10 Years Later: Paul Thomas Anderson Finally Kills His Idols in ‘There Will Be Blood’
It seems counterintuitive, but the best way to understand There Will Be Blood — and its special position in Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre — is to start at the end. After six minutes and forty-eight seconds of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s sublime playing of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, the film’s end credits reveal its dedication: to Robert Altman, who had died in 2006, a year before Anderson completed his film. Altman, the great American director and sage of the 1970s, had been the paramount influence on Anderson’s movies. With Altman’s death, Anderson had moved on to new things, and the work that he created in this period of intense change would radically alter the path of his career. There Will Be Blood became the high-water mark in Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis’s respective repertoires, as well as a strong contender for the greatest film of the 21st century.
When it comes to influence, Altman’s touch was never far from the surface of Anderson’s work. His first film, Hard Eight (1996), owed more to Quentin Tarantino than Altman, but it gave a rare lead role to Philip Baker Hall, who had also starred as Richard Nixon in Altman’s Secret Honor (1984). The film’s other lead, John C. Reilly, seemed like a modern update on Altman regular Elliott Gould; he looked like a schlub, but squint just the right way and he could be a hero.
Anderson’s subsequent films, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), were his first to truly incorporate elements of Altman’s style. They share the use of large, interwoven ensembles, as well as the overlapping dialogue that was Altman’s trademark. Boogie Nights in particular was an attempt to explore the myths that had sprung up around a particular strand of American life — in this case, Southern California porn in the 1970s. In films like M*A*S*H (1969), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), Altman deconstructed the foundational dishonesty that American myths were built on. Anderson’s porn epic did much the same, although he wasn’t above occasionally reveling in romanticism. Punch-Drunk Love (2002), the last film in Anderson’s initial creative streak, was a more compact film, but it shared a dreamy atmosphere with some of Altman’s more obscure ‘70s films.
After that wild burst of creativity, Anderson went quiet for a number of years. The process of funding and planning There Will Be Blood lasted years, and during that period he took a break to work for the man whose films had so greatly impacted his own. During the production of Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, his advanced age and frailty required him to hire Anderson as a back-up director who could take over in the event of his death. Anderson was on stage to observe the production, though he never had a creative role. The film, though sweet and charming, sometimes plays as a parody of Altman’s most vital work. Perhaps this was apparent to Anderson, or maybe he was beset by a sense of impotence at his inability to create in such close proximity to a master.
The story threatens to become Freudian, with Anderson acting out some kind of Oedipal pattern. Altman died of natural causes a few months after the release of A Prairie Home Companion, but Anderson also killed him by excising his influence from There Will Be Blood. It would be a film with little connection to his previous work; anyone familiar with Boogie Nights and Magnolia would have a hard time identifying them as coming from the same filmmaker. The gaping hole Altman left behind would be filled by new influences: Orson Welles, John Huston, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Huston and Sierra Madre are the more obvious influence on There Will Be Blood. Anderson has said that he would go through periods in which he viewed the film once a day while shooting. Its story of a beggar driven almost mad by the search for gold mirrors elements of Daniel Plainview’s greed-assisted descent into psychopathy. The key difference is that Humphrey Bogart plays Humphrey Bogart in Sierra Madre, at least until paranoia has eaten away at his mind, but Day-Lewis’s character is horribly warped from the start. Anderson wisely resists giving Plainview too much backstory, but when he says “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people,” it’s clear by the blank look on his face that his hatred has been simmering for years, long before the earth’s buried riches fascinated him.
Less immediate — but more fundamental to the film — is the influence of Orson Welles and his first film, Citizen Kane (1941). There Will Be Blood shares some of the broad outlines of that opus: a man rises from nothing to a position of great influence and power, all while sacrificing his soul. Yet Anderson’s film deviates in devastatingly dark ways. Plainview never really craves power or influence — his desire is money, and nothing but. There’s never a moment in which he considers parlaying his wealth into a bid for political office or fame. In fact, he spends the last portion of the film hidden away in his mansion, dead to the world. It’s a more modest version of Kane’s pleasure dome, but just as isolating. The unattainable desires of both men are tragic, but for different reasons. Kane desires the simple things he has forgotten how to enjoy; Plainview only wants money, but there will never be enough to fill the hole inside himself.
Beyond the thematics of the film, Welles was important in guiding its visual aesthetic. Anderson isn’t as obsessed with deep focus as Welles, but he trades in the exuberant, Altman-inspired style of his earlier films for a more austere, elegant look that brings to mind many of Welles’s films. In particular, the film’s measured pace is reminiscent of Welles’s shortest feature, 1968’s The Immortal Story. Although Anderson’s film spends a great deal of time in the sun-bleached desert of Marfa, Texas (standing in for Southern California), his interior scenes have a gloomy quality that owes a lot to Welles’s film.
There Will Be Blood’s great success is due not just to Anderson’s perfect modulation of style, but to a constellation of fortuitous elements. Day-Lewis is absolutely frightening as Plainview; it’s the greatest performance in a career of nothing but great performances. Anderson’s screenplay is perhaps the greatest he’s ever written (though 2012’s The Master is a worthy competitor). And Jonny Greenwood’s score, a concert work masquerading as film music, is the most compelling soundtrack of this new century.
Before finishing, it’s worth going back to the beginning — or the end. Although There Will Be Blood often plays as a work of cinematic patricide, the ghost of Altman hangs in the rafters. His classic ‘70s films interrogated the American myths that have shaped this country. They were attacks on deceptions that had been easily accepted by most Americans. Anderson has stated that he was inspired to begin There Will Be Blood after noticing the ubiquity of the names of oil barons who shaped this fledgling country. Their names reside on concert halls, libraries, street signs, as if they were merely beneficent old men. But these are the same men who cheated and robbed, who broke up unions and hired contract killers to commit murder. Anderson’s film is a portrait of those men when they were just men — flawed men — before they became nothing but sterilized names hovering above us.
There Will Be Blood looks nothing like an Altman film, but his influence still doggedly hangs on to Anderson, even if it’s less obvious. The final shot of Altman’s Three Women (1977) is of a heap of used tires. On the surface it appears to have no consequence, but buried beneath them is a body of great importance to the characters. Altman has become Anderson’s hidden body — not easily seen, but never out of mind.