Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Adapted from: Oil! by Upton Sinclair
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O’Connor, Russell Harvard
Nominations: Picture, Director – Paul Thomas Anderson, Actor – Daniel Day-Lewis, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound Editing
Wins: Actor – Daniel Day-Lewis, Cinematography
The opening shot of There Will Be Blood features rocky hills underneath a blue sky. It’s tranquil and relaxing. At least, it would be if it weren’t for the ominous, sustained note on the soundtrack that fills the image with dread and unease. The endless potential seen in the shot—“the sky’s the limit”—is offset by the underscored tension that makes us question the cost of achieving that potential. From the brightness of this shot, we’re plunged into the depths of the Earth and introduced to Daniel Plainview relentlessly mining away for ore. The only way for him to go is up, to the disquieting openness above.
What follows is what has been called a modern classic, the best film of the 2000s, and perhaps among the greatest films ever made. Anchored by an indelible performance by Daniel Day-Lewis—though, let’s face it, most of his performances are unforgettable—and an excitingly spirited performance by Paul Dano (compared to his more laidback turn the previous year in Little Miss Sunshine [Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006]), there’s not a false note throughout the film. The supporting cast, which includes a number of non-professionals, gives the story a strong sense of time and place; the camerawork is smooth and elegant, oftentimes entering a scene from afar by floating in; and reliance on practical effects and set pieces ensures that what we’re seeing onscreen is physically there for the actors to engage with.
At the heart of the film is a battle just as true during the turn of the 20th century as today: raw ambition versus unwavering faith. Plainview’s drive to not only succeed but to also ensure that others fail can be an off-putting philosophy, yet in life there are winners and losers. Plainview, whether his competitors know it, is actively engaged in a zero-sum game: the more he gets, the less there is for everyone else. It can be seen as a criticism of capitalism, sure, but the basic tenet of capitalism is that there is no limit to what resources are available: if the market exists, the service can exist. That’s the angle from which Standard Oil, when offering Plainview a million dollars for his Little Boston fields, comes: for them, it’s a non-zero-sum game, because so long as there are resources, there’s more potential for success for all involved.
Because of how doggedly Plainview follows his philosophy, it extends beyond just his business mentality and into all aspects of his life. When Henry is revealed as an imposter, Plainview sees only an enemy who schemed him; when H.W. expresses his desire to start his own company, Plainview sees only a slight and a rival enterprise; and when Eli comes to ask for financial help, Plainview sees only a charlatan who publicly shamed and humiliated him. In each of those instances, Plainview seeks (and achieves) the ultimate victory: a win for himself and a failure for his counterpart. And not just a failure, but an assurance that the failure is as devastating as possible.
It’s fascinating to watch a character like that in a film, but it must be utterly unfulfilling to live that kind of life. In the end, what does Plainview achieve by driving away all competition? The final shot of the film, of course, tells us what to expect: Plainview sits in a basement bowling alley, literally in the gutter of the lowest level of his home/life, and calls out, “I’m finished.” By blindly following his win-lose attitude, he ends up creating the worst lose-lose situation anyone could find themselves in.