'There Will Be Blood' At 10: Paul Thomas Anderson's Monster Movie Masterpiece

At the height of a certain meme, you could name-drop There Will Be Blood and casual filmgoers would actually scrunch their noses and say, "Is that the milkshake movie?" In the intervening years, however, Daniel Day-Lewis's powerhouse performance as Daniel Plainview has continued to cast a long shadow over cinema. In many ways, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's oil drama/"milkshake movie" is actually a monster movie, with a dissonant score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and a title that deliberately invokes horror.

With Anderson and Day-Lewis re-teaming this Christmas for Phantom Thread, the time is optimal for a look back at this landmark 21st-century film. Anderson's "friendly competitor," Quentin Tarantino, who professed to like the exuberance of Boogie Nights over the formalism of There Will Be Blood, nonetheless rated the latter as "one of the best movies made" in the decade of the 2000s.

Let's jaw about There Will Be Blood and the way it plays off themes in Anderson's body of work. Let's properly celebrate the There Will Be Blood 10th anniversary. Oh, yes. There will be spoilers.

The Dwindling Social Circle of Anderson’s Characters

In the 2000s, Paul Thomas Anderson settled into a pattern of releasing one movie every five years or so. His films literally became a twice-a-decade event. As such, 2017 marks the anniversary of a number of Anderson films: with Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master turning 20, 15, 10, and 5, respectively.

Magnolia also fits in there between the first two. It came out at the tail end of 1999 and  I remember seeing it at the local multiplex before I went off to college in New York in early 2000. I initially struggled with the film, which lacks a conventional plot progression. On the curb outside the theater, I remember my young exaggerative self saying, "That might be the worst movie I have ever seen." Years later, I would be watching the film obsessively, having grown intoxicated by its sprawling narrative, the interconnectedness of its characters' stories, the lush melodies of its Aimee Mann soundtrack, and its unbroken 135-second tracking shot through the hallways and back rooms of a TV studio building. This was when Anderson was still in his ensemble cast phase.

Something happened between Magnolia and Anderson's next film, Punch-Drunk Love. He stopped working with such big ensembles, juggling character actors like his mentor Robert Altman. Maybe he felt that to do so would just be repeating himself. Whatever the case, the start of the new millennium seems to also delineate a shift in his concerns as a filmmaker. Punch-Drunk Love stripped the story down to where it was just an unlikely rom-com (not to mention an unlikely Adam Sandler gem) centered around two characters whose pillow talk involves saying they want to bite each other's cheek, smash each other's face, and scoop out and suck on each other's eyes.

Sandler's Barry Egan is an oddball, prone to fits of rage, but he is ultimately redeemed by the love of a good woman. Channeling his aggression into heroics, Barry confronts blackmailers and declares triumphantly at the end, "I have a love in my life ... it makes me stronger than anything you could imagine."

Daniel Plainview: Misanthrope as Movie Monster

For Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, no such love is found. No such redemption is forthcoming.

When we meet Plainview, he shows himself to be a singularly driven man: someone so strong-willed that he can drag himself across the desert for miles with a broken leg just to stake a silver claim. The windfall from this claim and a subsequent oil discovery enables him to found his own drilling company. In a roundabout way, it also provides him with a son, as one of his workers is killed in an accident, leaving him to adopt the man's orphaned child as his business partner. This allows him to pass himself off as a family man in town hall pitches where he seeks access for his drills on local land.

One of the film's earliest, most vivid depictions of Daniel Plainview as a movie monster comes during the explosion of an oil derrick, which leaves H.W. struggling with the loss of his hearing in the mess hall on an oil site. His father quickly abandons him there, as he has a more important emergency to attend to outside in the field. As the derrick burns in the night, Plainview stares up at it, his face grimy with oil, surrounded by darkness in a way that vaguely resembles that image from The Exorcist where the white demon face of Pazuzu flashes on-screen momentarily.

During this scene, a propulsive, percussive piece of music called "Convergence" from Jonny Greenwood's experimental first solo album, Bodysong, layers in a build-up of aural cacophony. It is like nails feverishly scratching through a chalkboard, attacking the wall behind it, carving away any learned humanity Plainview may have picked up from his son. In a way that makes it seem like he has forgotten about H.W. entirely, Plainview turns to his partner, played by Ciaran Hinds. And as if to show how awful a human being he can be, he says to his partner:

"What are you looking so miserable about? There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me."

