"There will be Blood"
by Bill Gallagher
Daniel Plainview had a business plan. Not the kind that MBAs produce. The kind that surviving
in the badlands of California demanded around the turn of the last century. It was simple: Work
hard and you will be rewarded.
The execution of his business plan is what the first quarter hour of “There Will Be Blood” is
about. Not a word is spoken as Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson shows us Plainview
(Daniel Day-Lewis) working alone beneath the earth. With his pickax he hacks at hard rock.
Sparks fly in just one example of Anderson’s attention to visual detail. He spits on and then rubs
the rocks loosened from craggy walls to see if they contain traces of precious metals.
These being the days long before OSHA, the equipment is improvised and undependable, and
when a ladder’s rung gives way, he tumbles to the bottom of his one-man mine, breaking his leg.
He hauls himself back up to ground level, careful to gather a few sparkly rocks. He literally
drags himself to the assay tent to be paid for what he has harvested. The man can’t stand up to
accept payment. Still, not a word. This is some fine film-making, made possible by Anderson’s
confidence in the eloquence of the action and Day-Lewis’ extraordinary ability to convey what a
truly flinty individual is this Daniel Plainview.
Within a few years he is prospecting for oil rather than the crumbs of gold and silver found
beneath the nonarable lands of central California. It is still a messy, dangerous business, and still
no words have been spoken. The actions of crews trying to get at the “ocean of gold”
underground speak louder than any words. When we finally hear from Plainview, he is making
his pitch to property owners who have no idea what their land is really worth. Here comes part
two of his business plan: Convince the locals by any means necessary to sell drilling rights for as
little money as possible.
As a plainspoken “oil man,” Plainview displays a whole other side of his character. Plainview
patiently explains how this business of drilling for oil works, “I do my own drilling and the men
that work for me, work for me, and they are men I know. I make it my business to be there and
see to their work. I don’t lose my tools in the hole and spend months fishing for them. I don’t
botch the cementing off and let water in the hole and ruin the whole lease.”
He clearly isn’t patronizing, nor does he over-promise, “You have a great chance here, but bear
in mind, you can lose it all if you’re not careful.”
Obviously, their best bet is to do business with Daniel Plainview. He is less than he seems and
more than he seems in these pitches. Calling himself a “family man” is a stretch. Concealing the
vastness of his ambition is just good sense.
His greatest opportunity to strike it really rich comes over the transom as Paul Sunday (Paul
Dano, the mostly mute, alientated teenager in “Little Miss Sunshine”) tells him about oil deposits
under the Sunday ranch in exchange for enough money to leave the ranch behind. Plainview goes to work on Sunday’s father and ends up negotiating with Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Dano) who
has the spiritual gift that evangelicals value more than the earthly rewards Plainview clearly lusts
after. About this point we realize that business ethics are not part of Plainview’s plan.
As he mounts the operation to drill for oil, bring it to the surface and ship it to emerging markets
thirsty for the stuff, his accomplishments are as spectacular as the visuals Anderson utilizes to
tell the story. The first real gusher and the subsequent oil fire that bring down a massive wooden
derrick are spectacularly rendered. The scale seems biblical. What has he unleashed? Plainview’s
success, though, is tempered by his beloved son losing his hearing when he gets too close to the
drilling operation. Some kind of divine retribution? It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think so.
You can’t help but feel the kinship between “There Will Be Blood” and “Citizen Kane.” Daniel
Plainview and Charles Foster Kane are cut from the same cloth of brass-knuckles capitalism in
the early days of the last century. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I
hate most people,” Plainview tells a long-lost half-brother. At no point does Plainview speak of
trivial matters. He is hard-wired to succeed, it seems. The loving moments between him and his
motherless son seem sincere. “Seem” being the key word here. In his dealings with Standard Oil
executives who control his shipping costs and thus his ability to make even more money, he is
seething with anger and dispenses with conference-room niceties by threatening to slit the throat
of one executive.
“There Will Be Blood” is loosely based on a novel by Upton Sinclair called “OIL!”. The
book’s focus was on the son of the oil man who rejected his father’s brand of predatory
capitalism for the kind of socialism Sinclair advocated. Choosing to make this a character study
of the father makes all sorts of sense for Anderson. That he has Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead
role is most fortunate. I’m not sure any other actor working today could have pulled this off as
He is notorious for becoming the characters he plays to the point of scaring his co-stars. (Word is
Leonardo DiCaprio had a hard time handling Day-Lewis’ off-screen persona as Bill the Butcher
in “The Gangs of New York.”) And even though he’s an Irishman who was born in England but
has opted for citizenship in the Republic, he gets it when it comes to the American West. He
explained to an interviewer recently, “... in America, the articulate use of language is often
regarded with suspicion. Especially in the West. Look at the president. He could talk like an
educated New Englander if he chose to. Instead, he holds his hands like a man who swings an ax.
George W. Bush understands, very astutely, that many of the people who are going to vote for
him would regard him less highly if he knew how to put words together. He would no longer be
one of them."
Daniel Plainview knew that if he was to swindle the landowners sitting atop his “ocean of gold,”
he must first be one of them. He was anything but. But it was a hell of a business plan until his
total, demonic deterioration and the ultimate act of violence that delivers on the title of this bold,
exciting and disturbing film.
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly movie column for BNW.
BrainstormNW - February 2008