There Will Be Blood
Digging One's Own Grave
In a scene two-thirds of the way through There Will Be Blood, central character Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is awakened. He has been sleeping out in the open and is woken by a man whose land he is keen to buy. Everybody else in the surrounding area has sold except for William Bandy. As he sits in front of the half-awake Plainview, Bandy asks him about his sins. "My sin of drilling!", Plainview says, but Bandy has something else on his mind as he hands Daniel the gun Plainview had used the previous night to kill the man who had pretended to be his brother. After the killing, he dug a grave and buried the man in it. It isn't drilling that has been the issue but digging, and that was where the problem began years earlier in 1898, with Plainview looking for silver, after discovering a large chunk of it while working in a deep shaft he has presumably self-created in the New Mexico desert.
During the first six minutes of the film, director Paul Thomas Anderson shows us a man of inexorable will. We don't see him dig the hole that must be around eight metres deep, but there is nothing to suggest anybody would have helped him to do it, and we don't know after a piece of the ladder breaks and he falls into the hole, breaking his leg, how he makes it into town with the piece of silver. We do see him drag himself up out of the pit and Anderson shows us enough of Plainview's drive for us to be sure he would have dragged himself on all fours to get to town as he sells the precious metal for $342 dollars. The money will go into more digging, as the film jumps forward to 1902 and Plainview is searching for oil. He of course finds it and the film is about Daniel's ever-greater accumulation of wealth, while at the same time having almost no interest in this wealth at all. It is as though Anderson wanted to make a film about the American unconscious: less the will to be rich than the will to will. When, later, an executive from Standard Oil looks to buy Plainview out, he says "we will make you a millionaire while you're sitting here from one minute to the next." Plainview bluntly asks the man what else would he do with himself. There he would be with a million dollars and nothing to work towards, nothing that would put that enormous will in continual motion. The exec, H. M. Tilford, suggests he look after his boy, bewildered by the question as though whatever reasons Tilford has for sitting at the top of an oil company, they have little to do with the need for graft. What we might wonder was the man doing while years earlier Plainview was digging around in the earth looking for precious metals? "You fellas should just scratch around in the dirt and find it like the rest of us..." Plainview tells Tilford and his colleagues. The urgency of his speech, the assertiveness of his position, suggest that where there will be oil, there will be blood. We might believe that in Plainview's mind there isn't a lot of difference between blood that passes through the veins and oil that passes through the pipe to the sea that he will later in the film build. His conflation between the two shows an unstable mind but maybe he just understands better than most the sort of will needed to destroy the earth isn't so very different from the will to destroy others. A moment after the exec says Daniel should take the money and spend time with his boy, Plainview says: "One night I am going to come to you, inside of your house, wherever you're sleeping, and I'm going to cut your throat." The poor man, though very rich, cannot understand Plainview's reasoning and sees in front of him a madman. "Why are you acting insane and threatening to cut my throat?" Tilford asks, his voice high and frightened while Daniel's is resonant and deep (much deeper than Day-Lewis's own). The film's purpose is to understand something of that madness, to see that it possesses its own rationale.
Upton Sinclair called the book upon which Anderson's film is based, Oil! but for the director, blood is the word that drives the material, seeing oil perhaps as only the means by which Plainview's will becomes manifest. After all, it isn't even oil that we see him searching for initially but silver and yet it doesn't seem irrelevant that the purpose of his search lies in digging underground. The execs don't understand this relationship with the earth (despite one of them insisting he dug around too), but they perhaps don't understand either why comments about Plainview's son might be taken a particular way. The boy isn't a blood relation but someone Daniel adopts after his colleague at the initial oil well dies in an accident. Blood matters to Daniel, and there he is with the only person he feels close to the son that isn't his own. When he kills the man who claims to be his brother, it is hard to know whether this is Plainview showing how ruthless he can be when someone betrays him, or whether it is Daniel devastated by his genealogical solitude. After burying Henry, he cries and gets drunk. Earlier, when he first realises Henry isn't his brother, Daniel and Henry are on the beach and Daniel discusses how there was a house he greatly admired when he was young. "Even as a boy I wanted to have children to run around in it." It is probably the closest Plainview gets to disclosure and there he is in the telling realising that his brother in his lack of recollection isn't his brother at all. Plainview is a man with no wife and no hint of any emotional affair with a woman, and no children of his own. It is as if the will to succeed could never accommodate a family and even his adopted son, HW, came out of that drive: that the boy's father was working alongside Daniel and died in the pursuit of oil and the American Dream. HW is a child of tragedy but also of success: the father is struck not long after Daniel has struck oil.
