Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
When Paul Thomas Anderson sent production designer and art director Jack Fisk a script for his 2007 feature, There Will Be Blood, he included a portfolio of over one hundred photos for inspiration. I could have easily collected the same number of screenshots in preparation for this column. Anderson's directorial prowess has proven he's one of the most promising filmmakers of this generation. His technical skill has been compared to legendary auteurs like Kubrick, and his improvisational style has an organic, realistic feel that is so intuitive -- audiences connect with his work in an almost effortless way. The director has the ability to capture the beauty in an otherwise ugly landscape -- a frightening place where the sweat and blood of laborers rests side by side with an optimistic horizon. Vast, open spaces feel overwhelming, intimate and claustrophobic all at once -- at times becoming the personification of Blood's cast, but always reminding us of the dual, deceptive nature of life itself.
Anderson is also a favorite amongst actors who thrive on the freedom to explore their characters -- to be as instinctual as he is . How else do you explain Daniel Day-Lewis as oil tycoon Daniel Plainview? There's a stillness and simplicity to Anderson's work that is a perfect match for the actor's complex and discriminating style. Neither makes an arbitrary move. In Blood's world, another actor would have been swallowed whole by the stretch of fields and open sky -- yet Day-Lewis shines. He is transformed by the land in various ways. First, as a prospector digging into the ground with his hands, covered in grime and barely recognizable when we first meet him. Eventually, he becomes the same as the slick, dark blood of the earth -- the thing both highly sought after and resented -- the sludge and stench of greed driving everything around him away.
Plainview addresses the people of Little Boston -- the place he has come to strike oil after being tipped off by a young man whose family farm is on the digging site -- under the guise of "good old fashioned plain-speaking," and for the first half of the film we watch him recite the same speech about being a "family man" over and over again. We suspect something more is askew when we see Plainview's son and "partner" H.W. (Dillon Freasier) by his side at town meetings -- the son he adopted following the death of one of his workers. Day-Lewis plays the devoted yet seemingly emotionally distant father pitch perfectly for the first half of the film, and once the oil rig errupts in fire and smoke there is ironically more clarity surrounding Plainview's true nature.
Plainview builds an oil derrick, which he blesses in front of the families in Little Boston -- promising them crops, bread, education, and more. Soon after, he builds a new church for the young pastor desperate to prove himself at any cost, Eli Sunday. Eli has been able to see through Plainview's charade from the beginning, probably because he's conniving in his own right -- quick to try to sell his family farm off to Plainview for the largest sum he could get. Thus begins a constant power play -- Plainview's voracious appetite for control versus Sunday's delusional theatrics. We get the first hint that things may not be going as smoothly as Plainview lets on when one of his men dies in an accident on the rig. Sunday tells Plainview he has seen his men drinking, which Plainview dismisses and reminds him rest and reason are more important to his men than God when it comes to making the well "blow gold". But Plainview is no fool -- he humors the young pastor to continue the illusion he has worked so hard to create by building Sunday his own stage -- a new church. It's the quiet before the storm.
The Little Boston derrick explodes like a geyser the same moment that H.W. is innocently hanging about watching the workers go on with their day. In the accident, he loses his hearing but is rescued by Plainview who oddly enough leaves the distraught child with a worker while he inspects the scene. As Plainview and his men watch the oil fire rage out of control, Plainview turns to his associate Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds) and shouts, "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!" Even in the middle of utter and total chaos, Plainview celebrates amid the storm of oil and fire spewing across the barren land, while his son -- essentially, his meal ticket -- languishes in the mess hall. He shouts maniacally into the sky like the flames that seem to touch the clouds -- before we see him in the frame I have chosen, orchestrating the next phase of his takeover.
Plainview is the maestro of this dark fugue -- with his back to the camera, he motions for his men to set the explosives aflame and two plumes of smoke shoot into the sky. Up until now, Day-Lewis's distinctive features, voice, and expressions have for the most part told Plainview's story, but in this moment we no longer need to rely on those to understand that this is a man capable of causing a lot of damage. It's similar to the opening 20-minute scene where we follow Plainview into the wells -- he's been tested, but greed (and now his own hatred of others) fuels him. That he would eventually disown and humiliate his own son when he threatens to become a "competitor" shows that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants. We never see Plainview comfort his son until after the smoke clears and his own fortune is secured. Plainview is the black cloud that shrouds the land below. And how appropriate that there would be two plumes of smoke -- a visual representation of the duality that runs throughout the film: Plainview's cruelty and kindness, Eli's faith and fiction, Little Boston's desolate yet fertile ground, and so on.
I've chosen to discuss more of the narrative elements in There Will Be Blood, because to me the film is a build up of moments. That build up culminates in the image above, composed by Anderson and Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Elswit. "Everybody has to be a filmmaker on an Anderson film," Elswit told CNN in 2008. "Everybody has to be on the balls of their feet all the time." There's a simplicity and stillness to their work -- something perfect for a performer like Day-Lewis -- which helps the audience appreciate their organic, intuitive style. A series of shots in Blood show the team's penchant for pictorial framing (often quite literally placing the subject within a square) -- shots which clearly demonstrate a reverence for storytelling as much as technical filmmaking. These things, along with a stunning performance by Daniel Day Lewis, make There Will Be Blood not only one of the best films of the past decade, but one of the most breathtaking in terms of cinematography as well.