Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ Drips with Menace

However fictional There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview may be, he’s like history come to life – more Frankenstein’s monster than a wax doll.

There Will Be Blood is one of those films that makes home viewing seem small and inadequate. It’s a boon, of course, to be able to watch and rewatch this film in a sharp widescreen transfer without paying $10-12 a pop, and hopefully, the DVD version will be pulled off the shelf by future generations (one or two, anyway, before everything is downloadable). But Paul Thomas Anderson’s idiosyncratic American epic has a fierceness of both character and ambition that feels native to a big screen; the home version is a more faithful reproduction.

It’s not that this is a mountain-and-plains film that piggybacks nature’s accomplishments to a Best Cinematography Oscar – the striking photography-quality compositions and steady gaze of Robert Elswit more than justify that award. In fact, despite the open vistas, Anderson’s film is striking in its intimacies. Having previously taken an epic, near-operatic approach to everyday struggles in Magnolia, here Anderson captures early 20th-century capitalism by zeroing in with an obsessive focus on the life of one Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, in an Oscar-winning and already deservedly legendary performance) – its devotion to this fictional oil magnate puts most genuine biopics to boilerplate, rise/fall/rise shame.

There are other characters, but the film begins and ends with Plainview on his own, and he gets all of the juiciest dialogue in Anderson’s accomplished screenplay. Actually, he gets the juiciest silences, too; the film begins with a mesmerizing dialogue-free sequence where Daniel variously mines for silver and claws his way across the plains. This is not to discount the contributions of the uniformly excellent cast, especially Paul Dano as Plainview’s unofficial nemesis, a local preacher whose family’s land Plainview covets; and Dillon Freasier as Plainview’s young son. But Day-Lewis, with his rich and precise elocution, barely (and sometimes not at all) hidden contempt of “most people”, and, yes, milkshake-sipping histrionics, dominates Anderson’s landscape.

Anderson seems willing to let the film speak for itself, and for the Day-Lewis performance to more or less speak for the film; he’s as visible on the two-disc DVD as he is during the feature (which is to say, very visible, but not literally). The bonus features on the second disc have a lot of familiar basics – deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes material, trailers – but without the usual subdivisions and introductions. Though they are separated on the menu, a “play all” feature lets you watch just about everything together, a 40-minute compendium of There Will Be Blood materials that takes on its own long-montage rhythm.

The collection kicks off with a series of historical snapshots, intercut with shots from both sides of the camera, establishing the inspiration for here-and-there details of the production, including costumes, production design, and cinematography. After a couple of trailers, there’s some deleted material – not much compared to some films (Anderson seems to have shot what he needed), but including one fully finished sequence rather than the typical dribs and drabs of trimmed footage.

Called “Fishing” on the menu, it explains a little more about the painstaking trials of preparing to drill for oil: a piece of equipment has come off in the mine, and the workers must fish around for it — for weeks, it turns out. In the meantime, Abel Sunday (David Willis) tries to convince Plainview — “busy” but essentially just watching on the sidelines — to visit his son Eli’s church, accept God into his life, and so on. The moment at which Plainview finally sees fit to release a succinct bit of honest loathing is a near-classic; maybe there just wasn’t room for a film full of such moments.

This economy – There Will Be Blood is a long film and a complex film, but not an indulgent one – may also explain the relative paucity of disc-filling extras. The compilation ends with an alternate take of Day-Lewis and Freasier in a restaurant scene (purposefully agonizing, if slightly hilarious, in the original film). At the tail end, Freasier giggles, and Day-Lewis looks down, as if about to break up himself, before Anderson calls “cut” – we see only the edge of Day-Lewis out of character, or of the director’s literal voice. No interviews, no commentaries to talk us through.

A little indirect context comes from another extra. Isolated from the rest of the disc is “The Story of Petroleum”, a ’20s-era government-produced silent half-hour short about oil mining and production. Like the photographs, “Petroleum” offers some library-style additional research material without additional commentary, explaining and illustrating mechanics of equipment and procedures glimpsed in the feature (as well as “Fishing”).

The only modern comment is a new soundtrack accompanying the old footage – a selection of material by Jonny Greenwood, who composed There Will Be Blood‘s distinctly menacing score. It’s an interesting time capsule but illustrates Anderson’s effectiveness in using this material in the peripheries of his more personal story. However fictional, Daniel Plainview is like history come to life – more Frankenstein’s monster than a wax doll.

RATING 9 / 10