There Will Be Blood – The family angle

There Will Be Blood  starts with Daniel Plainview alone, battling and struggling in his quest for Silver. This sequence is one of the few devices which allow us to sympathise with an arch monster of a protagonist. Though we may not condone them, Daniel’s misdeeds are, to an extent, relative to the suffering we believe he must have endured given that at this point, he is already middle aged. The fact that Daniel is alone in this first sequence, mirrored by the ending is in itself telling in understanding the protagonist’s true motivation throughout. 

The film has many Motifs which are repeated numerous times.  Daniel believes in plain speaking.  We hear him state this fact as a staple in his spiel to prospective land sellers and although, at first we may not believe his word on this, the point is made to each of the two supporting characters in HW and Henry, as well as to the antagonist, Eli.  Daniel is literally and figuratively drilling right through the film. He drills the two characters Henry and HW in demanding that they speak plainlyof their desires, the former early in their encounter and the latter in their final heartwrenching encounter.  Another motif throughout is that of the film’s title, blood.  Blood for Daniel is family.  Plainview’s desire for family may be unconscious for the most part but is nevertheless strong.  He readily abandons his adopted son, the closest thing to family he ever has, for the man he is uncharacteristically deceived into thinking is his bloodbrother.  In the film’s final sequence, Eli cannot successfully wake Daniel from his drunken slumber by shouting that the house is on fire, he can only do so by saying softly, “it’s your Brother, Eli”.

A further extension of this is when Plainview is willing to abandon major negotiations with Union Oil at the very mention of family. 

The film’s most important sequences are less a vehicle for plot development than they are an insight into Plainview’s inner workings.  After all, the plot, on a superficial level, is a straightforward one.  The sequences in question are the introductions and subsequent dismissals of HW and Eli. HW represents the closest thing Plainview ever has to family, perhaps, deep down, his greatest desire. While Eli represents, partly, Plainview’s own moral conscience, only getting the better of him when he is actually racked with guilt about his abandonment of HW.

Johnny Greenwood’s score permeates with a suffocating tension throughout, often reminiscent of that found within a horror film, a necessary device in an otherwise dialogue-sparse picture.  It becomes percussive and discordant and evermore unsettling when Plainview is desperately running with an injured HW and strings and minor chords denote a yet unspoken sadness in Plainview when he watches Eli depart for his mission in Las Vegas.  

With the majority of the film set outside, Anderson has chosen to match the elements wherever possible in his choice of lighting.  Fire is often used as the key light in scenes of passion or extremes of emotion.  One of the most disturbing images of the film is that in which Plainview and his long time colleague stare at the flaming well which has just dealt HW a serious injury, rejoicing in the prospect of “a whole ocean of oil” all to himself [Plainview’s].  Plainview stands alone, glowing red like a demon against the darkness which was, moments earlier, the light of dusk.  As Eli curses and physically attacks his father for being “stupid” and “weak”, one of only two scenes in which he let’s down his holy guard, they are lit by a nearby lantern once again more red than orange. In the first scene of real confrontation between Daniel and Eli, just after this, Daniel and his “crew” are standing in half silhouette against a white sky when a determined yet young and innocent looking Eli is shot from the reverse angle against a perfect blue sky, as the confrontation ensues and Daniel very clearly has the upper hand, we remain on the original angle and the remainder of the scene plays out against the white.  This brilliant portrayal of character and power is a testament to the editor as much as the cinematographer.  Although this film seems to tend toward the epic in story and setting, the cinematography is far more functional than stylistic. There are far more close ups and midshots than one would generally find in previous films which are true to the genre and rarely does landscape dominate the screen without commenting directly on Plainview’s inner character.  In the sequence which depicts the discovery of oil on the Sundays’ land we hear Daniel beginning to tell HW of his plans as we see the two come up to a ridge from what becomes a high angle wide shot.  This particular scene, for the briefest moment, is about possibility.  From the high angle we can see sprawling, uncultivated land and sky ahead of Plainview and his adopted son while we hear this jovial dialogue:

Daniel: So  <or sow>

HW: So  <sow>

Daniel: So <sow>, So <sow>.

As Daniel goes on to explain about the pipeline to HW, the very next shot is of Daniel in profile, the back of HW’s head slightly in foreground but in a two dimensional sense in front of Daniel, both of them dominating the screen with only a vague sense of the same surrounding landscape.  Daniel and HW are never closer than in this scene yet all they discuss now is the pipeline.  This is the exception that proves the rule with regard to the cinematography but also a masterstroke of editing.

The film climaxes when Plainview actually kills Eli in the final sequence and the last image is of a hunched, ageing Plainview sitting beside the lifeless body of Eli, halfway down one of Plainview’s own bowling lanes, having just declared, “I’m finished.”  The point here is that having now most definitely done away with the three people closest to him, Daniel is once again alone.  Though this was his stated desire, this final image is of a broken man, not a triumphant one.  “I’m finished” could perhaps be read as “I’m done for”.

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