There Will be Blood is often referred to as a film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, but that is not strictly factual. The names of the characters do not correspond and the events in the novel that manage to make it into the movie in any sort of truly connected way end about 100 pages into Sinclair’s 500-plus page tome. That being said, the film can be authentically be described as a thematically faithful adaptation of novel to film because at the heart of both versions of the historical examination of the rise of crude oil as the dominant natural resource of civilization in the 20th century is a corrosive critique of capitalism and religion. The film ties these two critiques together more tightly than Sinclair does in his novel to produce a devastating contextual meaning for the title. Essentially, the film provides a historical elucidation behind every drop of blood that has been shed as a result of the now-inextricable intertwining of economic and religious interests in controlling the supply the finite amount of oil buried deep within the earth.
By the time director Paul Thomas Anderson had completed transforming Sinclair’s novel into the basis for his own much more intensely focused critique of the inevitable consequences of the confluence of oil, money and religion, he had created a film that would be named the best movie of the first decade of the 21st century many top critics. As is most of the case, of course, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences balked with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, following through on only two of the eight nominations it extended to There Will be Blood: Best Actor and Best Cinematography.
That award for Best Actor went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector who represents the capitalist influence on the blood that has been shed in the so-called name of religion. The Oscar was almost a foregone conclusion as the performance turned by Day-Lewis was such a work of staggering power and overwhelming presence that the mere thought of anyone else taking home the prize just a few years after the Academy notoriously fumbled the ball by mistakenly handing out his Best Actor Oscar for Gangs of New York to Adrian Brody would not have been merely laughable but utterly humiliating. Day-Lewis is quite literally on screen in There Will be Blood for all but a couple of quick scenes and dominates the film in a way comparable to Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull or Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.
While on the subject of that latter film, many admirers of There Will be Blood have compared both its impact as a film and its content to the Orson Welles masterpiece that routinely tops lists of the best film of all time. The comparison of content arrives courtesy of the way that both movies focus on a single individual as a reflection of all that wrong with capitalism and all the potential greatness of capitalism that goes to waste as a result of so many individuals likes it central character acquiring so much power through the failures of the system. The comparison of the film’s impact lies as much in the power of its images filmed by Oscar winner Robert Elswit and the assured direction of Anderson as it does in the realization by so many that the true impact of the film would not be recognized by the majority of movie audiences until enough time had passed for more widespread and mainstream appreciation of its daunting subversion of conventional expectations.
Among the conventions which the film subverts and thus doomed it to small box office receipts by blockbuster comparisons (although the film actually made a profit thanks to its equally smaller than typical budget) is the highly unusual decision to present the first 15 minutes of the movie without any real dialogue, but just a few snatches of words here and there. That subversion is not undercut by the inclusion of a montage set to rock music either; the visuals providing a framework for the audience to understand the history, science and emotional toll taken on the earlier oil prospectors are accompanied only by the sounds produced by the action onscreen and occasional punctuations on the soundtrack.
Among the other ways that There Will be Blood intentionally distances itself from blockbuster audience expectations are its nearly three-hour length, the lack of a romantic subplot, an insistence upon refusing to connect the narrative dots in broad strokes so that audiences members won’t be forced to actually pay attention and think and, of course, the utter lack of car crashes, violence, four-letter words and nudity. (Which does raise the bewildering question of exactly why the movie received an "R" rating!) In addition, the comparison to Citizen Kane as a film that must wait for its greatness to be fully recognized also rests upon the polemical attacks upon the politics of the film which came, rather surprisingly, not just from the right, but also the left. Until the fiery outrage of ideological blindness can be at least slightly wiped clean from the lens, the legacy of There Will be Blood as an achievement in the art of filmmaking will not be truly revealed and appreciated. Until that times comes, those who have not yet come around to a full appreciation of the achievement by all involved in There Will be Blood will just have to belly up to the bar alongside many Oscar voters in getting their sustenance by drinking from far less nourishing milkshakes.