The year 2007 was a particularly exceptional year for cinema. That year, the Coen Brothers finally dominated the Oscars with their shattering classic 'No Country For Old Men'. Andrew Dominik delivered one of the most beautiful and haunting films of the decade, 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'. There was 'Ratatouille' and 'Atonement', 'The Mist' and 'Paranormal Activity', 'Hairspray' and 'Sweeney Todd', 'Hot Fuzz' and 'Enchanted' and 'Persepolis' and 'Sunshine'. It was also the year that David Fincher delivered his magnum opus 'Zodiac'.
One concern linking many of these great films - particularly the major American ones like 'No Country' and 'Jesse James' and 'Zodiac' - was the question of which attributes constitute the American Man, in action, in legacy and in mythos. The figures that emerged from these films would either represent icons or become icons themselves: rough-hewn stone figures like a Mount Rushmore of the underlying violence within the male American psyche, where the fruits of the Land of Opportunity becomes playing pieces in a battle for dominance, influence and power. No figure of American cinema in 2007 looms as large as that of Daniel Plainview, the fire-and-brimstone protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece 'There Will Be Blood'. He's the kind of figure that feels as if he could have been here since the beginning of time, that he was not born but appeared fully-formed, emerging from a fissure of rock in the American landscape, covered in dust and dirt and the dripping black blood of the earth itself.
Anderson's film loosely adapts the 1927 novel 'Oil!' by Upton Sinclair (the writer and politician who was central to Fincher's 2020 film 'Mank'), but very little of the novel is present in 'There Will Be Blood'. It follows the exploits of oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, 'Phantom Thread') and his battle for dominance over a rich oil prospect in a barren Californian township at the turn of the century. His chief opponent is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, 'Ruby Sparks'), a self-proclaimed preacher, healer and prophet who intends to use the resources and collateral of the oil discovery to his own advantage. The men are two locomotives travelling at full speed towards one another, and only God knows what will happen when they finally collide.
At the centre of 'There Will Be Blood' are the two bastions of American power - capitalism and religion. They are two forces whose ultimate motive is the acquisition of power and the control of the individual, and in the history of the United States, they have had to strike a delicate balance in order to maintain order. There is a cursory agreement between the two institutions of church and state, an understanding of their shared goal and the necessity of each, but neither particularly trusts the other. For the country to function, it believes it must find a balance between them, these two potentially insidious forces using an industrial and financial empire for their own betterment. That balance plays out in a form akin to a biblical fable in 'There Will Be Blood', the capitalist pursuits of Daniel Plainview in conflict with the religious fervour of Eli Sunday. In order to be adept at the games of religion and capitalism, certain skills are needed - a natural charisma, a gift with language and oration, an innate leadership quality and a determination to succeed, no matter what. On the barren hills of Little Boston, these two men engage in a delicate dance of death, each observing their opponent for weaknesses before the killing blow is struck.
Daniel Plainview occupies almost every frame of 'There Will Be Blood', and in the hands of Daniel Day-Lewis, he becomes monolithic; a monument of America itself. His performance is enormous in almost every sense of the word, but while much has been talked about his masterful, gradual and careful path towards the film's magnificently histrionic ending, it's in the quieter moments that the full enormity of the character and the performance emerge. The concept of the American Dream hasn't even been conceived in the time period covered by the film, but the pioneering spirit - that idea of taking the land and making something of yourself and it - has already become part of the American mythos. Daniel has the intelligence, the charm and the determination to succeed in any endeavour he sets his eye on, but he also has a ruthlessness, a violence, a possessiveness. Another easy word to level at him might be greed, but I don't think that is ultimately his hubris. Greed is a grubby, selfish trait, where integrity and the care of others don't play into account. 'There Will Be Blood' has always felt to me like the middle chapter in the great cinematic trilogy on American power, preceded by 'Citizen Kane' and followed by 'The Social Network'. Daniel Plainview is cut from the same cloth as Charles Foster Kane and Mark Zuckerberg, men who begin with genuine conviction to make the world a better place but who are willing to relinquish their humanity in order to achieve their personal goal: the acquisition of power. Greediness may be a trait of these men, but it isn't greed that propels them. It is power - always power - and if one has to forgo their soul and hurt those they love, then so be it. The difference is that while Kane and Zuckerberg naturally move towards that end, the loss of Daniel Plainview's humanity tears his soul apart in front of our eyes.
Another theme at the heart of 'There Will Be Blood' links to this, that of fatherhood. The idea of being a good father is central to Daniel's view of himself. He openly shows love for his son H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier), referring to him as his business partner as well as his son. There is sternness in their relationship, but also tremendous affection. It isn't a coincidence that the first words in 'There Will Be Blood' come after Daniel decided to adopt the orphaned baby, after that miraculous shot of the infant reaching up to touch the man's grizzled face. At this point, where the man we see in this film has found a connection with another human being and consequently connected with his humanity, Daniel speaks, but with a careful, soft, almost inviting tone. H.W. is the key to Daniel's humanity, his one genuinely good act, and one that he cherishes. That same respect and affection he has for his son are there in his professional relationships, in the way he addresses the people of Little Boston as he buys up their land. For Daniel, a good father and leader is about integrity, something he intends to pass on to his son. This is why he chastises Abel Sunday for beating his daughter, but more so why he cannot connect with Eli. Both Daniel and Eli are the father figures to their community, but Daniel sees no integrity in Eli positioning himself as a healer; he doesn't believe him, sees straight through his theatrics and his posturing. What Daniel sees in Eli is a young man thirsty for power and influence, using the veil of religion to achieve his end and shield his intentions. That's not to say that Daniel doesn't desire the same, but he sees his actions as purer. At least when Daniel is putting on a show to dazzle his audience, he isn't selling something he can't deliver.