If that seems like a heavy and tasteless pun it tells us a little about the problem of language that film can escape and can nevertheless transpose into associational images. When the makeshift rig collapses and the beam and buckets fall down the hole and kill HW's father, it will bring to mind the earlier moment when Plainview falls down the pit and breaks his leg. Both scenes use shots from below as respectively a body and debris fall. You win some, you lose some we might say, with Daniel temporarily losing the use of his leg when he falls into the hole and HW's father losing his life when the beam falls on him. But silver and oil are found. This is risky business indeed, with Anderson making clear the suspense of cinema can conjoin honestly with the type of risks many were practising as their search for the American Dream contained within it the potential nightmare. But if Anderson is such a good filmmaker, it rests on taking the potential clunkiness of film convention, and linguistic punning, and generating instead a metaphorical, even metaphysical vision out of metonymic detail.
That might sound like a lot to unpack. However, let us help by saying that if blood is thicker than water it is thinner than oil - and one of the many underlying idiomatic threads of the film is to wonder of these three substances (oil, water and blood) which one is the most paramount? Daniel would no doubt assume it is oil. This is what drives him throughout the film, but that would only be consciously. Subconsciously there is the importance of water in the scene when Daniel (and Henry) swims before telling Henry about his thoughts as a boy. It is a baptismal moment in a film obsessed with God in the church the young Eli (Paul Dano) builds and that he expects Plainview to contribute more towards, since it was Eli's family who initially gave him the land in which he could extract oil. Daniel is involved in dirty work and as the film is great at showing the oiliness of oil, so it captures the freshness of the sea. In this moment he seems cleansed and it looks like confession follows baptism only for Plainview to realise that Henry isn't his bother at all, and which thus leads to the spilling of blood when Henry admits that he isn't in fact a blood relative that Daniel's brother died a while back of tuberculosis and that Henry, who knew him, had read his diaries. Daniel promptly shoots him in the head as blood does prove thicker than water, both in the sense that the cleansing of the body and spirit proves weak next to the anger Daniel feels when he becomes aware that Henry is kith not kin, and thus he is not part of the same blood.
Yet perhaps Plainview's unconscious couldn't tolerate a friendship that isn't based on blood: that when he realises what he has had with Henry has been merely a friendship, it becomes intolerable: that if he can at least claim Henry as a brother then he holds onto a hatred for his fellow man that only kinship alleviates. In an earlier scene, where Daniel says "I don't like to explain myself", after Henry asks him some questions, Plainview nevertheless says that "I have a competition in me. I want nobody else to succeed. I hate most people." Oil is the means by which he competes; family suggests the only escape from that competition. Henry admitting he is not Daniel's brother means that he must die. Yet we are left wondering after the murder, as Daniel is drunk and weeping, who exactly he is weeping over? Is it for the murder he has committed, over his real brother, who he now knows is dead, or for Henry, who has proved a true friend even if he predicated it on the lie that he was Daniel's brother? After the burial, Plainview looks through his brother's diary that Henry was carrying, and so we might conclude it is for his brother that he grieves. But Anderson keeps things vague enough for us to believe that it could be all three.
