There Will Be Blood — Scene Analysis
Having only seen There Will Be Blood for the first time many years ago, my recent rewatch opened my eyes to a lot of what I’d felt like I’d nodded along to, thematically and visually.
Whilst I could rave about the film in most of its entirety, which I broadly did here, I wanted to highlight a specific scene near the beginning.
For those who haven’t seen the film, this is basically spoiler-free. The scene only occurs a half-hour in, and the rest of my references will either be from prior to the scene, or in very vague reference to the themes and motifs that continue to be explored throughout.
This scene firmly, and brilliantly, sets up the power dynamic between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, balancing visual storytelling with expert performances.
The context, if needed, is that Daniel Day Lewis’ character Daniel is trying to buy the Sunday family’s land so he can drill for oil. However, the Sunday family, whilst unexpecting of the offer, assume they’re there to hunt for Quails.
I will insert snippets throughout but here is the scene in full.
Offsetting the assumed hierarchy
Prior to this scene, Eli had only been seen once when bringing wood to Daniel and his adopted son, H.W., for their camp.
His plain and pleasant demeanour was more than welcomed by the pair. The first impression gathered by Daniel, most of all, is that he is someone who’s not of any opposition to him, which is established by the camera’s slow push that places Eli and H.W. in line on the opposite side of the frame.
Opening wide shot
The all-important shot is the opening wide shot of the dinner scene. Not only are dinner scenes one of the most natural instances in film for conversation placement, but they also provide the director with the opportunity to carefully stage and frame their actors.
The time given by director Paul Thomas Anderson helps establish the way he’s set up his shot. There are two ways to broadly interpret the placement of characters, here.
The first is that Eli is still cut off from Daniel by being on the opposite side of the frame — isolated, closer to H.W., and even near the dirty dishes. On the opposite side with the more powerful character of Daniel, is Eli’s father, Abel, whom Daniel believes is the person to negotiate with.
The other, more acute way to look at this shot is on a horizontal scale — looking at the heights of each character within the frame.
It’s why, to my eye, the completely still wide shot looks on from such an angle. PTA is able to communicate one narrative that is clear to us and Daniel, whilst also conveying a second narrative that foreshadows the actual power balance of the scene.
So, here, Daniel and Eli are actually equals, whereas Abel is on the same line as H.W.
This assumed order of power is reinforced by Daniel’s mannerisms when kicking off these negotiations.
After acknowledging Eli’s presence at the beginning of his pre-rehearsed speech, his lean across the table plays to the vertical split in the frame. It sees him cut Eli out of the conversation as he focuses his attention on Abel.
Yet again, though, the horizontal perspective provides a more telling insight. Since Daniel’s speech involves a lot more gesturing and close personal contact, his leans forward in the frame move him below Eli. This further establishes that Daniel is pandering to the wrong audience.
The power of the speech cannot be overlooked, though. The rehearsed aspect of Daniel’s sales pitch, through the use of such short phrases, piled on consecutively in a way that is empathetic and equally complimentary to Abel, reinforces the idea that he’s a representation of capitalism.
Minor phrases, such as “I believe in plain-speaking”, that are accompanied by Daniel gently holding Abel’s wrist, help to inspire his trust.
The performance — as that is what this is from the character — is taken a step further when Daniel simultaneously rub the back of H.W.’s head, as he pleads with Abel over his adopted son’s needs.
Daniel’s exploitation of H.W. as a friendly, familial face — having taken him on from a colleague who died when drilling — helps to take away the cunning edge of his intent. Daniel knows this connection is what helps customers empathise with him.
It’s further emphasised in an earlier scene that fades from H.W. as a baby to the age he is below. Purposefully ignoring the need for relationship development makes the point clear to us that he’s simply being used as a prop to make his schemes more sellable.
His hand gestures continue to tell this story when his hands drop down to his pockets as he asks what a “fair price” would be. Even with his lean back in the frame, he’s still placed below Eli because he’s asking the wrong person.
The extent of how planned this exchange is for him is frequently shown by how quickly he responds to questions, including his very affirmative “that’s right” when Abel asks for clarification of what he’s enquiring about.
