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It’s a dirty business, oil. Black gold, Texas tea. The lengths people will go to to acquire it sometimes verge on inhuman; some will sacrifice their better judgment, some will give up their humanity, and worst of all, some will sacrifice others in pursuit of it. This is as true now as it was in the early days of the discovery of the fossil fuel. Paul Thomas Anderson’s meditation on muckraker Upton Sinclair’s 1927 story Oil! tells us a potent and relevant tale about a man who choose to do all three. 

At the turn of the century, against a dry, mountainous landscape, we meet Daniel Plainview, lean and sinewy as he single-handedly carves a hole deep into the earth using nothing but the most rudimentary tools. After brutal hours scraping and digging in the claustrophobic, dangerous cavern with no others to communicate with, Plainview finds what he’s after; a small bubble of pitch at his feet. Even after enduring a horrible fall off the dig’s makeshift ladder and a shattered leg, the strong-willed Plainview drags himself on his back for miles into town with his discovery. Plainview hires some men to widen the excavation and plumb for the black treasure beneath incurring some gruesome fatal accidents due to the primitive and unsafe nature of the oil digging equipment, which has at this point upgraded since Plainview’s days with a pick and shovel. Still, despite the deaths, no one is prepared to give up their search. We discover that in the midst of all this activity, Plainview is raising an infant son on his own; leaving the baby under the worker’s canopies in the care of whomever is nearby. Years pass, Plainview is successful and seems to have a gift for finding crude all over California, but he still has to use his powers of persuasion to convince wary, bickering townsfolk to let him dig on their land. Instrumental to his bids for approval is his son, H.W., now grown into a wide-eyed, clever young boy who Plainview refers to as his partner and indeed their bond seems to go beyond words. Plainview’s wish is his son’s will and he trusts no one else in the world but H.W.  

Plainview is met by a mysterious young man who leads him to a town called Little Boston, a treasure trove of unharvested oil. In his rampant acquisition of all the land in town, Plainview has no compunction about lying and reneging on promises once he has what he wants. One such promise is to the town’s dynamic young preacher, Eli Sunday, who is happy to allow Plainview to drill as long as Plainview agrees to support and follow the will of the church. Here is where Plainview meets his match. As an obstinate, self-determined man who will not be dictated to, the idea of Plainview paying any sort of obeisance to any man is abhorrent, and he and the idealistic preacher begin a contest of wills; each defying and one-upping the other until they are locked in physical confrontation. Sunday, having been cheated financially by Plainview and demoted in the town hierarchy by virtue of Plainview’s presence and lack of respect, does finally get the irreligious oilman to bend his knees before him in church (- as a condition of a land purchase Plainview needs to make), and the holy-roller exacts humiliating public revenge against the wealthy man.  

The character of Plainview is as dark and murky as the very crude he searches for. Forbidding, ambitious, unforgiving, stubborn, and mistrustful, Plainview is a man locked inside himself and perfectly happy with the company. At one point he plainly states, “I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” The only joy in his life is the founding of his refineries and the acquisition of the wealth and power those refineries bring him. While in Little Boston, Plainview is faced with two personal crises; first when H.W. falls victim to a life-changing accident whilst playing atop one of the rigs. Shortly afterward, a man turns up claiming to be Plainview’s half brother. Plainview’s reaction to the new condition facing H.W. is first to ignore it, then to shut his devoted son away in a boarding school. While father and son are on the train about to head to the school Plainview rises from their seat under the pretense of talking with the conductor, only to step off the car and have Fletcher, his right-hand man and already a surrogate father to H.W., take the boy on the journey instead. In the case of the alleged half-brother, Henry’s arrival provides a rare instance of faith in Plainview and he welcomes another relative, someone he can trust in the absence of his injured young son. Slowly, at Henry urgings, the layers of frost around Plainview’s heart begin to melt with this new brother to rely on and share experiences with. Plainview’s reaction to these new crises and the feelings each brings about reveal his unforgiving character and vengeful nature. For all the fortune Plainview voraciously and greedily acquires, his soul’s an ugly mess. Time doesn’t heal any wounds for Plainview as years later he allows his grudges to isolate him in the mansion he dreamed of building in Little Boston. He revels in humiliating all those who would cause him any sort of discomfiture, even his own loving son. When an opportunity arises to face the avatar of his anger, Eli Sunday, the preacher now having fallen on hard times, Plainview is at his happiest, playing a grotesque game of cat and mouse that has no winners. 

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview. It’s par for the course to expect Day-Lewis to give a great performance reading the phone book, here he is outstanding. He lets Plainview be the megalomaniacal bastard he’s written to be, but imbues him with an inconceivable humanity that would never have been possible in lesser hands. Somehow Day-Lewis often skirts the edge of the top with his portrayal of the scheming and avaricious Plainview, but due to the actor’s amazing control and some deft channeling by P.T. Anderson, always manages to keep Plainview from being a hysterical parody of a Howard Hughes-like tycoon. Paul Dano will learn that control one day: Daniel Day-Lewis has had long enough use of the tools of the trade to know when to pull things back by a hair; Dano hasn’t developed that sense yet. On occasion, whether his Eli Sunday was speaking in tongues of religious ecstasy, or being on either end of a pummeling with Plainview, Dano takes the performance so far as to be cringe-inducing, and not in a good way. Dano does have some wonderful moments, most particularly when affecting holier than thou smugness against Plainview, or a shocking moment when he castigates his elderly father for handing the family land over to Plainview for a song. Ciarán Hinds plays Fletcher, Plainview’s foreman and ersatz nanny to young H.W., and boy, do I wish there had been more of him. It seemed a waste to hire someone of Hinds’ massive presence and put him in a role where all he does is show paternal sympathy for the boy and cater to his father. I wonder if there’s some cutting room Fletcher somewhere, (- mayhap a scene where he gives Plainview the kiss-off he so richly deserves?). The one performance that stands out the most (- besides D.D-L’s)  in There Will Be Blood is that of Dillon Freasier who plays H.W. as a child. This young boy, with his eyes spaced wide apart on his face, was like someone who had been captured out of time. The technical notes of his performance were wonderful and on the mark, but it was his very naturalness and almost unreal presence that stayed with me after the film was over. It was like watching a little boy from a turn of the century sepia photograph come to life. There was clearly a real affection between Freasier and Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s almost painful to watch Plainview be completely loving and playful with H.W., as we see in small glimpses early in the film, because it makes the events that follow that much harder to watch. 

This is a film of many daring choices for Paul Thomas Anderson, who began the project initially as a writing exercise. His choice of a wonderful cast and letting them freely interpret his intelligent, often darkly humourous script. The choice of a story that rings as uncomfortably relevant today as in the period in which it’s set. His choice of locations and dry-as-a-dustbowl cinematography by Robert Elswit: It’s no coincidence that many of the beautiful landscapes and oil rig scenes resemble that of 1956’s Giant; Marfa, Texas, where Giant was filmed, was chosen to stand in for Little Boston, California and relate another story of lives affected by the search for black gold. For the film’s music, Anderson looked to Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood who composed a score so unusual, timeless and compelling that it’s nearly a featured cast member. There Will Be Blood is a wonderful step in the progress of Anderson’s innovative and brave talent and I look forward to seeing the next project from this fascinating filmmaker.


~ Mighty Ganesha

December 22nd, 2007


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