about! I’m gonna be something!” This same form of rebellion also seen in one of the final scenes in There Will Be Blood, where H.W. confronts Daniel with his decisions for the future. Anderson also described Magnolia once, saying that it is about “Parent/Children relationships…and how that informs who we are.”
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I’ve heard some people complain about the third act of the film. A good friend of mine thought it was too over the top. It may not be realistic, but it seems like the natural progression of everything that happened up to that point. There Will Be Blood is like experiencing life as a man who is loosing his mind. By the time his “brother” is introduced and Eli is reintroduced, the images seem like a dream. Two men influential in establishing this odd tone are Robert Elswit and Jonny Greenwood. Elswit is the cinematographer who has shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. It’s hard to imagine what an Anderson film would be without him. He added old school credibility to Anderson’s early work, and now he continues to create his best work with Anderson. It’s interesting to note that Elswit finally won an Oscar for his work on There Will Be Blood. His cinematic vision in the film was truly sweeping. Both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were shot in the Marfa, Texas at the same time. Although No Country for Old Men is another great film, it seems small in scope compared to There Will Be Blood. When you watch both films, Elswit’s achievement as a cinematographer becomes clear. Roger Deakin’s work on No Country for Old Men created a more familiar landscape in his film, while Elswit’s become truly epic, each man contributing their unique and crucial vision to their particular film.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a milestone. It shows hope for the future of cinema. There is still interesting and important work being done in cinema. There is room for thoughtful films in the same world as Transformers and Spiderman. There Will Be Blood addressed the frontier and birth of greed in America. Sadly the film industry is volatile. The two companies that made There Will Be Blood have both declined. Paramount Vantage was consolidated into Paramount, and Disney decided to consolidate Miramax as well. Though There Will Be Blood may have been perceived as risky for a studio, it was a financial success. I believe that as long as there are directors like Paul Thomas Anderson working, cinema has a bright future. Anderson once said, “I don’t know if I’m the type of guy who wants to run the world like Spielberg, or retreat to a mansion like Kubrick. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
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- David Kirkeby, “Films of the Decade – 1. There Will Be Blood.” Point Of View Reviews- Movie reviews by DW Kirkeby, and more, from ClassBrain's Movies in the Classroom. 6 March 2017, 13:43 UTC. . 24 Mar 2018 <http://pointofviewreviews.com/films-of-the-decade-1-there-will-be-blood/>.
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- David Kirkeby, “Films of the Decade – 1. There Will Be Blood.” Point Of View Reviews- Movie reviews by DW Kirkeby, and more, from ClassBrain's Movies in the Classroom, http://pointofviewreviews.com/films-of-the-decade-1-there-will-be-blood/ [accessed March 24, 2018].