Paul Thomas Anderson made the transition to the second part of his career with There Will Be Blood, an adaptation of a small section of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, which focuses on the rise of oil baron Daniel Plainview, played here by Daniel Day-Lewis. While Anderson keeps some of the particulars of Sinclair’s novel, including its merciless criticism of capitalism, he expands this into his own story as well, most notably by adding a new character, preacher Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano, who becomes Plainview’s nemesis as his oil empire expands. The five years between Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood were the longest ellipsis in Anderson’s career to date, and in many ways this film feels like the blueprint for a new body of work. Whereas Anderson’s previous four films were all set in the present, or approached some version of the present, There Will Be Blood is the first of the historical dramas that have comprised this second part of his oeuvre. For the first time, he departs entirely from his regular rotation of actors, and replaces Jon Brion with Jonny Greenwood, who would score the rest of his films. Most dramatically, perhaps, Anderson moves away entirely from the ensemble drama of his first three films, commencing a trilogy – extending to The Master and Phantom Thread – that focuses exclusively on the solipsistic and monomaniacal paternal figures around which his earlier ensembles were all organized.
This new direction is clear from the beginning of There Will Be Blood, which is the first of Anderson’s films to date that doesn’t open with an interaction between two or more characters. Instead, we’re presented with Daniel Plainview in heroic isolation against the western landscape, as he battles the elements, and sustains a broken leg, to sink his first oil well. While other prospectors eventually enter the scene, Anderson alternates between an extreme wide angle approach that folds them back into the landscape, and tight close-ups in which Plainview makes a case for his control of every part of the oil operation. We don’t hear music until Plainview strikes oil, and the music we do hear is immediately subsumed back into the oil imperative, making this a very different soundscape from the picaresque ensemble vibe of Jon Brion’s scores. For the most part, Greenwood eschews melody, and even motifs, instead using a minimal, classical register to evoke the submerged, inchoate presence of oil – part sound, part vibration – as it finds its way to the surface. While Greenwood opts for occasional swells of affect, they rarely resolve into refrains, instead ebbing and flowing organically alongside the developing oil well, lingering on the cusp of ambient audibility as they converge with the all-night hum of the derricks and the gurgling of oil as it makes its way through the community that Plainview establishes around his asset.
Whereas Brion’s scores functioned as the connective tissue between vast ensemble possibilities, Greenwood’s scores are thus more attuned to the solipsistic self-regard of a single megalomaniacal mind. In the case of There Will Be Blood, this mind belongs to Daniel Plainview, whose name mirrors the scope of the western, and indicates that Anderson is interested in the ways in which western topography amplifies the individualism and exceptionalism that are so critical to the American capitalist mythos. In the past, Anderson tended to favour characters with enormous reservoirs of kinetic energy lying just below the surface – energy that routinely, if unpredictably, produced phallic eruptions of charisma that circulated through his scenes, and shaped the way in which his ensembles unfolded. Here, however, that anxiety and turmoil is largely displaced onto the landscape, making this the first of Anderson’s films to be shot mainly outside, and almost entirely shot on location.
More specifically, Anderson is interested in the landscape of the oil western, which has tended to be particularly attuned to the phallic potency of the western gaze, along with the capitalist accumulation bound up with it. Whereas traditional westerns focus on the unbroken horizon, the oil western fixates on the ways in which derricks, rigs and other mining devices reify the audience’s gaze as a phallic potentiality that perpendicularly bisects this traditional western horizon. In that respect, oil structures play a similar role as the railway in the classical western, so it’s no surprise that our first shot of the railway in There Will Be Blood is as a geometric line that reaches straight to the horizon at a ninety-degree angle, nor that it mobilises Anderson’s own camera, which follows this image by shifting ninety-degrees and replicating the railway’s trajectory for the first tracking-shot of the film.
However, Anderson condenses the import of both railway and oil derrick into a more unusual motif within his western topography – the pipeline that Plainview wants to build between his oil field and the sea. This pipeline preoccupies the third act of the film, and is designed to overtake the railway – or to be a more efficient railway – in its capacity to imprint the commanding gaze of the oil baron directly upon the landscape. Since the perpendicular structures of the oil western were designed to conquer the horizon, this pipeline suggests that Plainview requires an even more emphatic horizon than we normally find in a western, which Anderson provides via a spectacle that we hardly ever see in a western – the ocean. By following Plainview, and the pipeline, all the way to the sea, Anderson takes us to the end point of the western, effectively exhausting it as a genre, while also revealing its generic claims to inexhaustibility as part of its hold on the American imagination, and part of the reason why it has proven to be such a resilient cinematic mode.