This is partly why we invoke the metaphorical containing the metaphysical and explored through the metonymic. If few films achieve the metaphysical it rests partly on the causal proving much more important than the metaphoric and the metonymic, and with good reason. Film is a very direct form that assumes causality and the literal unless the viewer is cued to think otherwise, and this cueing can often seem much more obvious than in literature for at least two reasons. Firstly, film lacks not just tenses but also the conditional. It cannot signify initself whether an image is in the past, present or the future, and it cannot offer initself a conditional mood, except in the crudest of terms. Unless a voiceover tells us that this is the past, present or future we will assume we are in the present. Unless the film uses a voiceover or a dreamy dissolve we will assume we are in the reality of the film and not the fictionality within it. Many an eighties film (Nightmare on Elm Street, Blood Simple, Deadringers) played on this assumption that we will believe the image is fictionally real rather than fictionally oneiric unless the film tells us otherwise. In Blood Simple, a character wakes up, goes to the bathroom and then into another room, and sees her husband sitting there. This will be the first moment we will assume it might be a dream, since her husband has been shot and buried, but we know we are also watching a film where the husband has proved pretty hard to kill thus far. It is only when he vomits blood all over the floor and the film cuts to her waking abruptly that we know for sure that she has been dreaming. It isn't that literature can't do the same but it can also clearly tell us that a character is entering an oneiric state by saying that as she slept she imagined her husband returning in a dream: that film doesn't have the equivalent grammar is probably why the dream sequence is so often utilised; to wrong-foot the viewer into thinking they are watching reality because film makes us assume we are in the reality of the drama.
Our purpose is to emphasise the importance in film of the causal and the absence of tense, and why it makes sense that many filmmakers use a chronological structure, or a voice-over when offering the achronological. As Robert Philip Kolker says, film is poor "in grammatical past tense, the past has no reality beyond or before the moment is evoked. What is seen on the screen is, now. That is why flashbacks have traditionally needed to be introduced verbally by a character and by specific devices like the dissolve..." (The Altering Eye) Clearly, plenty great films have worked very hard to add more complexity to time in film, and Kolker invokes perhaps the most brilliant and perplexing example: Last Year at Marienbad. To explore this avenue would take us far away from There Will be Blood, but what matters is to see how Anderson absorbs the difficulties, to create a film that asks us to view it not only causally but thematically too, by using repetitions and allusions that give us a sense of what it is about. Metaphor in cinema is as difficult as metonymy is superficially easy. Isn't film a metonymic art in its use of the close up the part that signifies the whole? How frequently do we see in film a shot we take as the most important image even it is a partial one? In a small, sweet work like Breezy, the film shows us a stray dog run over early in the story, its return to health halfway through, and its presence at the end of the film when the young woman (Kay Lenz), who has broken up with her older lover (William Holden), sees it coming towards her, with Holden, now its sole owner, in the background. Just before that, director Clint Eastwood gives us a close up of the dog and it captures well the fragility of the feelings of all involved: Holden who didn't know how much he loved Lenz, Lenz who has clearly been forlorn without him, and the dog, clearly missing Lenz as we see him with his tongue hanging out. Yet of course we have a very low-key metaphor at work too, with the dog's trajectory through the film vital to the emotional release at the end of it. It is the dog that shows Holden isn't quite the curmudgeon he seems to be, and suggests as well that in their own makeshift way, Holden and Lenz have become part of a bigger family than just the two of them. Here we see that metonymy (the importance of the close up) gives way to metaphor: the way the dog signifies the meaningfulness of their union.
