In the beginning there is darkness. And, in the darkness, a man with a pickaxe claws at the earth as if he’s looking for the way back in. He grunts from such heavy labour, but keeps digging, driven.
Anderson’s Fifth shapes up like this, in stark, crude gestures and sounds. There will be groans and cries and whimpers, but no words for 15 or 20 minutes. Jonny Greenwood’s Penderecki-like score intrudes, the sound of a string section under duress. Loudening. An immediately anxious, unsettling, discordant crescendo. Agitato. Taken with the Gothic type of Anderson’s sanguinary title, it suggests horrors on the horizon.
Or beneath it.
The year is 1898, and our solitary miner (Daniel Day-Lewis) is about to make his first strike. The silver he discovers—as he falls, breaking his leg—doesn’t make him wealthy overnight, but lays the foundation for his subsequent fortunes. He scratches his name on the claim stake after he’s dragged himself into town: Daniel Plainview.
This will prove a recurring pattern, though Plainview, forever limping, never acknowledges it. Those moments of triumph and vindication—the strikes, gushers, and deals—will bring disasters hand in hand: death, betrayal, and isolation. The more successful and powerful he becomes, the lower he’ll sink.
Intriguingly, Anderson elected to shoot in Marfa, Texas, where George Stevens earlier made his saga, Giant (1956). Its barren desert scrub is a quintessential American wilderness, fecund territory for evangelists and snake-oil salesmen. Yet for all its reserves of latent allegory, There Will Be Blood is meticulous about surface detail. Anderson, production designer Jack Fisk, and DP Robert Elswit have pored over the history of the mining business, and the film maps out the engineering involved in drawing energy from the land with the same strident dedication of James Dean’s Jett Rink.
By 1902, Plainview has come up with a prototype derrick and he’s on the verge of a more monumental discovery: oil. He has a team of men, and there’s even a baby in the camp, whose father anoints him with a dab of black gold—a mock religious gesture that might invite a blessing or a curse. Minutes later, an accident orphans the child and the boss is left bouncing the baby on his knee.
It’s only when Anderson cuts to 1907 that we hear speech. Why this elective silence? Perhaps to put some distance between his film and the written word: the starting point was Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, but Anderson has jettisoned most of the last 200 pages, notably the dispute between the oilman and his son, who sides with Marxist union organizers. Still, given Anderson’s bleak portrait of a ferocious capitalist, Sinclair would have approved.
More than one review has pointed out how There Will Be Blood breaks from the cacophonous societies PTA has navigated in the past, with their familial ensemble casts and constant jiving. It’s dedicated to Robert Altman, but this is the least “Altmanesque” of Anderson’s movies (though not necessarily thematically), the most singular in purpose, and the most classical. The story spans from 1898-1927, a boom time for the US and—as the filmmaker is undoubtedly aware—more or less the lifespan of American silent cinema.
Of course, audacity is its own signature, and Anderson’s flamboyant effacement keeps with his penchant for extravagant formal elaborations: the snaky travelling shots in Boogie Nights (1997); Tom Cruise breaking into song in Magnolia (1999); and Jeremy Blake’s abstract chromatic interludes in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). In each instance Anderson breaks cinematic convention to push the medium’s expressive possibilities. Some complain he’s only expressing his ego (the first words we hear—“Ladies and gentleman”—practically invoke a bow), but here Anderson’s put himself aside—and on the line—pouring it all into this one creation, also an aesthetic watchword: Plainview.
And so we can say this silent treatment evokes the historical period; it distinguishes the story’s first nine years from what follows, so that it might be read as a prologue; it prefigures the fate of Daniel’s adopted son, H.W., who will lose his hearing when caught too close to a gusher; and it introduces Daniel through his deeds, not his words: this is a man of considerable enterprise and self-reliance.
When the words finally come, they flow, as Plainview confidently presents his credentials to a town licensing its drilling rights. It’s a speech he’ll deliver several times over the next two hours, each time refined a little more cleverly. It says, “You can trust me, I am an experienced oilman, and I am not here to swindle you. I am a family man just like you. We value children, community, and prayer, and we will prosper together.”
Already Plainview presents himself as upright and prosperous: capital’s friendly face. He is well dressed in the Western manner, and there’s nothing of the roughneck about him. He’s assiduously well-spoken, formal, and polite. His voice is deep, honeyed, and mellifluous: Did DDL’s impeccable line readings mean to echo John Huston? And PTA The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)? Regardless, it’s a mesmerizing performance, brooding and intense, and it dominates the film. A good part of the drama’s pull is gauging Plainview’s sincerity in these dealings, and recognizing the extent to which his pitch is horsewash.
He’s an oilman; that much is true. But he’ll swindle as best he may. “What Church do you belong to?” asks Paul Sunday, the runaway who leads him to the Promised Land of Little Boston. “I…I enjoy all faiths,” Daniel stammers. “I like them all.” When he sets up shop, his office stands at one end of town, with Paul’s brother Eli Sunday’s Church of the Third Revelation the other. These are the first permanent constructions this side of the station, the twin pillars of a burgeoning tent city: business and religion. Plainview talks piously, but capitalism is his faith; still, he’s astonished when he ventures in and sees Eli’s evangelical preaching (a bravura one-take turn by Paul Dano).
Despite that flurry of agitation (and it’s a recurring note in the score), if There Will Be Blood is a horror movie, it’s under the surface. Yes, there will be blood, eventually, but it’s more a biographical drama, a rags-to-riches story, and even a dynastic fable. Anderson has said he was thinking of Dracula as he wrote Plainview, and we might discern shadows of other men: Jack McCann in Eureka (1984); McTeague from Greed (1924); maybe Michael Corleone and Noah Cross; the real (not Scorsese’s) Howard Hughes; and certainly Charles Foster Kane. It’s some measure of Anderson and Day-Lewis’ great achievement that Plainview may be the most monstrous in this lofty company. Impressive and self-contained at first, he disintegrates before our eyes into a wretched, drooling grotesque, homicidal in his self-righteous self-hatred.
Greed consumes Daniel, it festers in his emptiness and pride. This self-made man knows no women, it seems, but recognizes three kin: first is H.W. (Dillon Freasier), the son who is not his blood, but who brings out the warmest feeling in Daniel, until the accident. Then there’s Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), the brother who is not his blood, but who Daniel embraces in a moment of weaknesses, and opens up to like no other. “Are you are an angry man? Are you envious? I have a competition in me,” he confides. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” It’s the movie’s most honest and revealing speech, and such a naked confession of misanthropy that it will seal the imposter’s fate.
And then there’s Eli, the preacher who addresses his most reluctant congregant as “Brother Daniel.” Plainview singles out Eli, the double of his sibling Paul (both played by Dano) as his greatest rival—not because he fears the Word, but because he recognizes and repudiates his kinship with this venal false prophet. (And he is kin, too: H.W. has married Eli’s sister.) With Eli, finally, it all comes crashing down, a jaw-dropping, annihilating ending to a bold, deeply American, success story.