The overture emerges before the Miramax logo has faded. It builds over the title credits and then reaches a piercing pitch of frenzied dissonance for a few blackened moments before the scene opens to three rocky dunes of the New Mexico desert. This first fragment of Johnny Greenwood’s score to There Will Be Blood gives us a brief but explosive summation of the film. Daniel Plainview’s life will be one of singular ascension, a short burst of will and triumph, marred by discord, unease, and unforgiving relentlessness, reaching its crescendo with no regard to the audience. We will hope to turn away from Plainview’s ascent just as we wish to plug our ears to Greenwood’s dissonance and pitch.
But embedded into these first 20 seconds of sound is much more than a correlative to the film’s narrative arc. A film much older resides there, and a story predating this one by millennia. Not a tale of the Southwestern U. S., but one of the deserts of Namibia, in Southwestern Africa. There, Stanley Kubrick staged his “Dawn of Man” sequence that opens 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, like There Will Be Blood, before first setting our eyes on this barren, open landscape, our ears are met with a harrowing crescendo from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres, a mass of tones shimmering, building, grating against each other. A rising eruption of sound that Greenwood’s later score attempts to mimic.
The following dialogue-free 14 minutes of There Will Be Blood harken back to the earlier film’s extended dialogue-free intro, as well. In the Namibia desert, Kubrick dramatizes the discovery of technology—the implementation of tools as an extension of human will. An ape first realizes the weaponry of a leg bone, a fine object for clobbering, and, from this early innovation, the evolutionary process changes course to something more than adaptation to the environment, to something contingent on the manipulation of the environment, as well.
For Kubrick, the discovery of technology leads to the evolution of an entire race. We see a community, not just an individual, advance in its share of technology as one group of apes overtake another in a battle for a watering-hole. From this point forward, the allocation of resources flows to those groups best able to wield technology, and it’s a quick jump-cut from the prehistorical origins of humankind to the colonizing projects of space that occupy the rest of the film.
The intro sequence of There Will Be Blood also concerns something of a discovery: one man’s discovery of capital. We see Daniel Plainview swinging not a bone, but a pickax, chipping away at the earth, prospecting for silver. With this discovery, he sets out for a new one, seeking his own black monolith, an ocean of crude oil, not from the sky, but buried deep into the ground.
What follows in There Will Be Blood is a very different evolutionary process. Rather than communities being formed and advancing, workers die, family members are cast out as “competitors.” It is the evolution of one man’s acquisitiveness at the expense of all else. Our last moments of Daniel Plainview show him pummeling a man to death with a bowling pin, a macabre dramatization of Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam’s seminal sociological study that charts the decline of community and civic participation in twentieth century America.
One film takes us into space, the other into a basement. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the evolutionary process traces the path of the black monolith from the desert to the Moon to Jupiter, as Man develops from ape to astronaut to Star-Child. But Plainview’s talisman instead lies in the ground, and his solitary path is one of descent. He will end in the same catacombs of the Earth from which he made his first discoveries of silver and oil, alone, a murderer in the underground bowling alley of his mansion.
There Will Be Blood frames Plainview’s story as one of devolution. A mistimed explosion during a mining expedition injures Planview’s leg. A primal wound of his pursuit—it will become ever more exacerbated as the film progresses. While we see Plainview become increasingly hobbled in his morals, so too does he become increasingly hobbled in his physicality. By the end, hunched and twisted, he’s reduced to a kind of subhuman lurch and scramble. He has devolved into one of the apes of 2001, bringing a bludgeon down onto the head of his foe.
This regressive trajectory is why There Will Be Blood never quite achieves the status of an epic film. Despite the hallmarks of western expansion, There Will Be Blood folds in on itself rather than expands out. Plainview accomplishes his goals, but his accomplishments lack heroism, lack the gift to the future, the Eternal benefactor. They rise and fall with the man himself.
Like Johnny Greenwood’s overture, Plainview is a discordant noise that builds only to crumble in on itself. There is no new emergence as there is in 2001, where Gyorgy Ligeti’s mass of sound bubbles and bursts to bring forth the ascending climax of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, the celestial culmination of humanity’s evolution.
Here, there is no development beyond the man himself. More than a film of the future, There Will Be Blood is a gothic, a film of ghosts. Daniel Plainview is a visitation from an unresolved past. He is the rapacious, destructive individualism that haunts modern capitalism. He is a ghost like the prehistoric organic material we unearth as oil and use to fuel our economy. The two together keep humanity desperately cleaved to the Earth, clawing at its bowels. We, a population like a bubble rising along the circumference of this planet, threaten to deflate and dissolve if these ghosts cannot be released.
The title credit, scripted in gothic lettering, is a voice from the past, still with us, sure of its hold on the future: There Will Be Blood.