The question for cinema is often how to turn metonymy into metaphor without either arriving at arbitrariness or cliche. If the film offered no role for the dog in the film whatsoever and then showed us a pooch, it would be arbitrary; if it cut to a dog that was seen in the park where they meet it would seem a cliche. It may still appear cliched in Breezy but is at least integrated into the work, serving as a justifiable metaphor for the main characters' feelings towards each other. Now we should remember that Jean Mitry believed "there can be no such thing as metaphor in the cinema, in the sense of an expression similar to what metaphor is in literature." (The Aesthetics and Psychology of Cinema) Try literalising it is raining cats and dogs in film and we have surrealism; cut from a dead person to a doornail and we have just an odd juxtaposition not the idiom in film form. Clearly we are simplifying some literary terms here as we have collapsed metaphor and simile, just as what we have been calling metonymy should more strictly be called synecdoche: metonymy usually suggests an associational relationship; synecdoche a pertinent part of the whole. But often in film these terms are collapsed. When a film cuts to the fireplace as lovers kiss, it is metaphor, metonymy and simile all in one (and a cliche without a doubt). It signifies their burning passion, a part of the room they are usually in, and we would say their passion is like a burning fire. The difference in film isn't between a clear use of one term or another but the escape from cliche, convention and arbitrariness that the use allows. The dog in Breezy is used sentimentally but it works because of its justified presence across the story. It becomes metaphor (Holden and Lenz's love is a fragile reflection of the dog's vulnerability), metonymy (it is a part of the family), and simile: their love is as bright as a summer's day. In using such obvious and forced literary terms to describe what is going on we haven't done the film any favours; it might have been better to describe how the film is nuanced in its telling and careful in its delineating of feeling. But for our purpose, it serves as a very good and conventional example of utilising such terms as metaphor and metonymy in film form.
Our use of Breezy might seem random but it is a film Anderson clearly adores, with dialogue from the film used in Licorice Pizza, and where critics have acknowledged "the movie was inspired by... Breezy." (Indiewire) But both Licorice Pizza and Breezy are in different ways brilliantly small-scale romances and There Will Be Blood is a large-scale commentary, trying to find in Plainview a broader metaphor of America, and even seeking in the work the metaphysical magnitude of two filmmakers who are more obviously present in the material than an early Eastwood film happens to be: Kubrick and Malick. One reason why we would be inclined to regard Kubrick and Malick as metaphysical (as Eastwood is not) rests on how the imagery that we have noticed is inevitably collapsed in cinema, as it loses its literary certitude in a much more lawless film grammar, and takes on a far greater ambition. In a fine, short video essay, Yaron Baruch traces the similarities between 2001: A Space Odyssey and There Will Be Blood, seeing in the opening scene of the landscape in the latter an early moment from Kubrick's film. Baruch also sees Plainview crouched drinking and taking a break resembling the ape hunched in front of bones, the renaissance room in Kubrick's film sharing affinities with Plainview's house, and the moment when he kills Eli similar to a scene when the murderous ape stands over another ape in 2001. Yet what we want to extract from Baruch's fine analysis isn't the aping, so to speak, of Kubrick's style in Anderson's film, but a shared preoccupation with turning images into more than their apparent narrative capacity. When Plainview sits hunched up like the ape in 2001, Anderson captures like Kubrick a metaphysical surplus to the deed: it gives us a sense that Plainview isn't just digging for precious metals, he is a manifestation of will. Whether it would be silver, oil, or any other substance, the object of the pursuit somehow seems weak next to the pursuit itself. Equally, when at the end, Plainview kills Eli with a bowling pin, and the shot resembles the ape wielding a bone, this suggests it isn't that Plainview must kill in self-defence, in revenge or for self-reward, but for a more primal purpose that no objective reason could explain. There will be blood indeed, because whether it is oil, silver, or one's vital fluid, Plainview is a man on a mission to impose himself on the world no matter the objects of the world. These just seem like excuses; behind them is a constant act of inexplicable purpose. As Arthur Schopenhauer says "for the will itself, and in itself, and also in so far as it is manifest in an individual, is independent of all knowledge, because it is antecedent to such knowledge." (The Will to Live) Like Kubrick, Anderson here wonders how to show not so much violence (there are only two murders), but the will to be that, in extreme form, leads to the murderous.
