Žad Novak examines the thematic complexity of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood -in association with the Glasgow Film Theatre
Paul Thomas Anderson, also known by the acronym of P.T.A, is an American filmmaker whose filmography, dating back to 1996, includes eight features: Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014) and the newly released Phantom Thread (2017). That all his features are worthy of mention is due to the fact that there isn’t a single flop, simply a continuation of artistic development which, while some films may be better than others, maintains its quality throughout. There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Inherent Vice were all listed in BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st century. Not yet having managed to catch Phantom Thread in the cinema, my focus will be on Anderson’s other Daniel Day-Lewis collaboration, There Will Be Blood.
There Will Be Blood is a story of an American prospector named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his journey from silver miner to wealthy oil man. Finding a silver sample and receiving a certificate for it allowed him to open a drilling company and, together with his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Daniel starts building an oil kingdom in the extremely deprived area of Little Boston. In order to do this, Plainview must deceive other land-owners, undergo religious ceremonies he does not believe in, and pretend to be a better father than he is. This is a short but best description to give, because this film is a study of characters and society at the time, rather than a plot-centred piece.
Most of the film lies on Day-Lewis’ shoulders, as his character appears in almost every scene. Rather giving context to the story with shots of the world around the self-made tycoon, Anderson and Day-Lewis tell the story through the inner world of Daniel Plainview, depicted through many close-ups and interactions with other characters. It is a risky move that could easily have caused the film to flop since even the greatest of actors rarely have the energy required to hold viewers’ attention for over two and a half hours. However, when successful, it makes for a very disturbing and affecting experience, after which no viewer can leave the cinema without holding an opinion on the story shown.
What I love most about this film is that a single plotline – creating an oil-kingdom – manages to problematize religion, father-son relationships, wider family dynamics, success and wealth. At no point does the viewer feel like any of the questions with which the film deals are out of place or made just for the sake of ‘intellectualization’. These aspects operate in a sound unity and create a believable and complex story of early 20th century America. Moreover, the different questions posed allow for each viewing to have a new focus and another topic to think over. For me personally, Plainview’s relationship with his son has been the most intriguing part of the film, and with every viewing I feel differently about it. There are signs of Plainview’s use of his son as placard to attract people to his business, alongside conflicting indications of a true love between them, as well as a prideful cold-heartedness and distance. I both love him and loathe Plainview, want to hug him and shoot him throughout the duration of the film. To me, he appears as a person who cannot deal effectively with his emotions thus struggles with them throughout. Paul Thomas Anderson does not give you a straight-up black or white situation, nor does his story tell you to what you should think of its characters or events, which in my book is the best way to treat your audience.
This is not the easiest film to watch for the difficult relationships portrayed. Truth be told, I skipped watching it more frequently than I would like to admit. Especially because the description of ‘almost three-hour long historical drama’ does not sell well as comfort viewing.
But once I’ve seen it, it quickly became one of my most favourite movies. The inner darkness that arises through greed, the abuse of religion for financial benefit, and the intricate complexities of father-son relationships – where the film’s father figure constantly shifts between being emotional and reserved, between being cruelly calculating and heroically dedicated to his child – are still as topical as they were a hundred years ago and in 2007, its year of release. Anderson’s film is definitely worth three hours of your time. Nevertheless, I would be lying if I were to recommend There Will be Blood as part of a movie night with friends. This is a film that is best seen while fully focused in a dark cinema room with no interruptions, and one of those rare works of art that deserves it.
The GFT is currently hosting a Cinemasters season surrounding the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, including a showing of There Will Be Blood at 19:45 on the 30th of January, as well as showings of Inherent Vice from the 11th to the 13th of February. Tickets are available here.
The GFT also offers a free 15-25 discount card for students, available here.