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Symbolism Runs Deep in There Will Be Blood

  • Annabelle Robertson Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 21, 2008
Symbolism Runs Deep in <i>There Will Be Blood</i>

DVD Release Date:  April 8, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  December 26, 2007
Rating:  R (for some violence)
Genre:  Drama, Adaptation
Run Time:  156 min.
Director:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Actors:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillion Freasier, Kevin J. O’Connor

A reporter once asked John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the world, how much money was enough.  “It’s always just a little more than you have,” he answered.  Such is the dilemma which propels Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in this excellent adaptation of the classic novel, Oil! by Upton Sinclair

Plainview is as slick as the liquid gold he sucks from the earth.  He begins with one small hunk of silver and the kind of tenacity that makes a man crawl into town with a broken leg.  This, along with the cunning ability to present himself as an everyday family man, fuels Plainview’s success, which he gains by gobbling up California farms and extracting their oil.  Eventually, he becomes a wealthy, influential oil baron.  But nothing, it seems, is ever enough for Daniel Plainview.

"I have a competition in me.  I want no one else to succeed," he says, in a rare moment of honesty which reveals just how far this man will go in his quest to have it all.  In the beginning, it is not all avarice, though.  He adopts a baby, after one of his oil workers dies in an accident.  He takes the young boy (Dillion Freasier), whom he calls “H.W.,” everywhere, teaching him the tricks of the trade.  And make no mistake:  they are tricks.

So when a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine) arrives and offers information about his family’s barren land in exchange for cash, Plainview dashes off on a scouting mission.  He claims to be hunting for quail but talks the owner (David Willis) into a fast deal.  Paul’s brother, Eli Sunday (also played by Dano), lets Plainview know he’s onto him, however, and the two strike their own deal, which will substantially benefit Sunday’s congregation, The Church of the Third Revelation.

Although Plainview eventually succumbs to Sunday’s pressure to “convert” (in a disturbing, arresting scene that questions the theatrics of so many altar calls), he doesn’t allow Sunday to bless his new oil rig.  In so doing, he also fails to place Eli front and center, where Sunday longs to be, and thus confirms the animosity that has been brewing between the two men.  Their final showdown will be as riveting as it is bloody.

Day-Lewis is superb, and fully deserving of his Best Actor Oscar.  His gravelly-clipped speech and snake-eyed character have understandably been compared to John Huston in Chinatown, although Day-Lewis injects Plainview with a riveting uniqueness which stems not only from his vocal inflections but also his oh-so-subtle mannerisms.  In one scene, he glances at his brother and ponders a comment.  Then, ever so slightly, he shakes his head and opts to stay quiet.  It’s a subtle gesture, but one that reveals much—especially in the light of the scene which follows.  During the film’s climatic ending, Plainview shouts that God is a superstition, and that he is “the third revelation.” It’s almost as if we are hearing Satan himself.

Dano, as the wily Sunday, is equally good.  I would have liked to have seen the actor age more, but he nevertheless keeps us wondering to the bitter end (and even thereafter) whether he believes what he so fervently preaches.  Russell Howard, as the adult H.W., is also outstanding as the deaf man who finally gets the courage to stand up to his father, with devastating consequences.

Shot in rural Texas (as a stand-in for San Luis Obispo County, California), There Will Be Blood boasts truly outstanding cinematography by Robert Elswit (who also won an Oscar).  The first fifteen minutes, during which no dialogue is spoken, are a washed-out landscape—an auteur allusion to the lead character’s barren conscience.  Later, when the oil is flowing and life is good, the visage warms up.  It reaches a colorful pinnacle on the day that Plainview takes a swim with someone who claims to be his long-lost brother (Kevin J. O’Connor).  Their reunion, and their dip in the blue-green waters of the Pacific, has the feel of a long-awaited baptism.  Plainview washes away the oil and dirt that has sullied his soul and his relationships, and as he emerges, we feel the distant stirrings of hope that somehow, he will be redeemed.  This stands in stark contrast to one of the final scenes between a father and son, which uses bright lights and darkness much like Francis Ford Coppola did in Apocalypse Now.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia) has done an outstanding job, although those more attuned to fast-paced thrillers and action movies are bound to find it overrated and perhaps even cumbersome.  It’s a film for film lovers—not those seeking fast-food entertainment.  Like the classic novel it is derived from, There Will Be Blood is replete with symbols and metaphors that are destined to become film student fodder for many years to come. 

Anderson also serves up a powerful message about the wages of sin, especially greed.  Sadly, however, he offers no redemption—no message of hope about how we might defeat a man like Plainview.  Especially if that man is ourselves.


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  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Characters drink alcohol and/or smoke cigarettes in multiple scenes throughout film.  In one scene, an adult gives alcohol to a baby; later, adult puts alcohol in baby’s bottle.  Multiple scenes where characters are drunk, including one where preacher drinks shots of alcohol.
  • Language/Profanity:  Two or three profanities and an equal number of (mild) obscenities.  In one scene, a man curses his son and calls him names.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  One scene in a brothel, with couples embracing in the background (blurred).  No nudity.  One mention of lust in a church setting.
  • Violence:  A man falls from a ladder and breaks his leg, then drags himself into town (shot of twisted bone under pants); two deaths due to falling objects; a bloody body is dragged up from the bottom of an oil rig and examined; a boy is injured during an oil rig blast; a preacher repeatedly slaps a man to rid him of “demons;” a character murders a man with a gunshot to the head (very little blood; shot is partially obscured by murderer’s hand but victim cries in pain); a boy sets fire to a house; a father abandons his adolescent son, who screams in fear and begs him not to; several fistfights, one of which is very violent; one character murders another by beating him to death with club-like object (body is offscreen during murder, then seen face down, with blood seeping from beneath face and splattered onto walls.