The horror that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, There Will Be Blood, is not simply an amplified feeling of distress but distress itself: a seething perpetual pressure, unremitting, brutal, always on the brink of eruption. Yet the threat (or the promise) of the film’s title is a mere hint of the lurking, bubbling terror within.
More pointedly, the title—written in a skuzzy, white, printing press Old English across the width of the film’s opening black screen—is the film’s first trigger pulled to wring its audience anxious and uneasy for a terse, dire, cunning two hours and forty minutes. Flipping Punch-Drunk Love on its ear, There Will Be Blood’s operatic score (composed, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, of dissonant string arrangements and odd percussive rhythms aping Kubrick’s favored Penderecki and Ligeti) amplifies the tension of the film not for a flow of delirious hilarity but for a knotting of orchestrated discomfort. This film denies the release laughter allows. This film will beat you down, bury you under its weight. But your beating will be beautiful.
Looking at the delicious palate and the Southwestern landscape of There Will Be Blood, one might think of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but Anderson’s doom is hardly lush, if grand. If the two films share anything, it would be that their similar elision of plot, per se, brings affect to the fore and amplifies the different films’ respective resonances. This is to say, it’s a superficial, fruitless comparison—unless we pay attention to how the differences between the two films, and their approaches, might illuminate the current work at hand. Thus: We do not encounter an Eden to be spoiled but a harsh land already tainted, always ravaged. The earth does not yield grains but oil, a dead and combustible liquid. The goal is not to harvest (wheat, people, beauty) but to accumulate (goods, people, money). There Will Be Blood would be similar to Days of Heaven only if you replaced the sunburnt fields for baked earth, kept the camera rooted to dolly tracks and tripods, eschewed the voice-over to favor silence amidst a baroque score, eliminated the love triangle to foreground familial bonds, shifted the narrative focus to the Sam Shepard magnate exclusively, lent his work derricks in lieu of tractors, characterized him like Nicholson’s self-abnegating monster Jack Torrance in The Shining, and cast the ever-brooding and always-simmering Daniel Day-Lewis in that lead role. The lead role here is Daniel Plainview, and his menacing drive through this film is perhaps nothing more than an obtuse march towards death, a grave finale underground.
At the turn of the 20th century, in the arid, pre-pipeline-irrigation Southern California, Daniel Plainview builds a fortune digging into the earth—at first for rocks (gold or silver), then for oil (which, later in the film, he dubs gold). Calling a Daniel Day-Lewis performance intense, or lived-in, or visceral, at this point in his career seems redundant, however apt. Better to say his Daniel Plainview works in a cramped space, always playing his cards close, as if he, especially, knows all too well he is a constant liability to explode. In a film this occupied with surfaces, and their potential to be ruptured (in or out), Daniel’s face becomes the ultimate site of will-it-blow tension as it/he appears in almost every scene. His performance is built from how he regulates what he allows to emerge, what he will use (of himself, as an actor in these encounters) to render a contract, or a person, or the material world itself, into a reality of his design (in his words: in his “image”). Daniel thinks—as a self-made, wealthy and expert “oil man”—that he can master his world, or, at least, he might be capable of isolating himself within it, away from, as he says, “these…people.”
The problem is the world is full of people. And plenty of people challenge Daniel, including the unctuous evangelical Eli (Paul Dano continues to prove himself a talented, if foul, young actor). The conflict over the role of Eli’s church (say faith) in Daniel’s new digging site at Little Boston (say modernity’s commerce), and, in turn, the role of the money generated by Daniel’s derricks in Eli’s congregational renovations, provides the film with something approaching an existential either/or. However, faith here is a sham, a performance. Eli is, at bottom, no different than Daniel. Each man seeks funds for his own self worth far more than for either of their respective institutions (a family, a church). It’s the methods that vary. Daniel suppresses his voice, for the most part, unless provoked to action; Eli exploits the explosive power of the word, his sermons routinely devolving into histrionic exorcisms. Yet the word, while prominent, is not a privileged element of this film’s aggressive soundscape. Score often dominates voices, voices distort past the point of recognition, splinters and flints whip and crackle in precision, oil bubbles and derricks rumble incessantly, crescendos teeter on cacophony, a character goes deaf.
Not to denigrate the brilliance of Punch-Drunk Love, a film that continues to marvel and tickle the soul, but, with each new film, Paul Thomas Anderson continues the trend of his filmography by taking all he learned from his previous work and amplifying it—especially film’s relationship to sound, and to opera. The threat of There Will Be Blood comes down to how the film gluts the maw of the ear with the sounds of the world. The world is always making a sound, even in silence, and with his two most recent pictures, Anderson has begun to exploit both how sound colors images and how images color sound; how sound itself is an affect. Made much more explicit in Punch-Drunk Love (its score’s chief instrument is the organ, the film thrusts a harmonium at Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan, interrupting his story, just as do Emily Watson’s Lena and the Jeremy Blake scopitones), the operatic intertwining of There Will Be Blood pushes its sound design forward stronger than its predecessor, somehow, although Robert Elswitt’s photography and Greenwood’s score serve one another equally to wrench the audience taut.
Anderson’s first three pictures proved he knew who to steal from (the 1970s Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese) and how to make films that were very alive, and exciting, if not all that interesting, or rich only in flashes. Now he has made two features in a row that explode the possibilities of those earlier pictures into fully formed films: masterful works that understand the film language as well as (or better than?) Scorsese, and even some Altman. It should come as no surprise that the final credit on screen in There Will Be Blood is a dedication to Anderson’s mentor and one-time boss, Robert Altman, for it is a film that could not have been made were it not for McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or 3 Women; nor without Days of Heaven, nor The Shining, nor, especially, Anderson’s own Punch-Drunk Love. Yet it is a distinctive work. As much as it inherits from its antecedents, it bears Anderson’s signature throughout. There’s the father-son melodrama, the stately and gliding camerawork, the fear of people, and even a few discomfiting wink-jokes at the audience. Most of all, though, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, covered in crude oil, raising his arms like a conductor to signal the explosion to begin. It’s terrifying, invigorating, phenomenal. I fear I’ve said too much already.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.