The abrupt response extends his power over Abel in the conversation as it forces him to provide an answer, which is then shown by Abel’s head dropping — placing him below even H.W. in the frame.
Knowing he’s in the position he wants to be, he’s casually reassuring but is also forthright in his body language by placing both hands onto the table, keeping his eyes fixed on Abel, awaiting his flustered response.
It’s a severe contrast to the way Abel’s hands are reluctantly placed and even opened as he appears panicked.
At the opposite end, Eli keeps his cards close to his chest.
This presents the perfect opportunity for Eli to step in as his Dad, rather expectantly to him, begins to fall to the pressure of Daniel’s assertive offer. He delivers the line, “$6 an acre”, with eyes only on Abel because he anticipated his crumbling.
Of course, this is dismissed by Daniel repeating the offer in a questionary manner and thanking Eli by name before turning back and interrupting Abel with his own offer. He even rewords his $3,700 offer to try and emphasise the value of it directly to Abel.
Eli, though, uses his cutting, monosyllabic line of response to disrupt and unsettle Daniel. Whilst Eli also remains completely unmoved, Daniel continues to sway his head as he goes along with Abel’s claims that he was there thanks to the Lord’s guidance.
Throughout the film, Daniel refutes religion unless it’s for necessary monetary gain/control. So, when he’s forced to agree with Abel’s sudden plea, the speed of his dialogue increases as a way of trying to regain control, which is further shown by subtly pushing his own cup towards Abel as if his offer was still just a peace offering of sorts.
Yet again, though, Eli sees this as an opportunity to cut Daniel off. He asserts his own power by bringing both hands up onto the table in a far slower and more composed manner when delivering his question.
In a similarly polite-yet-condescending manner, Eli uses the register of “Sir” to address Daniel, as he’s wise to the capitalistic intentions of Daniel and those like him.
Daniel’s response panders to the family by using the “good Lord’s guidance” as an answer to keep Eli off his back before, once again, shutting his body off from Eli and directing himself towards Abel.
The first time PTA chooses to cut from this shot is when oil is brought into the conversation.
It’s excellently emphasised in both frames by having Dano deliver the line in a way that is hard to hear because of the overlap in dialogue, and yet is clear enough to seek out the ill intentions of Daniel, which is what brings on the change in view.
By eliminating Abel in order to push in on Daniel, we get to the crux of the battle as they are both now engaging with each other eye-to-eye.
The cut playing on Daniel’s head movement, and the subsequent hesitation from Daniel before asking Eli to repeat himself, but without any formal register, builds on the tension that is slowly growing.
If we view it in a similar way to before, Daniel and Eli are still cut off from one another but the former is now in greater control as Eli is pushing into territory that Daniel knows far more about.
As before, it’s all about the control of the conversation.
Daniel is able to leverage the power back in his favour by being dismissive and directing his attention back towards Abel, which helps to draw a rise out of Eli.
However, as soon as Daniel begins to flaunt his experties, Eli abruptly questions him before he can finish his sentence, which helps restore some of his control over the exchange.
Before Daniel can once again refer to Abel, Eli asserts himself by emphasising that their oil “sits right up on top of the ground”, even motioning it with his hands as a way of making his statement more noteworthy.
Once again, as Daniel tries to undermine Eli with his own knowledge, Eli cuts him off with an even more direct question. For the first time, Daniel’s need to quickly respond results in an unsure answer, which Eli plays upon.
Now with tensions escalating further, PTA yet again plays off the tense moment of silence to cut to an even more contrasting angle, which draws us even closer in.
What’s great about this cut is that we now get to see the pair as equals in the frame. The choice to start from Eli’s end of the table shows that Eli’s managed to take an unexpected level of control in proceedings, as we see Daniel’s excellently blank-yet-menacing expression convey his frustration.
A further detail that this level of close-up draws attention to is the beaming use of practical lighting. It bounces off the characters’ faces. It brings out the detail in the sweat, which gives the atmosphere an even more heated edge.