It is here we can see how the metonymous becomes metaphorical and leads to the metaphysical. Anderson constantly gives us images associatively suggestive. There is a fine high-angle shot where we see Plainview's car coming into the frame, a horse and cart crossing the screen and, in the distance, a train comes into view. Rather than showing the car pull up by the station, Anderson cuts to a frontal shot of the train coming towards the camera. Here we don't just have a train pulling into a station, we have civilization at work, with Anderson having previously shown us in the same shot three different modes of transportation. also, just before the cut to the high-angle, we have seen Plainview asking someone if he can buy up land in the area. "Can everything around here be got?" Daniel asks. "Sure" the real estate agent replies. Throughout, Jonny Greenwood's music is more menacing than triumphant, closer to Hitchcock's Psycho or Spielberg's Jaws than the sort of Dvorak-inspired new world scores often found in westerns. The cut to the front of the train is metonymy (the part that signifies the whole), but it is a metaphor too of the changing times and how civilization is getting brought to the American west. But the music, the cut to the train rather than the car pulling into the station, the high angle on the train, car, and horse and cart, all bring to the images a metaphysical quality in the Schopenhauerian sense. We are given less a man who wants to succeed than someone who wants to want: a man who will never be happy with what he has got, no matter if "everything around here" can be. A Dvorak-type score would indicate the making of this new world, how the desert becomes civilization, but Greenwood's use of the sharp stings proposes a man highly-strung indeed who could turn any environment into an emotional desert.
If Kubrick's work usually illustrates a man simultaneously fascinated by technology and suspicious of man's development (and this is very much a man's world in its exploration of the problematic), then this side of There Will Be Blood is offset by a different metaphysical problem explored often by Terrence Malick. Speaking of Anderson's film, Jonathan Jones said: "I sat in the cinema perplexed, and feeling a bit sorry for a genuinely ambitious director who has not only imitated the spaciousness and light of Days of Heaven both films are set in an industrialising countryside at the dawn of the twentieth century - but", Jones says, "even the older film's very distinctive pace, right down to the way it sounds." (Guardian) This seems too easy, even if one could probably do the sort of scene analysis Baruch offers to show how influenced Anderson has been by Malick's film. There is the burning oil tower resembling the burning wheat fields, Richard Gere crouching over a fire as Plainview does, the montage of the building of the tower and the community's involvement as the field workers gathering wheat. But Malick's is a much softer vision than Kubrick's and it seems perhaps that Anderson didn't want simply to homage Malick but to find in his work a socio-religious simplicity that can at the same time propose a quality that goes beyond the materialistic life Plainview insists upon. If after all he desires not things but the desire for things, then this indicates a quality that is intangible no matter how tangible he makes his world. Part of what makes Anderson's vision metaphysical is that he suggests another world within the one he shows, and does so by using a softness of light and a relationship with nature which may invoke Malick's work not only, if especially, Days of Heaven, but The Thin Red Line and The New World as well. One of Malick's pertinent questions is how nature needn't be pressed into production, and the problem of the world of work versus the world of play. It might be the central character in The Thin Red Line, more interested in the water he swims in and the birds he listens to than the war he is at Guadalcanal to fight, or it might be the environment three of the key characters in Days of Heaven find themselves in after leaving Chicago for the Texas panhandle. While Chicago is grim and grimy, Texas is a place of tranquillity with Malick and his cinematographer Nestor Almendros showing us in close up pheasants, geese and locusts.
Anderson's purpose is to show work rather than leisure but he wishes to illustrate too an America that reveals its beauty without being imposed upon by industry. When Daniel and HW are claiming to hunt for quail (while Daniel searches out places to buy up for oil well development), the film shows us in wide vistas and dappled light a country that can be a place of joy and rest. But then Daniel sits on top of a hill explaining to HW how he will buy the land, build a pipeline to the sea and do a deal with Union Oil. When in the later scene where the oil exec from Standard Oil asks when he offers to buy Daniel out that Daniel can retire and look after his son, we have seen in this earlier sequence that spending quality time with HW consists of quality spending as they discuss how much they will give to the family whose land they have been occupying while claiming to look for quail. Daniel says he will pay the family quail prices not oil prices: a small sum for the land they would be merely utilising rather than the large sum that ought to be due for land exploited.
