The first Paul Thomas Anderson film I ever saw was his most recent one (at least, as of the time I’m typing these words), Phantom Thread. As admittedly tedious as it may have been, there was absolutely no doubt that it was made by a true artist, somebody who not only cared about his work, but also had the talent and creative vision to make it stand out as his very own. Now I have seen what is arguably his most acclaimed film (this is the same guy who made Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, remember), There Will Be Blood, and the man’s genius is even clearer to me.
The film's opening 14 minutes, punctuated by both complete silence and Jonny Greenwood’s supremely unsettling score, are absolutely breathtaking. Without words, they eerily introduce us to Daniel Plainview (Daniel-Day Lewis, whose powerful performance deservedly netted him an Oscar), a silver prospector so dedicated to his work that when he breaks his leg falling down a mine shaft, he manages to climb out of it with the silver in tow and drag himself to the nearest assay office to cash it in. Later, with his young son H.W., he discovers oil and manages to acquire some land for it from a fiery young priest, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).
Plainview seems to be a fairly straightforward, even sympathetic man so far, but as the film progresses, his coldness, cruel determination, and sheer greed are subtly unearthed more and more until finally reaching a disturbing and, yes, bloody, breaking point.
Obviously, a film with the title of There Will Be Blood obviously isn’t going to end with unicorns and rainbows, but it wasn’t this brutal violence that jarred me so much as the unrelenting bitterness and nihilism surrounding those acts (though the famous “I drink your milkshake!” moment admittedly is more darkly comic than deadly serious).
I don’t see this bleakness as a serious flaw in the story, mind you (Roger Ebert’s words here are mine: “Those who hate the ending, and there may be many, might be asked to dictate a different one. Something bittersweet, perhaps? Grandly tragic? Only madness can supply a termination for this story.”), but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me rethink why I liked the rest of the movie so much. And you know what? Anderson probably intended that in order to make me feel the real consequences of capitalism and religious fanaticism, so props to him for succeeding with flying colors.
Besides being an excellent cautionary tale and superbly multilayered character study, the film also excels as a sweeping, epic period drama (albeit a grim one) that more than justifies its sprawling 158-minute runtime. Certain images from it will be lodged in my head forever—not just from the ending, but also of the oil tower on fire, Plainview giving the “I am a family man. I run a family business” speech while H.W. sits right behind him, the church that Eli humiliates Plainview in (a scene that tremendously helped lead to the closing events, if you ask me), and so much more. Difficult to watch at times, yes, but also equally difficult to dismiss—and simply impossible to forget.