For that reason, arriving at the sea exhausts the interpersonal drama of There Will Be Blood – or perhaps reveals that there was no real interpersonal drama here to begin with. Throughout the first two parts of the film, Plainview only ever really interacts with two characters – his son H.W. Plainview, played by Dillon Frasier, and a local preacher, Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano. These characters are presented quite archetypally, as Plainview’s legacy and nemesis respectively, producing a narrative in which Plainview often seems to be struggling with Eli for the fate of his son. This struggle is particularly clear during the first blessing of the derrick, when Plainview introduces Eli only to take over at the last minute, paving the way for the most phallic manipulation of oil machinery that we have yet seen. However, it peaks when the main derrick catches on fire, producing the biggest phallic crisis and spectacle of the film, as H.W. is deafened by the blast, and Eli is demonstrated to be ineffective as a healer during the community’s greatest point of need.
In some ways, it’s not hard to draw a parable about capitalism here, in which Plainview represents the avaricious side of accumulation, and Eli represents the false moralism that often accompanies accumulation, with H.W. standing in for the disenfranchised future generations that they produce. Yet Anderson’s style seems to work against this more direct style of allegory, or at least suggest a broader connection between the western genre and capitalism, partly due to the way in which he situates these three figures within the wider community around the derricks. Early on, we learn that the oil in this area is particularly volatile because it is “earthquake oil,” released by tremors from deep beneath the ground so that it wells up right beneath the surface. The longer this earthquake oil accumulates, the more liquid and porous the surface becomes, and this fluidity seems to extend to the community that grows up around the oil rig, and to the figurative field of the film itself, both of which seem peculiarly vulnerable and malleable in the hands of Eli and Plainview’s agon.
This malleability is, in a way, the next stage in Anderson’s trademark mobile camera, taking the place of literal tracking-shots, which occur relatively infrequently in There Will Be Blood. Instead, Anderson opts for a different kind of fluidity, opting for perspectives that encompass multiple parts of the community in a single glance, but that are also dissociated from the clear vantage point of either Plainview or Eli, suggesting a dislocated ensemble gaze that neither man can properly claim. As the film proceeds, the two men become more gestural in their interactions, and are stripped of anything resembling regular interiority, introspection or character development, while Anderson’s tendency to move back from the action at critical moments can make it difficult to distinguish their gestures from each other, or from other characters, as if their mannerisms are generating the body language of those surrounding them. This process is only amplified by a proliferation of doubles whose purpose is never explained, and who are too diffuse or incidental to comprise a regular doppelanger motif. We never learn, for example, why Plainview named his son after himself. Nor do we ever see or hear from Eli’s twin brother Paul after the opening scenes, despite the fact that Paul, not Eli, convinces Plainview to make the derrick in the first place.
Rather than simply sedimenting Plainview and Eli into two aspects of capitalist accumulation, Anderson instead keeps them in a perpetual state of tension that makes the figurative field between them more fluid and porous as the film proceeds. By the time we arrive at the ocean, it feels as if the very substance of the western has dissociated before our eyes, as both the horizon, and the phallic gaze that bisects and conquers it, are effectively concluded, situating us in a liquid space in which the project of the western appears to have been completed. Plainview marks this achievement by realising that his companion, Henry, played by Kevin O. Connor, who has helped him lay down the pipeline, and who he previously thought was his brother, has been lying to him about his identity. While he manages to discover that Henry did in fact meet his brother, and gain the information from him that he needed to commit his ruse, Plainview remains curiously uninterested in Henry’s deeper motivations, in the fate of his brother, in what he might be able to disclose further about his brother, or even the fact of his companionship, which, deceptive or not, appears to have sustained him during the most arduous parts of the pipeline. Killing him doesn’t indicate a conflict, or crisis, but instead indicates that the crises that sustain the western have now been diluted, reduced to a surreal formalism in which no act has any particular consequences, and every person or act has become interchangeable.
Taking the pipeline to the sea is thus presented as the figurative endpoint of the western, just as all the angles of the classical western seem to be contained and exhausted in the theodolite measurements that Plainview uses to get to the sea. The last few scenes during this part of the film now subsist on ellipses and aporia, fragments of critical conversations that we don’t hear, and significant moments that we don’t see, as if the activities of the west were passing beyond the historical horizon dictated by the western genre. This paves the way for the epilogue, which takes place in 1927, allowing the film to straddle the era that westerns depicted, and the era when westerns were starting to predominate as a cultural form. By fusing these two periods, this epilogue presents us with a vision of cinema after the western, or cinema that concedes the completion of the western. What’s unusual, however, is that the completion of the western, and conquest of the horizon, hasn’t in any way satiated Planview’s drive, but has instead made him even more desperate to accumulate his way towards a horizon that no longer exists except in western mythologies.