In Days of Heaven of course we see farmland, the passing of the seasons, a renewable world of utilisation rather than an un-renewable one of exploitation and the difference between the two films lies vitally here. Malick's vision is constantly aware of nature that is unspoilt even if the world of work or the world of war potentially intrudes. There are the threshing machines of Days of Heaven and the war machines of The Thin Red Line, but Malick films as though on the side of nature and not quite on the side of man, and thus it is no surprise that so many commentators have drawn on Martin Heidegger to explain an aspect of Malick's work. James Morrison speaks of "the age of the world picture", where Heidegger saw the imperialist impulse "at the root of modern thought itself", and Morrison adds that "Malick's work has always been 'Heideggerean' in seeking means to depict natural beauty in 'the age of the world picture'..." (The Cinema of Terrence Malick) That isn't Anderson's question here, though he is filming in the age of the world picture too, but it is still a reflection on the sort of madness Heidegger sees in the imperial impulse and manifests itself so well in Plainview's absolute inability to know what he would do with himself were he not constantly industrious.
Thus the achievement of There Will Be Blood is to make a film about industriousness rather than industry, as though the latter would lend itself too well to falling into the materialistic, while Anderson succeeds in offering a film that asks about the metaphysics of work. We see relatively little of Plainview's material gain and it isn't until near the end of the film that the viewer is shown the fruit of all that labour in the house that already seems haunted by solitude, as if Plainview has lived far too many lonely days and nights inhabiting it. The first we see of the house is a slow zoom establishing shot before a cut to the bowling alley, and then to Plainview firing off a few rounds in the distance in one of the rooms in his huge dwelling. If this is what success looks like who would desire it? We see him again in the house offering his signature just as we saw him do so near the beginning of the film when he trades in the metal. But now the gesture appears to exhaust him, or bore him, or is too much of a task in such a state of non-sobriety. The materialistic progress of signing one cheque that gives you money for a bit of silver becomes the degradation of an alcoholic listlessness showing all that ferocious early energy has been turned into actualised wealth, but at a price money cannot buy.
The best he can do by the end of the film is to buy off the man who for much of the film's running time has hounded him for his spiritual enervation: Eli. Here he forces out of Eli a confession that Eli doesn't believe in the lord just as earlier Eli forced out of Daniel's body the devil Daniel had to pretend was possessing him. The irony might be that Daniel Plainview is much more spiritually restless than the complacent Eli, who knows he can make a buck out of people's thirst for God while one senses throughout that Plainview has a hunger he cannot quite name but assumes it must rest on becoming rich. However, the scene where he reveals he wouldn't know what to do with himself, and the scenes in the house many years later that illustrate how right he was, show that money can't buy you love. This is fine if you don't want it, but the film has shown throughout that this is partly what Daniel seeks. It is there in the early scene when Plainview adopts the boy and while we might wonder about the neglectful parenting (as Plainview puts some whisky in the child's milk to calm the baby down), there is what looks like love, and we see it again a moment later when Plainview and the baby HW are on a train and Daniel is attentive and caring. We see it once more after he has murdered Henry, as we witness him in tears, and we see it yet again in inverted form near the end when Daniel berates and undermines HW who is now a grown man.
HW has married Eli's sister, Mary, and will go off and pursue his own career in oil and this can seem a double betrayal: marrying the sister of his enemy and competing with him in business. "I don't even know who you are because you have none of me in you" Plainview says. "You're someone else's...you're an orphan from a basket in the middle of the desert." But we know HW wasn't found in a basket and that he adopted the boy after the boy's father died in the industrial accident that strictly speaking Plainview would have been responsible over. We also already know he is well capable of lying over HW's past. Much earlier in the film when a husband and wife are thinking of getting involved in Daniel's oil adventure, and she asks about his spouse, he says that she died in childbirth and it is just he and HW now. Maybe she did die in childbirth but there is nothing to indicate Daniel knows this, and we do know for sure that HW is not Daniel's child. But what we can extract from the later scene is that Daniel is angry that this young man who has been an important source of feeling and meaning has become a source of pain and frustration. When Daniel says "I took you for no other reason than that I needed a sweet face to buy land," we might believe this is as big a lie as the one he tells about his having a wife who died in childbirth. However, while the earlier one was a pragmatic need to convince someone that he was a family man himself, this later one is to convince himself and HW there was never a family to begin with. It seems to be his pain talking, and thus a falsehood, but one way of understanding There Will Be Blood, and the character of Plainview, is that while he knows himself in the context of business, knows how to get what he wants and refuses to let anyone get one over on him, he knows himself very little when it comes to understanding basic emotional needs.
