At the swell of ominous strings and the fade in of an overwhelming establishing shot of the New Mexico desert landscape, it was clear to me that watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s period drama There Will Be Blood on a 13-inch laptop screen was not exactly ideal. Months later this was suitably rectified after attending a 35mm presentation of what turned out to be a life changing cinematic experience, yet the film’s lasting power lies in the themes of greed, obsession and the isolation that comes as a result.
Daniel Day Lewis won his second Oscar portraying oil prospector Daniel Plainview – amongst nearly every other accolade under the sun, and deservedly so. Plainview represents the toxic nature of competitive individualist interests – arguably the inherent backbone of US capitalism – as he swindles, humiliates and eliminates anyone who poses a threat to his self-made success and growing empire. He takes advantage of small-town naivety and uses any potentially meaningful relationship in his life as a pawn in his never-ending quest for profit. When one of his workers perishes in a drilling accident, he adopts their orphaned child whom he makes his “business partner” to present himself as a family man in appealing to investors. After years of success with his “family business”, Plainview attempts to purchase a farm after learning of an untapped oil reserve beneath. It is here that he encounters his nemesis in the form of preacher and self-righteous prophet Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who uses similarly manipulative tactics to cement his status as a healer and “vessel of the Holy Spirit”. Both characters are antagonists in their own story and will remain at odds in terms of moral superiority and power of influence.
Longstanding Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit won an Oscar for Best Cinematography and gives every shot the look and feel of a period photograph or oil painting, with a strong focus on dust, oil and flames that evoke the claustrophobic and dangerous working conditions of drilling. Jack Fisk’s exquisite production design celebrates the sparse environment of the period with rudimentary wooden churches, train stations and cabins scattered amongst vast landscapes of desert and dirt roads, making us mindful of the environmental impact of the subject matter and mass industrialisation.
This is composer Jonny Greenwood’s first collaboration with Anderson that has extended to every consecutive release since. Greenwood utilises pre-existing classical pieces with original avant-garde compositions using period instruments, dissonant strings and off-kilter percussion to instil tension and unease influenced by the work of Krzysztof Penderecki and the minimalism of Steve Reich. The resulting discord of these elements appropriately compliments the spectacle onscreen whilst alluding to the scheming self-serving psyche of the emotionally inaccessible and profoundly unhinged Plainview.
By the end of the film all of Plainview’s self-made success proves meaningless in the face of his limitless greed and ugly contempt for humanity as he sits drunkenly slumped in his empty bowling alley. His only company is his elderly butler and the corpse of a man foolish enough to humble himself to him, now lying in a pool of blood the title promises.