In There Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson creates a darkly authentic, yet stylized picture of life as oil-seekers in the Old West, depicting the journey of oil baron Daniel Plainview and his descent into darkness and evil. Oil and Plainview are very directly connected, and nowhere is this connection made more clear than in the mise-en-scene of the tower explosion scene, where the oil well burns up, creating a tower of flame seen by all, including Plainview’s son H.W., who is deafened by the blast. This crippling of his son turns Plainview even more towards the path of selfishness and greed, and this scene is presented in a way that showcases the danger of oil, and of Plainview himself.
The setting of the scene is the oil tower in Little Boston, California, the small town where Plainview sets up his mining operation. The tower looks over the rest of the wooden shacks like a mighty beacon in the desert, which is peppered by the rare, dry bush. Production designer Jack Fisk and art director David Crank create an arid, flat wasteland that is very effective in creating a sense of isolation in both the characters and the audience. Their plight then seems even more helpless when the oil tower goes up, as there are only so many people who can help, and that the community of Little Boston is on its own.
The cinematography by Jack Fisk is very smooth and elegant, all of the shots consisting of even tracking and dolly shots, creating a painting-like moving tableaux in each shot of the scene. Instead, the chaos of the scene is presented through the movement of the characters, who in the first shot rush toward the oil tower, which remains to the right side of frame as the camera tracks right, following the other miners. This sense of space and stillness persists throughout the scene, the camerawork highlighting the mise-en-scene and allowing it to breathe.
The lighting of the scene helps to indicate both the passage of time and a transition for the characters. The scene takes place over several hours – in the first shot, it is midday, and you can still plainly see the workers as they rush towards the tower, which has just started burning. With each successive shot, the lighting gets darker and darker, the sunlight becoming less of a factor until all that is lighting the characters and the scene is the bright, blazing fire of the oil tower. This indicates that the fire has been burning all day and into the night, completely engulfing the tower in flames and getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, smoke envelops the entire scene, and plumes out to fill the darkening sky. This light showers the characters in a bright red glow, when it is not casting them in silhouette. Because “the infusion of color into a scene immediately alters it, letting us know the intent of the director and cinematographer with a visual cue,” Anderson and Fisk are informing us about a change in mood and character with this change in light (Goodykoontz and Jacobs, Section 4.5). This powerful image shows the mightiness of oil and the men’s relative insignificance, as well as the danger they are headed for by continuing to work with Plainview.
The final shot of the scene is the most powerful – a stunned, deafened H.W. staring into the red light of the burning oil tower. The camera moves to a close up of his oil-blackened face, lit completely by red, staring out at the devastation before him. The lighting and composition of this shot denotes the end of innocence for HW, as he has now been hurt by his father’s actions, and is well aware of the power and danger of oil.
The look of the characters in the scene, from their costumes to their makeup and hair, are all indicative of the stylized notion of the Old West that Anderson wanted to create. Everyone is in period-appropriate attire – slacks, waistcoats, button down shirts and suspenders – all with muted browns and greens, evidence of a utilitarian, oil-mining town. Everyone looks rough and haggard, as they would living a hard life out on the frontier as they did. Hairstyles are appropriate to the period as well – slicked back, short, free of modern frill or length, when not covered by Stetsons or bowler hats. This adherence to authenticity, with just a little bit of dark style, creates an even darker vision of the Old West that Anderson et al. can use to highlight the darkness in people, particularly through the Plainview character.
The only characters who are given any real differentiation in this scene are Plainview and his son H.W., who are both covered in oil from the rig before it went ablaze. Their faces and outfits are caked black with the stuff, setting them apart aesthetically from the other characters and townsfolk, and demonstrating the darkness of the situation, especially of Plainview’s personality and motivations. Plainview almost looks devilish and Satanic with this new element on him, making manifest his thematic obsession with oil – he is practically soaked in it, and it is everything about him and to him. The oil tower burning showcases the fact that Plainview is putting the town in danger by his actions, implicating him with the oil-soaked baptism he and his son both receive.
I believe that the mise-en-scene throughout the movie, and particularly in this scene, create a unifying blend of terror and awe at the oil tower’s destructive force, demonstrating the hazards of what Plainview is getting into. The supreme darkness and visceral power of the oil rig gives the entire sequence a disturbing elegance, depicting oil as a force of nature that is bigger than any of the characters. In the oil tower sequence, Paul Thomas Anderson and his crew created a wonderfully grungy and gritty scene which stands out in the film as a turning point in both the main characters and the mood of the film. The power of oil is now suitably demonstrated, and Plainview and son (not to mention the audience) will never forget it.
Goodykoontz, B., and Jacobs, C. (2011) Film: From Watching to Seeing.
‘The Well Burns Up,’ Clip from There Will Be Blood. (2008) Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, Perf.
Daniel Day-Lewis. 2008.