America at the turn of the 20th century was a country powered by gluttony. The most powerful men in the country were also the greediest, using shady business tactics and exploiting their workers in order to build their fortunes. Even when they had more money than they knew what to do with, they refused to stop. They amassed such great amounts of wealth that they could do literally whatever they wanted. Railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbuilt had so much money that he was able to finance the original incarnation of the Grand Central Station in New York. This is the America that is shown in all its glory in the recent classic, THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paramount Vantage 2007).
The film is loosely based upon the book Oil! by Upton Sinclair, which focused on a corrupt oilman in the early 1900’s. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as greedy Daniel Plainview. Starting out as a miner, Plainview soon switches his focus to oil drilling and sets out to build his fortune. During his journey, he scams and manipulates his way to the top. He even goes as far as stealing the baby of his dead employee so he can manipulate people into letting him drill.
The film perfectly captures the extreme greed that swept through the country at the time, and it is evident right from the start. Anderson allows this to develop in a way that actually feels pretty natural, having the first 15 minutes of the film go by without any dialogue at all. The time goes by without much more than a few grunts and head nods. Plainview’s greed is developed by his actions, not by what he says. After falling down a mine shaft and breaking his leg, Plainview crawls all the way back to town to sell a tiny rock with barely any precious metals in it. At the end of the whole process, he only earns a few dollars for his trouble.
Without saying a single word, Plainview is established as a man who is motivated by money. He is willing to shove his safety to the side just so he can make a couple bucks. Even worse, he ends up stealing a babyonly minutes after this scene. Several years after the mining incident, Plainview has switched over to oil drilling. When one of his employees is killed in an accident, Plainview takes the man’s infant son so that he can seem like a caring father who includes his son in his work, manipulating everyone into thinking he’s a great person. Again, all of this is done without any dialogue. Anderson’s directing skills allow everything to happen in the most natural way possible. None of the drama and tension feels forced. It seems to be the natural progression of a world that is powered by money.
Daniel Day-Lewis is the perfect fit to play Plainview. In fact, Anderson actually wrote the part of Plainview with Day-Lewis in mind. The actor perfectly plays his character as a suave businessman who will stop at absolutely nothing to come out on top. He’s well spoken, knows how to control a crowd, and can easily manipulate others. The legendary actor also is perfect at showing Plainview’s slow descent into madness. He goes from passing out on the floor after his oil well catches on fire, to being a disheveled hermit who never leaves his giant mansion. He manages to achieve his goal of being rich, but he also loses his mind and his family. Day-Lewis perfectly captures this slow descent, again making things seem as natural as possible.
On the subject of acting skills, much love needs to be given to Paul Dano as Eli Sunday. Sunday is an animated evangelical preacher in the town where Plainview’s newest drill is located. On top of having the most coincidental surname in the movie, Sunday is also Plainview’s greatest adversary. But it’s not because he is the moral opposite of the oilman and tries to stop his plans in their tracks. It’s because Sunday is equally as greedy.
The second Plainview arrives in the town, Sunday tries to extort money from him to put into the church. He continuously tries to embarrass the oilman and expose who he really is while also using the situation to his advantage. Dano easily switches between the calm and collected priest who is the spiritual leader of the town, and a zealous maniac who controls and beats his family. Dano perfectly transforms between the two extremes, creating a lot of depth in a complicated character.
At this point, I’d miss out if I didn’t mention the cinematography. The movie is filmed in a way that makes everything seem big. After all, this is considered an epic. Even the smallest, most intimate moments seem to loom larger than life. The camera films wide shots, taking in everything there is to see. It gives the film an immense weight and scale, making everything seem sweepingly epic. This is no more evident than the opening scene.
The opening shot reveals a large mountain range in the desert. Panning down, the camera reveals Plainview’s mining shaft. He’s diligently working on finding the precious metals that will hopefully make him rich. After placing dynamite to blast into the rock, the blast loosens the structure Plainview has built and causes him to fall, resulting in a broken leg. Once he manages to pull himself out of the tiny mine, the camera pans back up to recreate the same shot of the mountains from earlier. Not only does this shot create an imposing scale, it also creates an intense feeling of dread. You see, Daniel must now crawl back to town in order to get help. The sprawling expanse of mountains has created great trouble for Plainview, and perfectly imposes an intense feeling of dread.
The film was released as a critical and commercial success. It earned almost $200,000 the first weekend–opening in only Los Angeles and New York—and going on to triple its $25 million budget by earning over $76 million worldwide. The film received eight Oscar nominations and two wins for Best Cinematography and Best Actor. Daniel Day-Lewis’s win for Best Actor made him only the eighth person to ever win the category twice after his win in 1989.
The film has also been placed on several Top 10 lists in the years after its release. The American Film Institute included the film on its list of the top 10 films of 2007, as well as many other publications listing it as the best, including the New York Times. Over the years, critics from the Chicago tribune, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone also listed it as the best film of the entire 21st Century. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a classic from recent years, and it will continue to entertain for years to come. The acting and cinematography work together to naturally build a giant world with an epic story of greed. The film perfectly captures the immense greed of American in the early 20th century. It might not have been the most pleasant part of American history, but it certainly was interesting. It was a lawless time that felt like an industrialized Wild West. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is the perfect representation of the time period, and shows what happens when someone is overpowered by the pursuit of money.