Written by Owais Azam
There Will Be Blood is a flawless masterpiece. Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of the greatest performances of all time (with the rest of the cast close behind him); Jonny Greenwood provides a sharp, scathing, yet human score, perfectly emulating – while also accentuating – the film’s tone; Robert Elswit’s cinematography throws us into an oil, fire, and blood tinged recent America and doesn’t allow us to escape from its grasp until the runtime is over; Dylan Tichenor’s editing is as concise and careful as a surgeon’s hand, leaving no moment purposeless and every moment as rich as the next; Paul Thomas Anderson’s writing and direction is simply perfect, ensuring that There Will Be Blood’s aesthetic perfection is not all it has to offer. Its thematic explorations are equally as rich, with the dissection of the character Daniel Plainview – and Eli Sunday, too, for that matter – demonstrating why Anderson just might be the greatest director working today.
Daniel Plainview is a victim of capitalism. The birth of an Industrial Age and the consequent expansion of capitalistic ideals drive Plainview into a ruthless and crazed thirst for wealth and power which inevitably amounts to his vast financial success, but also his synchronous pitiful demise. Yet while a victim of it, Plainview is also simultaneously the symbolic embodiment of capitalism; he masquerades his rotten selfish underbelly behind the false promise of ubiquitous prosperity for all. Hiding beneath this facade is an expanding void unable to be fulfilled by the ideals he both represents and is consumed by. Meanwhile, Eli Sunday masquerades himself as a virtuous preacher at the forefront of evangelism, yet proves himself not only to treat religion as a business to obtain wealth, but also as a vehicle through which he can garner power. And so, despite both characters being in conflict and competition, Plainview and Sunday are two sides of the same coin: although they represent and harbour opposing ideals, they strive for the same goal. Through their dynamic, Anderson captures a dichotomy of the late 1800s/early 1900s in America: one where capitalism and religion, both used to obtain obscene amounts of wealth and power, clashed with each other.
There Will Be Blood, like most Anderson films, has an air of unexplainable human intangibility to it: one which I find most of my favourite films tend to have, including The Master. While the film does provide commentary on the corruption of capitalism and religion, it soon becomes apparent that this leads to no set-in-stone answers, because of its simultaneous understanding and acknowledgement of the ambiguities of human nature. One could just as easily argue that, within the film’s runtime, Plainview is unveiled to be a gluttonous evil entity parading as a human, as you could argue that he demonstrates deontological examples of good character, specifically in regards to his relationship with his son, H.W. For me, although inextricably linked to capitalistic ideals, Plainview does not seem wholly governed by them. Cracks revealing aspects of human warmth seep through his stone-cold concrete surface, urging us to interrogate whether this man is corrupted from the first moment we see him on screen or throughout our time with him. In this, Anderson asks: is there a chance of freeing yourself from the clutch of the ideologies that govern you from the moment you take your first breath? In a world that favours the exploiters and condemns the exploited, is there any chance of remaining uncorrupted? What is the value of wealth and power when it only seems to leave you loathsome, barbaric, and alone? Can you be saved from a world abandoned by God and run by the Devil, or is there no hope whatsoever?
Looking further into Plainview’s character, you find yourself facing more and more questions, specifically when you suspend the film’s wider ‘commentaries’ and look at Plainview more singularly and purely in terms of his humanity (after all, this is a character study before the study of an ideology, no matter how interconnected they may be). In regards to his final act, for example, we’re led to ask ourselves whether Plainview is simply accomplishing his objective to conquer all competition and is satisfied in doing so, or whether he’s aware his human core is rotting and is consequently acting even more destructively, both externally and internally (I conform to the latter, mostly due to the atmospheric cloak of melancholy shrouding Plainview’s existence when we see him in 1927). Thus, Plainview is not easy to pin down; Anderson invites you to observe and analyse every cog turning in the mind of a real person. And so talking about the social and political (and whatever else) critiques There Will Be Blood offers become almost redundant; its wider commentaries are not rammed down your throat, but only there if you want them to be.
It’s these aesthetic and thematic complexities that keep There Will Be Blood so hypnotising, invigorating and endlessly rewatchable; each time you lend yourself to this film you notice something else, grasp something different and gain something new.