We wouldn't wish to reduce the film to Plainview's character and his psychological inadequacies, especially when we proposed There Will be Blood insists on metaphysical properties. But we could do worse than see how the lies Plainview tells function very differently whether told for financial or emotional purpose. When he lies over business he is lying to others, when he lies over HW he is lying to himself. Sometimes we can see how the professional and personal get mixed up: not only in the scene where he threatens to murder the oil exec who says he can look after his son, but also a later scene when he comes across the exec again in a restaurant. Here he is sitting talking to HW and he puts a cloth over his head and says: "Standard offered us a million dollars for the little Boston leases. I told HM Tilford where he could shove that and we made a deal with Union, on the pipeline...." After he finishes, he looks across at Tilford and some colleagues and we hear, and presumably Daniel hears, them whispering about how he turned down the million. Daniel gets up and goes to the table, looking Tilford in the eye as he invades his space, and says "I told you not to tell me how to raise my family." It is an embarrassing moment, for HW, for Tilford, for the colleagues, and while we might assume that Daniel was right to turn down Tilford's offer (who knows how rich he has become), we are well aware that his financial acumen is constantly at war with his acrimonious feelings; that he cannot distinguish between what it means to finalise a deal and to deal with an affront. He must destroy HW when he too becomes an oilman, but again is this a question of hard cash or hard feelings?
We might conclude that the film is finally about a man who digs his own grave, who shows that in digging for silver and then for oil he becomes someone who cannot live in the full light of day; his unconscious drives and his conscious affections become muddled. He has clearly become an alcoholic and perhaps also become insane. When he murders Eli this is quite different from his earlier murder of Henry. Henry has betrayed him and must go: we see from the moment Plainview clocks that Henry has been lying to him to the moment of the killing that this is how it has to be, but Eli's murder appears unhinged, a moment where Daniel must surely realise that if before he had merely lost what he thought was a brother, now he has all but lost his mind. Yet this notion is preceded by images that capture well a man with tunnel vision who has disappeared into the tunnel. Just before the film jumps to 1927, we see HW and Eli's sister playing and the film offers the shot from the interior of what looks like a window frame without a window, but it also calls to mind the end of The Searchers, where we see that Ethan is outside the homestead, a man who has reunited the family but cannot be part of it. Here in There Will Be Blood the children are playing outside but who might be looking on? There is nothing to suggest it is a point of view shot, yet it seems significant nevertheless, and after it, the film jumps forward sixteen years to HW and Mary's wedding. Here are two people who have learnt to love, and there Plainview is, in his house taking potshots at his furniture. A moment before this moment of melancholy violence, we see a shot that could easily have been in a Kubrick film: a one-point perspective on the bowling alley that will of course become the place where he murders Eli. The shot is clearly not a point of view but it captures well a foreshadowed sense of Daniel's madness, and indeed the perfect cinematic form in which to suggest tunnel vision. It is a metonym of Plainview's wealth (he has a house big enough to contain a bowling alley), a metaphor of his loneliness (it is an empty shot) and indicates finally a metaphysical quality that the Kubrickian one-point lighting proposes: no matter the human striving, the gap between man and matter remains enormous. Plainview's attempt to close it has only succeeded in alienating himself from everyone else.
Plainview has been a man with vision alright, but he has only managed to dig himself a tunnel. It seems no amount of oil released from the ground will free him from demons that have been exacerbated by his success. He is astonishingly rich and terrifyingly impoverished. The single-mindedness that has made him the man he has become, has become the will that must murder. When Tilford says to him he could make Plainview a millionaire from one minute to the next, and Daniel says what would he do with himself, the ending gives us a good idea, as if being an oilman stopped him for a while at least from becoming a murderer. There will be blood indeed.
© Tony McKibbin