Throughout the film, oil is used to both symbolically and literally represent a variety of themes. One interpretation of oil in the film is that it represents life. Daniel Plainview’s life revolves around oil, which he became obsessive about because it brought him wealth. Oil seems to be the only thing that brings joy to his life. Daniel shows no joy, or really any other emotion, until he first finds oil after the first 15 or so minutes of the film. In that scene, he smears his hand over the oil as if it were precious and reaches up to the sky in excitement. Shortly after, Daniel puts a blob of oil on H.W.’s forehead, as if he is baptizing him into this lifestyle of greed and foreshadowing what is to come. Later on in the film, when the oil tower is consumed in flames, it’s as if what little bit of hope there was for Daniel disappears with the burning monument. Daniel, drenched in oil, watches the inferno as if he’s exhilarated, despite the fact that H.W. had just lost his hearing and everyone else is scrambling around for safety. Daniel seems to lose whatever life he still had in him with that fire, for all the blood that was to come.
The burning tower scene is an excellent example of the contrast in the film. There is an intense variation in lighting between the fire and everything else. The tall flames brighten everything around and light up the sky, also producing a large consuming black cloud. This dark cloud stretches across the sky as if it were engulfing everything around in a perpetual darkness. The characters are shown as silhouettes in front of this huge wall of flame, possibly to show the darkness cast upon them. Daniel, along with H.W. watches while completely drenched and consumed with this darkness. Their faces can barely be made out with the black abyss behind them. A very dim shot of Eli’s face is cut to as he watches the tower being consumed in flames. All of this contrast in light shows the extremes of the film, the good and evil, lightness and darkness, black and white.
Death can also be represented by the oil, just like life, in the film because as it is in the real world, death is a part of life. As the drilling increases, so does the deaths due to the overworked workers. The workers are overworked to bring more profits, as a result of Daniel Plainview’s greed. Figuratively, oil kills Daniel in the end. He loses his senses as the film progresses and he becomes more obsessed and overcome by greed. It culminates to the point where he abandons H.W. and later rejects him as his son. This leaves the audience questioning if H.W. actually ever meant anything to Daniel, or whether he was simply just a selling point for his “family” business. Daniel is also dead in a sense to where at the end of the film he has lost all traces of humanity as a result of his wealth, aging, and seclusion where all that is left is a bitter old man who can kill without mercy. This death of Daniel is foreshadowed in the beginning of the film by use of mise-en-scène. Right before Daniel finds oil deep in the ground, a rope is lowered into the hole as part of the ongoing excavation. This rope appears to be tied in a noose, as if to symbolize that by digging up this oil, Daniel is taking his own life. It’s interesting that later on in the film, Daniel tells Eli that he’s going to burry him in the ground, which is exactly what he does, figuratively. These subtle elements of mise-en-scène all help to push the meaning and characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film.
Oil in There Will Be Blood is an antipode to the church, as is Daniel to Eli. Oil is black, dark, and dirty, symbolizing not only life and death, but evil as well. Daniel is frequently seen soaked in it, which represents his darkening and ever growing greed. As more oil is drawn up, more evil inside of Daniel is brought out. He becomes violent, beating and killing often without mercy. Contrasting this is the church, which is often shown as clean and light. One moment Daniel is covered in oil, the next he is being washed during a service, although he is only there for the sole reason to expand his drilling.
In There Will Be Blood, the greed associated with the oil is corruptive by nature. In Eli’s case, he was originally resistant to the idea of drilling, but if drilling was to occur, the church would be compensated for it. But it seems as if, just like Daniel, Eli is consumed by greed as well. In another turning point of the film, Eli is beat by Daniel to the ground, where they both get covered in oil. This scene symbolizes Eli becoming infected, just as Daniel, with greed by his body being saturated in oil. This infection grows in Eli, up until the end of the film where he actually denounces his faith because he is taken over by greed and his desire to get respect and a fair share for the church and himself.
Color in the film is used to exhibit the realism used in the film. The colors are generally dull; they are very naturalistic, organic, and bland greens and browns, to blend in with the desert like setting. The colors and tones of the settings, props, and costumes all blend together as one realistic style of image. This fits the plot line because the film calls for a more realistic style. It adds to the intensity of the characters because they are very believable. They could have existed, they could have been real.
Contrast is prevalent in almost every scene in There Will Be Blood, especially when looking at lighting. High key lighting is used in many shots, some even being almost overexposed. Where as other scenes use more low key lighting, even to the point of almost being underexposed. These extreme differences represent the dynamics of the film. It is a constant rotation between the intense and calm sequences.
The practical effects used in conjunction with the sets and props create a visual masterpiece that aids in telling the story. Although surely an accomplishment in itself, the practical effects are necessary for There Will Be Blood to work as a film. The story could not be told in the same way it was if the filmmakers weren’t able to have oil shoot out of the ground, or have a tower engulfed in flames. The film would not be the same experience without them and there wouldn’t be as profound of an effect. These set pieces visually tell the story as imperative elements of mise-en-scène.
Arguably the greatest cinematic element of There Will Be Blood is performance. The performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano carry the film to the next level. With regard to mise-en-scène, both actors visually tell the story with their movements, gestures, and statures. Daniel Day-Lewis’s stature changes throughout the film to show his character’s transformation. In the beginning, he would stand straight and confident, but by the end, he is seen hunched over and weak. This represents how the character of Daniel is consumed by greed and eventually corrupted. Eli, on the other hand, is shown as kind of the weak guy throughout the whole film. The movements in the fight scenes are unique in that the audience only truly sees a brutal scene at the very end, where Eli’s head is smashed. Before that, the fighting isn’t very brutal and at times, it seems somewhat childish with the smacking, pushing around, and throwing between the two characters. This style of fighting represents the two character’s motivations. Niether of them is devoted to taking out the other, they are rather competing against each other and in that process, things get ugly. These physical interactions help enhance the audience’s understanding and perspective of the relationship between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday.
Mise-en-scène undoubtedly is a major component and selling point of There Will Be Blood. Most visibly, the use of oil as a motif helps bring the film full circle and adds that depth to the story. The other set pieces promote the plot and allow a setting for the film to flourish. The lighting portrays a sense of night and day contrast. The colors, along with the set pieces, bring a sense of realism to the screen. The remarkable performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano bring their characters to life and use physicality to bring meaning to their actions. All the cinematic elements are beautifully and deliberately crafted to bring the meaning and themes of the film together. Although many mise-en-scène techniques are used in this story of greed, most visibly is the use of sets and props, contrast, and performance to make the film quite an exceptional work of art.