Paul Thomas Anderson staked his claim with ‘There Will Be Blood’
Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.
“There Will Be Blood”
Released Dec. 26, 2007
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Director Paul Thomas Anderson certainly made an impression in the early part of his career, joining his peers Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonez, Wes Anderson, and Steven Soderbergh in heralding a new vision of American filmmaking. But with his fifth film, 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson staked his claim as arguably the best American director of his generation.
Loosely on the Upton Sinclair novel, “Oil!,” “There Will Be Blood” is about an ambitious, competitive oilman named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he builds his fortune, power, and influence at the turn of the 20th century in undeveloped California. He learns about a potential claim in Little Boston and soon moves his base of operations there, along with his adopted son, H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier as a child, Russell Harvard as an adult). As the town begins to develop due to the increase in jobs and economic opportunity, a young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) begins to assert his influence over the townspeople while causing a conflict with Daniel. It is here in Little Boston, at the last frontier of America, where the forces of capitalism and religion grow to collide once more.
The son of actor Ernie Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson grew up in Southern California himself and was keenly interested in becoming a director since childhood. His debut feature, 1996’s “Hard Eight,” proved to be an impressive resume builder, and he would go on to write and direct ensemble dramas with many of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors in 1997’s “Boogie Nights” and 1999’s “Magnolia.” He paired down his usual cast with 2003’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” and Anderson convinced comedian Adam Sandler to play one of his typical angry oddball types, but now with the dimensions of a real human being. To this point, all of Anderson’s films were praised for his vision and talent, but without much industry attention in award season, he seemed to be stuck in the “indy auteur” box in terms of public perception. It was all good, like the work his peers did, but out of this group, who would be the one to break out of the pack?
“There Would Be Blood” is a definitive statement in that regard. The film opens on a stark, barren plain, as a younger Daniel Plainview works in his own solitary mine. During his work, he falls down the hole of the shaft and breaks his leg. With no other recourse or aid, Plainview drags himself out of the mine and slowly makes his way to an office where he files his claim on his finding. A few years later, Plainview is managing an oil drilling when another accident claims the life of one of the workers. Plainview decides to take in the deceased man’s orphan son as his own. All of these events occur in the first 14 minutes of the film, to no dialogue, set against the powerful and alienating score composed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. It is here that Anderson strips himself of any comfort or notion to rely on his previous style, acting collaborators, locations, and period to challenge himself to film a sequence that not only matches his previous work in terms of engagement, interest, and merit but surpasses it.
As portrayed by Lewis, Plainview is a prickly and ambitious entrepreneur who uses his son partially as a marketing tool to project his oil business as a family one (which is not to say Plainview doesn’t have real but complicated affection for H.W.). Plainview tends to limit most of his interactions with others unless he needs something, whether it is for a future sale or public support, but he does crave companionship on his terms. Midway through the movie, a long-lost brother to Daniel turns up that gives him solace, for a time, until paranoia takes over. As far as H.W. goes, Daniel’s issues with socialization don’t stop him from trying to connect with his son. Still, another oil drilling accident leaves H.W. deaf, creating an insurmountable barrier that Daniel isn’t equipped to overcome. It all leads to Daniel Plainview becoming more isolated from everyone else, as his character’s story catches up to the stark and lonely visuals that permeate the film.
Anderson’s decision to make a movie in another period presented him with new filmmaking challenges, just as the environment of California in the early 20th century provides audiences with a glimpse of frontier danger as progress enters uncharted territory. With few laws and primitive equipment, these oilmen are never far from sudden death, because, as the title notes, there will be blood. Should you be fortunate to survive workplace catastrophe here, fortune can almost become self-deluded destiny in their minds where accomplishment was more earned than gained from luck or greed.
The original release date of “There Will Be Blood” also signifies how studios adopt different strategies for marketing and distribution. Released a day after Christmas in only two theaters, the film was able to qualify as a 2007 release and become a contender for many of the industry awards that would be distributed over the following months. This is a method frequently used for many smaller, auteur-driven films, as the exclusive limited release very late in the year still gives them the same opening date as a big-budget movie. By staggering the expansion in theater screens over weeks (and sometimes months), it eliminates the risk of getting lost in the shuffle with a full release next to a movie with a larger marketing budget. Also, January is typically brutal for new releases. As these auteur films expand and (presumably) gain awards-season buzz, it becomes a more welcoming marketplace for smaller movies compared to the summer or holiday season.
In “There Will Be Blood’s” case, the small two theater release gradually grew throughout January until its wide release on Feb. 1, 2008, made it available to most filmgoers at the peak of its national awareness. While it wasn’t the first time a prestige drama like this one would have such a release strategy, it would become more of the norm as the movies nominated for Best Picture are often released by indy or boutique studio divisions.
Many films have portrayed the darkness of the American dream, and how success and power leaves a wake of personal destruction, but few are as compelling, engaging, horrifying, and outstanding as “There Will Be Blood.” While Anderson’s 2007 film didn’t win Best Picture (falling to the Coen Brothers’ excellent “No Country for Old Men”), it is still regarded as one of the best films released this century. After “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson would go on to make modern masterpieces like “The Master,” “Inherent Vice,” and “Phantom Thread,” and the release of his work have risen in anticipation for cinephiles and enthusiasts, like a Marvel movie for the film geeks. His work won praise before, but the story of Daniel Plainview raised Anderson to the premiere level.
The Weekend: Between the last big-budget studio dramas and would-be Oscar contenders, the final weekend of the year is typically one of the most substantial release periods for movies explicitly made for adults. Back in 1987, Robin Williams starred in a war movie suited to his talents with Barry Levinson’s “ Good Morning Vietnam.” A year later, director Mike Nicolas teamed Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, and a star-making performance from Melanie Griffin in his 1988 comedy “ Working Girl.” To close out the 80s, a Japanese import began showing audiences that animation wasn’t the exclusive domain of children with the United States release of “ Akira” in 1989.
A star-studded western with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer overcame a mired of production problems to become a rewatchable favorite as “ Tombstone” arrived in theaters this weekend in 1993. Brad Pitt turned in a wonderfully weird performance against Bruce Willis in the time travel thriller “!2 Monkeys,” the Terry Gilliam film that debuted in 1995. And in the final years of the decade, a trio of ensemble dramas made by prestige directors opened: Tarantino’s “ Jackie Brown” in 1997, Terrence Malick’s “ The Thin Red Line” in 1998, and Anthony Minghella’s “ The Talented Mr. Ripley” in 1999.
Steven Soderbergh released his drug-business epic, “ Traffic,” here in 2000. A young con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio eluded pursuit from FBI agent Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s “ Catch Me If You Can,” debuting in 2002, alongside the Academy Award-winning musical adaptation “ Chicago” from Rob Marshall. And finally, DiCaprio earned some of the best reviews of his career with his role as stock market guru Jordan Belford in Martin Scorcese’s “ The Wolf of Wall Street” in 2013.
Next Week: “56 Up”
Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on December 26, 2019.