Without a horizon to conquer, Plainview’s conquering spirit turns inwards, transforming his accumulation into an ongoing state of creative destruction. We first see him destroying the house he has built for himself, and then move to him disavowing his son, who is still deafened by the blast twenty years ago, but now tries to induce Plainview to communicate with him in sign language. Despite claiming to have built the pipeline, and conquered the west, solely for his son, Plainview finds himself alienated from his son at the very moment that the west is complete, with no real explanation other than that the west is complete. The paternal beneficence of the west, and the idea that accumulation has a noble horizon, both turn out to be consoling fantasies, as Plainview becomes a mouthpiece for the self-consuming nature of capital, creating a son to bequeath capital, but also disavowing his son so that his ability to generate further capital isn’t hampered by any familial obligation. Capital for Anderson becomes a bizarre inversion of Christian typology, in which Plainview has to have a son in order to sacrifice a son, but with no possibility or hope of resurrection.
Rather than simply reframing western archetypes in explicitly capitalist terms, There Will Be Blood thus suggests that the western is so resilient as a capitalist genre because its figurative focus on westward expansion towards a mythical horizon reassures audiences that accumulation does indeed have a noble and tangible ending – a clear point at which its putative project of social improvement and collective progress will be complete. In some ways, Anderson suggests, the oil western is even more complicit in this model, since it both acknowledges the phallic conquest implicit in the classical western’s gaze, but never quite visualizes this gaze enough to destroy the fantasmatic horizon that it ostensibly disrupts. By taking us to this horizon, and to the very westernmost fringes of the North American continent, There Will Be Blood not only dissociates the western from the horizon, but reveals that westward expansion has no real horizon, just as capitalist accumulation has no horizon, and that the western finally serves to sentimentalise capital as it extends beyond the sentimental boundaries and noble horizons that the genre supposedly establishes for it.
In that sense, Plainview’s 1927 house is the horizon of the western, an absurd and picaresque space of creative destruction that accumulates and then destroys simply for the sake of accumulating and destroying. Throughout the main part of the film, the constant motif of fire implies that some kind of emergent interiority is always on the verge of coming to the surface of Plainview’s stoic veneer, while the constant imagery of drilling and excavation always promises us a glimpse of Plainview’s character and backstory. Similarly, the final big scene before the epilogue, in which Plainview triumphs over a nemesis in a restaurant, indicates that we are on the verge of some cathartic articulation of character. Yet this promise of character is also a part of the mythos of the western, which, as Anderson suggests in these final scenes, subsists on a promise that the western will be complete, and the horizon will be complete, where character is complete, and vice versa. In these final moments, however, Plainview’s character is no more complete than in his earliest prospecting days – and in some ways more incomplete, as Anderson flattens and caricatures him so that he appears to be less than he ever was, less than initially met the eye, which is perhaps why some many critics at the time felt the film ended too abruptly, or uneventfully.
In the end, then, Anderson suggests that the western is one of great genres of endings and conclusions – and the genre most invested in the mythology that American capitalism has a glorious ending, a equinanimous horizon, towards which its characters are surely but slowly progressing. In place of that mythology, Anderson displaces the events of the west into the cinematic period that cemented them, culminating with the bowling alley and milkshake of the last scene, which evoke the urban landscape that predominated mid-century when the classical western was peaking. Involuting the classical western’s parable of accumulation, and fixation on sublime horizons, There Will Be Blood’s only horizon is our residual fantasy that accumulation can ever be complete – and with that horizon imploded by the final scene, which sees the destruction of everything accumulated so far, Anderson envisages a capitalist future that will demand ever more compressed cycles of creation and destruction.
Rather than ensuring the same teleological trajectory that can be repeated infinitum, the western, as Anderson envisages it, makes everything fungible, just as every character in the film is finally subsumed into long shots that makes them interchangeable, replaceable. By the end, Plainview is a western character who has reached this horizon and is anxious for the next genre, resulting in an insatiable, curious, atonal, open-ended “conclusion” that both paves the way for Anderson’s next films, but also keeps us poised on the horizon, held in abeyance by a film that is continually ending and continually beginning, but is never prepared to end or begin, or to cordon off capital as a story with a comfortable conclusion. The final horizon we see in There Will Be Blood is that of the bowling alley, shot in epic widescreen, inviting Plainview to knock down and conquer its pins, but also promising that those pins will be endlessly replenished, and that the space between camera and horizon will be continually recircuited, in the perverse game of capitalist exoneration that, for Anderson, comprises the classical western.