The Class of 2007: Profits vs. Prophets in There Will Be Blood

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 8 (2 wins)

Domestic box office: $40,222,514 (66th highest-grossing of 2007)

What the critics said: “There Will Be Blood is genuinely widescreen, both in its mise-en-scéne and concern with American values—God, oil, family—that have hardly receded into the mist. This story of profits versus prophets could also be articulated as a death-struggle identification between the two.” – J. Hoberman, Village Voice

“So, ladies and gentlemen, if I say I’m an oil man, you will agree.” One of the very first lines of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterwork, reveals what kind of a protagonist we’re dealing with here — the kind that will plainly tell us that we agree with him.

The speaker is Daniel Plainview, the merciless and highly successful oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Essentially, Plainview is embodying capitalism in the film as he relentlessly buys up land to suck oil from the earth. Paul Dano is Eli Sunday, a fraudulent preacher looking to make money off Plainview to build his church — and his own influence. Capitalism vs. religion in America. You can’t say the eccentric and extraordinary There Will Be Blood doesn’t go for it all.

Back in 2007, PTA was known more as an exciting young(ish) director than the universally revered filmmaker that we see today. His most recent picture at the time was 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, an unevenly received Adam Sandler “comedy” (in quotes because it’s so much more — and weirder — than that). It felt like a minor work compared to sprawling, ambitious movies like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. For PTA fans, it had to feel like he still had a masterpiece in him, another level he could reach. When he wrote a script loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! and got Daniel Day-Lewis to sign on right away, that potential masterpiece began to take shape.

Day-Lewis is considered perhaps our Greatest Living Actor, and yet, his entire film and TV career spans just 29 credits. In 2007, he had only appeared in two films since 1997, Gangs of New York (as the brutal and unforgettable Bill The Butcher) and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (his wife Rebecca Miller’s movie). What was he doing during the years in between jobs? Being a Method actor, that’s what. Day-Lewis committed to There Will Be Blood two years before production began, so he had plenty of time to get all Method-y. There are no stories of him working in oil rig for ten months, but he did copious amounts of research on turn-of-the-century oilmen, like Edward Doheny, whom Sinclair’s Oil! is based on. Once on set, he reportedly disappeared entirely into Daniel Plainview, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview

Even knowing the talented PTA and the well-respected Day-Lewis were involved couldn’t have prepared you for the bravura 14-minute wordless introduction. Boldly recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s opening, PTA presents a dry, empty California landscape set to Jonny Greenwood’s ominously droning score. And then we’re off, following the maniacally driven Plainview as he discovers oil and sets up his first drill. When we see them strike oil, the thick inky substance whips the camera lens, a father dots his baby’s forehead with it, the stuff is everywhere. Almost immediately after Plainview first tastes success, a man is killed on the job, which should be a sign that the violence is only just beginning. Plainview adopts the dead man’s son and we finally hear the first lines of dialogue (“If I say I’m an oil man…”).

That opening tips us off that PTA is shooting this film unlike anything he’s done before, or anyone’s done before, really. He utilizes the wide shot constantly, composing serene widescreen views of barren land, his characters barely filling the frame. He also uses an abundance of close-ups on his two passionate main characters’ faces. PTA edits it at such a measured pace too. On average, each shot is just over 13 seconds, which is an eternity compared to modern Hollywood movies. This helps There Will Be Blood feel timeless in a way that is difficult to replicate, because most directors can’t keep things interesting without quicker editing.

Of course, everything isn’t nearly as interesting without that grand, sinister score. It’s one of the most easily identifiable film scores to date, so alien and disorienting for our ears the first time we hear it. It should be no surprise the composer is Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood, but it may be a surprise that this was his first work on a feature film. How is it possible to create something this magnificent on your first try? When legendary composer Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Inception) was asked what score stood out to him most in the last decade, he cited There Will Be Blood, saying it was “recklessly, crazily beautiful.” Don’t get me wrong: This film could be set to silence and it would be one of the better movies of 2007, but after you hear its score, it becomes indispensable. You can’t imagine the film without it.

But let’s get back to the central conflict at stake here between capitalism and religion, between God and money. Plainview’s rival is Eli Sunday, whom Dano plays as a sniveling con man pastor. Eli shows financial inclinations almost immediately after we meet him, when Plainview is negotiating with his father about their land. Despite constantly referring to his “flock,” it’s easy to see Eli cares only for enriching himself. By the end, he’s morphed into a slick and smarmy wealthy radio preacher.

Plainview is just as awful as his religious counterpart. More is the only thing that motivates him: more land, more oil, more money. He will manipulate and screw over anyone in his way. He’s alarmingly misanthropic (“I look at people and see nothing worth liking”) and homicidally competitive (“I want no one else to succeed”). He wants to make enough money where he can get away from people. Eventually, he gets his wish.

It’s unclear if he even loves his own adopted son, HW. In the penultimate scene, HW tells him about the drilling company he’s started in Mexico. “That makes you my competi-TOR,” Plainview snaps at him. In a gut-wrenching twist of the knife, he reveals that HW isn’t his biological son, barking that he’s a “bastard from a basket” as HW walks out.

What makes There Will Be Blood tick is that the interplay between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday works as both a personal character study and a symbolic societal one. On an intimate level, the clash of personalities between the two is captivating. On a big-picture level, unfettered greed and corrupt religion are two ugly sides of the same coin, the movie seems to be showing us, and both are deeply embedded in our nation’s past. The performances from Day-Lewis and Dano are large and showy for a reason.

However, even if you don’t watch There Will Be Blood with those themes in mind, this thing is just a remarkably engrossing, astonishing, and unforgettable ride. Think of all the iconic quotes and moments from this movie:

Get out of here ghost!
I’VE ABANDONED MY CHILD
Bastard from a basket!
I am a false prophet and God is a superstition
DRAAAAINAGE, Eli, you boy.
I… drink… your… milkshake! I DRINK IT UP!

These notable lines are imprinted in my brain, as is the entire baptism scene near the middle of the film and bowling scene at the end. These two scenes are in conversation with each other, revealing a power struggle that isn’t over until Plainview says “I’m finished.”

Ten years ago at the Academy Awards, There Will Be Blood went up against No Country for Old Men in a slugfest. No Country came out the big winner that day, sweeping up Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay over PTA’s masterpiece. Earlier this year, The New York Times ranked the 25 best films of the 21st century. The consensus choice was There Will Be Blood. It only makes sense the best this century has to offer would come from the year 2007. In the words of Daniel Plainview, “That was one hell of a show.”

More on The Class of 2007:

Michael Clayton
Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone
No Country for Old Men

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4 thoughts on “The Class of 2007: Profits vs. Prophets in There Will Be Blood

  1. Pingback: The Class of 2007: Fate and Unfathomable Evil in No Country for Old Men | If I Had An Orchard

  2. Pingback: The Class of 2007: The Affleck Comeback and Gone Baby Gone’s Unflinching Moral Ambiguity | If I Had An Orchard

  3. Pingback: The Class of 2007: Michael Clayton’s Restrained Brilliance | If I Had An Orchard

  4. Pingback: The Class of 2007: David Fincher’s Obsessive, Unorthodox Zodiac | If I Had An Orchard

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