As an afterthought, his partner asks, "Is H.W going to be okay?"

"No, he's not," Plainview replies matter-of-factly.

The way the line is delivered, it could be that he does care about his son and maybe does not know how to deal with what happened. Maybe he has just internalized it as he tries to contend with this emergency fire, whose implications are rather good for his oil business. But again, later, Daniel's face is shrouded in darkness as he sits up drinking one night with a man who claims to be his long-lost brother.

In this scene, he confesses:

I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money, I can get away from everyone. I see the worst in people, Henry. I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I've built up my hatreds over the years, little by little ...

When it turns out Henry is not his brother, but rather an imposter who merely knew his brother and studied his diary, the now-confessed human-hater Daniel Plainview commits his first murder, shooting Henry point-blank in the head and burying him in a shallow oil grave. Yet even then, redemption is within his grasp.

there will be blood

In a scene that ranks as perhaps one of the greatest emotional outbursts ever captured on film, the guilty Plainview reluctantly undergoes a baptism at the hands of phony pastor Eli Sunday, who is perhaps not so much intended to be an evenly matched "rival" as he is intended to be a supercilious foil to Plainview. Here we get a rare glimpse of Plainview undergoing a humbling experience, being forced to confront having sent H.W. away alone on a train to a school for the deaf. "I've abandoned my child!" he wails. "I've abandoned my boy!"

It is not hyperbole to say that the baptism scene in There Will Be Blood is on par with Marlon Brando palming his face, shouting, "Hey, Stella!" in A Streetcar Named Desire. The only lead male performance of the '00s that might come anywhere close to Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood is Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

Coming Full Circle: Boogie Nights vs. There Will Be Blood

Back in October, while revisiting Boogie Nights on its 20th anniversary, our own Josh Spiegel made the astute observation that the core theme of Paul Thomas Anderson's work is "the necessity of family." Like Tarantino, some cinephiles might still prefer Anderson's 1997 disco-frenzy breakthrough to There Will Be Blood. At the very least, Boogie Nights exists as an important touchstone for Anderson's later work in both quality and theme.

In the film, Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler becomes ostracized from his surrogate family, who just so happened to inhabit a kind of blissful porn commune in California's San Fernando Valley during the late 1970s. The late, great Roger Ebert listed Boogie Nights as one of his Top 10 Films of 1997. On an episode of "Siskel & Ebert," he said:

The film isn't about sex so much as people who live in a sort of low-rent parallel universe to the mainstream movie industry.

The key word here is "people." Not porn industry lowlives, or however else a less charitable heart might characterize them. But rather, just people.

When the 1980s come crashing in with cocaine and cheap video, Dirk undergoes a crash-and-burn arc similar to that of Ray Liotta's Henry Hill in Goodfellas. In the end, however, he is reconciled to his surrogate family. This is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so the obligatory father figure is there — skin flick auteur Jack Horner, played by Burt Reynolds in an Oscar-nominated role that marked a short-lived comeback for the legendary actor.

More importantly, however, Julianne Moore's character, Amber Waves, is there. "She's a wonderful mother," Horner says. "She's a mother to all those who need love."

By contrast, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood inhabits a film that is almost entirely without women. At times, they lurk on the edge of the frame. You can hear them laughing, but you cannot see them, and neither can he. It seems trite to reduce it all down to this, but Plainview — the ambitious American individualist turned greedy capitalist and isolationist — is a character who needs love, plain and simple. Yet he is unwilling to give love or receive it. He forsakes his family in favor of fortune.

By the end of There Will Be Blood, he has fulfilled his twisted dream of "getting away from everyone." Now he lives as a hermit in a mansion. His last act of defiance is to disown his son, now a full-grown adult played by Russell Harvard (the deaf hitman in FX's Fargo series).

When his old character foil, Eli Sunday, comes calling again, their final confrontation leads to one last monstrous moment, whereby Plainview beats the "sniveling ass" to death with a bowling pin, his deranged, cock-eyed face staring down at his victim in a mask of pure inhuman hate. Here, at last, the monster stands self-defeated, a tragic figure, who can only sink to the floor, and say "I'm finished."