Just as is the case with 'Kane' and 'The Social Network', 'There Will Be Blood' is a portrait of the Great American Figure as a monster - but like those films, we must understand their humanity before the monster emerges. In many ways, the rise of Daniel Plainview is the more operatic and the more tragic. Kane and Zuckerberg make mistakes that lead to their damnation; it isn't so much Daniel's actions as much as his responses that ultimately seal his fate. Just at the moment of victory, a catastrophe occurs that hits Daniel right in his soul, rendering him inept as a father. It could be argued that the turning point of 'There Will Be Blood' is not the explosion that shatters H.W.'s eardrums, but the moment minutes later where he is begging his father to stay with him. Daniel could comfort his son, but instead chooses the oil, destroying his relationship with his beloved boy in one terrible instant. It's a decision that will haunt Daniel for the rest of his life - the knowledge that, when given a choice between his son and the oil, he will choose the oil. He is a disciple and a priest at the altar of capitalism, believing that industry and product are the absolute necessity for happiness, and as this tragedy leads to a further series of devastations and disappointments, it becomes all the clearer to Daniel that his humanity and his ambition cannot work together.
On the barren hills of Little Boston, these two men engage in a delicate dance of death, each observing their opponent for weaknesses before the killing blow is struck.
This realisation is the tectonic conflict of the film, and Eli's greatest weapon. Where Daniel has humanity in a state of collapse, it could be argued that Eli has almost none to begin with. His care for others is a performance, a series of pre-prepared symbols and phrases to give the illusion. At a moment where his guidance and empathy is needed, he instead demands money for the church from Daniel, and as a consequence, the monolith pounds the martyr into the mud. One commonality between the two men is that they cannot stand to not be in power, and when Eli is given the opportunity, he uses Daniel's one open wound against him. If Daniel will pound him into the mud, the earth, his playing field, his domain, then when the man steps into Eli's domain, he will pummel him with his words, force him to admit to his son's abandonment, Daniel's greatest shame. The moments where we see Daniel's terror and pain are fleeting and monumental, and none more so than as the man screams, "I have abandoned my child." In this moment, his pain erupts and Eli believes he has won, he has stabbed this man in the ribs with a hot poker and subjugated him to the Lord's (and ultimately his own) power.
And then Eli makes a terrible mistake. He strikes Daniel, just as Daniel had struck him - but impotently, with hardly a fraction of the force. He believes he is a man of power, and yet in this moment, very much an act of self-aggrandisement for the sake of his congregation, Eli reveals just how weak and petty he is, that he must make a man subjugate to him in order to feel powerful. But Daniel Plainview is a man of true violence, a man of true fury, the true Third Revelation, and as his grasp on the most precious strands of his life, his family and his son begins to slip through his fingers, so does his patience. "I've built up my hatreds over the years," he says to Henry Brands, the man pretending to his brother, "little by little... I can't keep doing this on my own... with these... people." And then he laughs, one of the darkest laughs in American cinema, and we see the man of violence and vengeance that is to come.
When that figure arrives, he does so with a biblical fury, and that fury will be just as squarely directed at himself as it will be at others. His casting aside of H.W. is as much an act of self-punishment, the fulfilment of his self-prophecy that he would one day fully fail his son, now a grown man in control of his disability and his destiny. Daniel is terrified of abandonment and loneliness, but if he is in control of how that fate is served to him (killing the pretender Henry, disowning H.W.), then he is in control of his pain. And God in heaven help those in his way, whether it be the blade to the heart of calling H.W. a "bastard in a basket" or beating Eli to death with a bowling pin, the long-awaited final battle between the pillars of religion and capitalism. In the end, one must annihilate the other, and where Eli performs his power, Daniel has become pure - pure rage, pure ambition, pure fury.
Daniel Plainview is the ultimate portrait of the madness of American power. He begins in a well-pressed suit with honeyed words and the promise of a better tomorrow and ends as a fetid, mad thing, a rabid rat in shredded robes, biting and scratching and annihilating anything that threatens the horde he has gathered for himself. 'There Will Be Blood' is both the simplest of parables and one of the biggest films in existence, as if it were adapted not from a novel, but from a chapter of a religious text, a new volume of the bible, set in the rise and fall of the industrial and modern age. Just as is the case with 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Social Network', it is a story told over and over again since the beginning of time, of the same terrible men committing the same terrible acts - but unlike those films, both of which feel so modern and immediate, 'There Will Be Blood' is as old as history itself. You can imagine unearthing the original film print in a vault and finding it caked in mud, buried in dust, dripping with blood. It's the kind of film that feels alive and insane, as alive and insane as the figure at the heart of it. 'There Will Be Blood' is one of the true masterpieces of American cinema, and one of the true masterpieces on America itself.