There Will Be Blood
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Premiered at Fantastic Fest September 27, 2007
In Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank suggests that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was written long before it was published, as not only does it take place in a world that more closely resembles the 1930s than the 1950s, it also borrows its style from terrible left-wing propaganda novels of that time. Frank doesn’t mention any such books by name, but we may reasonably include Upton Sinclair’s awkward fictionalized socialist manifesto Oil!
Apparently, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson read Oil! and decided it would work better if he ditched the politics, used the first three chapters as only the barest inspiration, and made a brutal psychodrama epic with a three-hour run-time but minimal dialogue, mostly performed by a notoriously hammy method actor doing an over-the-top American accent, with a title lifted from a line from the trailer for Saw II.
Somehow that ended up being the best film of 2007.
Ever interested in the history of his native Southern California, There Will Be Blood, like its remote source material Oil!, is inspired at least in part on the life of Edward Doheny, father of the region’s once-unfathomable oil boom whose remnants can still be seen around Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Bakersfield. At the turn of the 20th century, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lonely, fiercely determined oil prospector whose miserable work gradually pays off. He finds unlikely fortune when he adopts H.W. (Dillon Freasier),the son of one of his workers killed in an accident, and the boy gives Plainview a family-friendly image in contrast to the faceless corporate monopolies he must compete with.
Fortune strikes again years later when young drifter Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) tells Plainview of a vast and heretofore uncharted oil field under his piss-poor family ranch in Little Boston, near Bakersfield. Traveling there under the guise of purchasing the land as a hunting ground, Plainview is stopped short by Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Paul Dano), who demands $10,000 for the land to fund his fledgling Evangelical movement.
From there, a surprising amount of stuff happens. H.W. is deafened by an explosion and sent away, a mysterious stranger arrives claiming to be Daniel’s half-brother (Kevin J. O’Connor), and Daniel surveys and builds a hundred-mile pipeline to the ocean to avoid the usurious prices of the Standard Oil-owned Southern Pacific Railroad as his animosity with the equally but differently megalomaniacal Eli reaches a fever pitch.
There Will Be Blood is unconventional as populist entertainment, but it’s not for nothing that it was as big a hit as it was. It’s a true cinematic experience; a deliberate, ominous, yet captivating Herzogian spectacle of man and nature; as beautiful in its depiction of disaster as it is of the unspoiled landscapes of rural California (though mostly filmed in Texas). Despite what I imagine to be an even shorter script than No Country for Old Men, it is eminently quotable as well, funny in parts, even as it borrows much of its dialogue from real-world speeches, writings, and scandalous depositions. But, more than anything, you cannot take your eyes away.
There Will Be Blood has the finest original score of the year, a triumph by Jonny Greenwood. Unfortunately, the Academy disqualified it from consideration because they used Brahms as well. Fuck them.
Minnie (as well as I during my first viewing) thought Paul and Eli might have been the same person. Was the movie trying to fake us out?
How Did It Do?
There Will Be Blood grossed $76.2 million against a $25 million budget. Critics gave it not only a 91% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, but the #1 spot on no fewer than twenty published US critics’ year-end top ten lists, and awards for Best Picture from the Los Angeles and National Film Critics’ Associations.
When Oscar came calling, There Will Be Blood won for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Cinematography (Robert Elswit), and was nominated for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Picture. The race for Best Picture was widely believed to be between There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. No Country won, but today’s film seemed to skew a bit younger, as it is generally regarded as not only the better film, but the best film of the best year in the history of film. In spite of Juno’s best efforts, Blood turned out to be one of the most quotable pictures of the season, with “I drink your milkshake” elevated to genuine meme status while the movie was still in theaters, and ten years on, Daniel Plainview has remained Day-Lewis’ most iconic performance.
So while my heart (and the hearts of many others in retrospect) may belong to Zodiac, There Will Be Blood has won its chapter in the history of film. Of all the films I’ve reviewed for this project, it is the last bona fide classic that will be covered. But fall has barely begun, and things will remain…interesting.
Next Time: Why Did I Get Married?