Great Moments in Cinema: There Will Be Blood
Throughout the history of cinema, filmmakers have striven to create memorable moments that will live on long after they are gone. As a result, there have been countless indelible moments, scenes, and sequences that have left lasting imprints on the cinematic landscape, and given us some of our most powerful pop cultural iconography. Sometimes these moments are quiet and restrained, and we don’t even grasp how powerful they are until we realize that they are still dancing around in our thoughts days, weeks, months, or even years after we have first seen them. Others are powerful and explosive, and almost immediately carve their way into the collective unconscious like an explosion. These are the great moments in cinema, and for many of us, they are the reason we love movies.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic masterpiece, There Will Be Blood (2009), is chock full of such moments. From the incredible wordless opening sequence to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) introducing himself and his adopted son to a bunch of yokels; from Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) baptizing a reluctant Plainview into his flock to Plainview’s infamous “I drink your milkshake!” speech, the film is packed with powerful moments and incredible sequences. But the one that towers above them all is the one in which Daniel Plainview watches triumphantly as his newest (and most bountiful) oil derrick burns to the ground.
The sequence starts innocently enough, with Plainview’s son H.W. (Daniel Freasier) watching as the drillers work the pump. Suddenly there is an explosion, sending the boy hurtling backwards, permanently deafening him in the process. Then with a rumble, gallons upon gallons of oil come gushing forth from the ground. Plainview rushes to his son’s aid and carries him to safety, but when the gusher catches fire, he quickly decides that the precious black gold is more important to him at that moment. He rushes off to deal with that, leaving his scared young son in the care of one of his many anonymous workers. As the sun sets, Plainview and his men watch as the wooden derrick is consumed by the fire, which lights up the deepening twilight with a fury that matches the one that burns within Plainview’s belly. All the while, Eli Sunday watches on in rapt attention, his eyes alight with cunning as the light from the flames dances across his face.
This scene is great because it tells us so much about the characters based solely on their actions. In fact, this entire sequence tells us so much about the characters that it could be removed from the film entirely, and with a few minor tweaks and additions, it would almost be able stand on its own as a short film.
By this point in the film, we know that Plainview is a manipulative and heartless businessman whose only concern in life is making himself richer, but it is this sequence that puts his entire being into stark relief. Even though his injured son is frightened and confused, Plainview’s investment is clearly much more important. When the derrick ignites, Plainview stares at it for a brief second, and then mutters “I have to go and deal with this now.” Then he hands the boy off to one of his lackeys, and he races off to cut the lines that support the derrick.
As the fire rages on, one of Plainview’s men asks him if H.W. is okay, and Plainview replies “No, he isn’t.” In the most telling moment of the sequence, the man then goes to check on H.W. while Plainview stays to watch the derrick, his face set with a look of grim determination. From the beginning of the film, it was fairly obvious that Plainview viewed H.W. as more of a business asset than a son. He is a prop the ruthless oil man could trot out to play on the familial sensibilities of the people whose land he wanted to buy at drastically reduced prices. If nothing else, this scene makes one thing abundantly clear: oil, and by extension the money that it brings him, is the only thing that truly matters to Daniel Plainview.
Plainview doesn’t even see the destruction of the oil derrick as a setback, as the gusher simply proves that his suspicions about this particular oil field were correct all along. At one point he notices that one of his colleagues is looking sullen, so Plainview turns to the guy and says, “What are you looking so miserable about? There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me!” Then he turns his eyes back to the flames, and stares at them with a slight hint of a smile on his face. Plainview doesn’t even see the fire that burns before his very eyes. All he can see are the gallons of oil that exist just beneath the ground on which he is standing.
But there is someone else watching that fire, and he doesn’t see the flames or the oil. He is looking at something that will bring another person into his flock, and one with vast riches that can be used to build churches and fill collection plates. Eli Sunday stares at the flames, and the young reverend knows that he finally has Daniel Plainview right where he wants him. He knows that without his endorsement, the oil will never truly belong to Plainview. It will still remain the property of the people who own the land. Now the callous oilman will have to submit to being baptized, and he will have to allow Eli to bless the well. He will also be beholden to Eli, which means a bigger church, and more followers, and more money in the coffers, all of which will allow Sunday to spread the word of the Lord to a larger flock than ever before. Eli Sunday stares at the flames, and this is what he sees.
There Will Be Blood wormed its way into the public consciousness thanks in large part to Daniel Day Lewis’ reading of the milkshake monologue, but the film is so much more than that thanks to scenes like this one, which serves as a virtual showcase for all that is great about film. All of the elements of cinema come together here, and they work together to make this scene more involving and immersive than any 3D blockbuster could ever hope to be. There is so much going on in this one scene alone, I could easily have written a 10,000 word essay. I mean, I haven’t even touched on the incredible score by Johnny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame), but it is yet another integral piece of this sequence and deserves at least a mention.
Almost any sequence in this film could have been used as the focus of this column, but in my opinion, the burning of the oil derrick is the stand out scene in a nearly perfect film. The expert direction, incredible performances, superb musical score, and breathtaking cinematography all worked together to ensure that the film would almost instantly enter the canon of “Great Films,” but it is this scene in particular where all those elements come together perfectly, thus making it one of the great moments of cinema.