It also juxtaposes the scene that I briefly referenced earlier. In that scene, the central shot of Daniel didn’t reference the crowd’s presence until late as he was in complete control.
The difference is that, although the lighting beams onto his face as you would still expect it to, the hat — which is a running motif — covers up any signs of tension (sweat).
Hats are worn by so many throughout, and when they’re taken off it’s usually as a way off subtly declaring that person’s honesty, ernestness and/or respect in a conversation, as that person suddenly appears a little more exposed without it on. Whether there is truth behind doing so is another matter when it comes to Daniel, however.
In this case, Daniel keeps his hat on because he feels he’s above the people he’s pitching his sale to. It’s why he’s quick to walk out and refuses any further offers. The scene stands to show us more what kind of person he is, which gives us a greater feel for how he’s able to handle other negotiations like the one being analysed here, in a similarly-lit indoor setting.
The fact Daniel is not wearing a hat in this scene with the Sundays makes plain the extent of his intentions in his efforts to appear noble and honest.
PTA could’ve established this scene in many places, but a dinner/table scene draws light to this fact and creates those parallels to before. That openness relating to him not wearing his hat in this part is what helps Abel to buy into what Daniel is pitching him to begin with.
With Daniel now fixated on Eli, it begins to feel like a shootout. This is finally the point where Daniel acknowledges that Eli is the hurdle he has to overcome. It’s why he reverts to using Eli’s real name when asking him “how much?”.
The head nod Day-Lewis gives as he poses the question, along with the formal register, perfectly balances a mix of sincerity and superiority. By asking the question, he’s back to being the one testing the other person but is now acutely aware that Eli is not someone to overlook.
Possibly an even better, tinier detail on Dano’s part is the tense lip drop that happens before responding with “$10,000”. He knows he can’t swerve eye contact for reassurance because it would show weakness, but he also has to provide an answer swiftly despite not knowing what the worth of his land’s oil truly is.
Eli does avert his eyes to Abel when Daniel attempts to call his bluff, knowing that no sign of upheaval — for which there was none — would act as permission for him to say the money would be “for his church”.
As we’ve seen already, the religious aspect is something that Daniel finds hard to side with as it poses great competition to him.
The extended pause, the subsequent wry smiles, and the break of eye contact that is exchanged show that Eli — despite not having won the confrontation since he has succumb to Daniel’s power — has managed to equal him.
Eli’s growth of power in the conversation is then what ensures his fee remains. In contrast to the calmness of Daniel’s delivery at the beginning of the scene, his speech here now shows desperation despite how well-rehearsed the succession of dialogue seems to be.
This is also, arguably, an attempt at avoiding further interruption, since it’s something that continued to undermine Daniel.
To amplify how under the cosh Daniel is in his attempts to drag down that fee, the camera stays upon him as he boils in the spotlight, even when it could’ve cut back to see Eli’s response.
As Daniel now tries to redirect his plans towards Abel, Eli lifting his head encapsulates a mixed feeling of vindication and unsettledness. The shot plays with Daniel’s admittance in the background that he does have the connections to the oil-drilling business that Eli assumed he did.
As the scene comes to a close, we are relieved of the tension somewhat with cuts back to the other characters in the scene.
Although there is an agreement that has been struck, the reversion to the previous table-level shot blocks our view of the handshake with Abel to focus on his shake with Eli.
It brings back the split that still remains in their respective views and their relationship.
The final thing Eli manages to do to not let Daniel end on a high note is to turn his handshake into a moment of prayer. By bringing his adopted son into it, Eli’s exposing the manipulative side of Daniel, who can’t wait to escape his clutches.
The pull away and use of two final close-ups presents an opportunity for this score to creep in and cement that tension between the two parties.
I could probably find another dozen scenes from this film that showcase similar craft, with or without the same tricks in mind, which is part of what makes PTA such a fantastic filmmaker. It also shows what masters of their craft these two actors are.
Anyway, thanks for reading, hope this was enjoyable and made sense to you. Feel free to drop me your thoughts on the scene/film and what else I might’ve missed.
(insert pointless letterboxd plug, and check out the other stuff I’ve written🙂.)