Paul Thomas Anderson has had a uniquely varied and distinguished body of work but There Will Be Blood may very well be his greatest achievement. It is hard to believe that I first saw There Will Be Blood nearly ten years ago. After seeing the trailer, I was immediately drawn to the film and knew I had to see it. When I finally did, I left the theater blown away by what I had seen. I am grateful I had the opportunity to see the film in the theater because it is the kind of movie that demands to be seen on the big screen.
There Will Be Blood has stayed with me ever since and remains one of my absolute favorite films of all time. It is a dense film and one that is uniquely American, charting the growth of the oil industry and the rise of capitalism in the Industrial Age. The film looms large with themes of power and greed, business and religion, family and fatherhood. It is epic in every sense and yet, presents an intimate character study of one man’s ruthless pursuit of the American Dream. Being the complex film that it is, There Will Be Blood is not about just one thing but many. However, I will be focusing on the film’s theme of fatherhood, which is in my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood follows the rise of a miner turned oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). The opening sequence shows Daniel at his most vulnerable. He is mining for gold and slips and breaks his leg. It is a brilliant wordless sequence, amplified considerably by Johnny Greenwood’s remarkable score. Daniel may be a monster but his true nature is not apparent at first. In these early sequences, his determination, hard work ethic, and care for his infant son H.W. make him by all accounts, a sympathetic character.
It really isn’t until the oil rig explosion that Daniel’s true nature becomes apparent. As a result of the explosion, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) becomes deaf. Daniel comes to H.W.’s aid but after tossing him aside, returns to the derrick. Daniel realizes that there is an ocean of oil underneath his feet and he is the only one who can get to it. Daniel is so entranced by the raging fire and the promise of wealth and success that it represents, that H.W. has become an afterthought.
The power play between Daniel and an evangelical preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) drives the film and reaches it apex at the end. When Daniel has his first physical confrontation with Eli, he is frustrated over H.W.’s loss of hearing. “Aren’t you a healer and a vessel for the holy spirit?,” Daniel screams. Daniel slaps Eli around and drags him in the mud.
The arrival of Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) re-iterates Daniel’s need for family. Henry claims to be Daniel’s brother and the two form a partnership. In one brilliant sequence, Daniel converses with Henry, opening up to another human being for the first time in the film. “I have a competition in me,” he says. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” Henry becomes H.W.’s replacement because the boy’s deafness has made him ill-suited for the “family business.” When Daniel and Henry meet with Standard Oil, H.M. Tilford offers to buy Daniel out and make him a millionaire. Daniel has an opportunity to become wealthy and spend more time with H.W. but his ego and thirst for power will not allow it. When Daniel finally learns that Henry is not his actual brother, he kills him without hesitation.
When Daniel is coerced into becoming baptized at Eli’s church the following day, it is time for revenge. Eli now has the upper hand and humiliates Daniel, forcing him to acknowledge that he has abandoned H.W. Daniel shows genuine guilt but the promise of the pipeline overshadows his love for H.W.
The film jumps forward in time to 1927 and reaches its conclusion. H.W. goes to visit Daniel, who is now an alcoholic and a recluse. When H.W. reveals plans to move to Mexico to start his own business, Daniel disowns him. Daniel mocks H.W.’s deafness and reveals his true origins as an orphan. A brief flashback shows Daniel playing with H.W. and displaying genuine affection. There is no doubt in my mind. Daniel did, at one time, love H.W. and he was the very thing that kept him human. As soon as Daniel and H.W.’s relationship became degraded, so began Daniel’s descent into madness. Soon after, Daniel is visited by Eli, who is now a radio preacher. It is the final battle of wits between these two flawed men. It is also the iconic scene in which Daniel proclaims, “I drink your milkshake.” At this point in the story, Daniel has been stripped of all humanity and he kills Eli. After, he proclaims, “I’m finished,” as if giving the film permission to end.
One cannot discuss There Will Be Blood without mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance. He is incredible and it may very well be the greatest performance of the decade. Paul Dano may not be a match for Day-Lewis but he still delivers a great performance nonetheless. To be fair, Day-Lewis had a year to prepare for his role whereas Dano only had four days. Two weeks into the 60-day shoot, Anderson replaced the actor who was playing Eli Sunday with Dano. Dillon Freasier, a non-actor, is a natural and gives a wonderfully stoic and subdued performance as H.W.
There Will Be Blood is set during the California oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite its historical backdrop, the film is timely. The Iraq War, a war for oil, raged on at the time of the film’s release. Even today, the film’s themes and implications seem to be the zeitgeist of our times. There Will Be Blood remains one of my absolute favorite films of all time. It is a visually stunning film and one of the great American movies of the 21st century.