Paul Thomas Anderson’s tragic parable of society’s addiction to oil, fuelled by a zealous Daniel Day-Lewis, is a burning indictment of male aggression and an apocalyptic warning
The title is a prophecy, a warning, or a vengeful supernatural pronouncement. Paul Thomas Anderson’s strange masterpiece, freely adapted by him from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, is a tragic parable of man’s dependence on this commodity: formerly the lubricant of commercial triumph and technological innovation, and now the dwindling lifeblood of our material prosperity, the unacknowledged driving force of our military conflicts, and even the cause of a coming ecological catastrophe. That dark title threatens a calamity now visible on the horizon: destruction of the Earth itself. And it is all inscribed in the story of the movie’s leading character, a man with the Bunyanesque name of Daniel Plainview.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives perhaps the greatest, certainly the most exotic performance of his career as an oil prospector in the early 20th century, rewarded with colossal wealth that never gives him the smallest pleasure and serves only to amplify the loneliness, paranoia and resentment that were there from the very beginning. Day-Lewis seems to have unlocked this character’s mystery by seizing on a voice: a robust, cantankerous Scots-Irish accent that he has modified from John Huston (a borrowing that itself may have a subtextual reminder of Huston directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). As a poor man, Plainview is seen hacking fanatically away in a silver mine, to the accompaniment of an eerie, atonal score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood: he accidentally discovers oil, like the apes at the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001 discovering their opposable thumbs.
The movie perhaps looks even stranger, starker and more unforgiving now than when it was released in 2007. Since then, Day-Lewis has given more emollient and sympathetic performances: as Abraham Lincoln for Spielberg in 2012, and as the fictional English couturier Reynolds Woodcock for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread in 2017. Compared with either, Plainview is uncompromising and uningratiating, and it is a grandiloquent performance that could be expected of no one else. Perhaps not Olivier in his screen heyday would have tried something so melodramatically strange – and yes, the weird “milkshake” monologue at the end now feels a bit exposed. No one other than Day-Lewis could have carried it off. The film is also intensely, disconcertingly male, a story of male toxicity without any real female dimension.
‘A story of male toxicity without any real female dimension’ … Dillon Freasier and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Photograph: Miramax/Sportsphoto/Allstar
As a rich man, Plainview is marooned in a huge, dark mausoleum of a house, boasting with black-comic savagery that he will suck up every competitor’s oil like a milkshake. This scene, along with one showing Plainview theatrically driving a stake through a claim map in front of investors, is perhaps there to make us think of Welles’s Charles Kane, the entrepreneur as performative capitalist, bully and showoff. Like Kane, Plainview is a man whose distinction resides in not having something extra but something missing, a gap where his heart should be, a spiritual imbalance generating neurotic, self-destructive energy.
It could also be that Anderson was inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s underrated movie Eureka from 1983, based on a true story, with Gene Hackman as the super-rich Arctic prospector Jack McCann, who was eventually to face loneliness and a grisly death.
There Will Be Blood may itself have been an influence on The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, in which Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is driven by resentment and rage to create the social media world that now rules our lives. But from 2016, there has been a raging Plainview in plain sight in the White House: Trump, the eccentric property billionaire and spoilt baby whose cranky tweets are as crazy as Plainview’s deranged “milkshake” pronouncement.
What a spectacle Anderson and Day-Lewis create: a portrait of male belligerence and fear, a Tutankhamun of misery, walled up in his own sarcophagus of wealth and prestige.