A Semiotic Approach to the Sound Design of There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, set at the beginning of the 20th century, tells the story of businessman Daniel Plainview.  A boy visits him one day and says that there might be oil under the ground of their village. The village is in the middle of nowhere, in the California desert.  Daniel visits and realizes that there is a great potential for oil.  The most dominant and most important part of this film is the scene in which oil comes out of the ground.  All the conflicts in this film are based on the presence of oil.  After this scene everything becomes darker and more violent, and “there will be blood” in the last part of the story.

The most significant narration aspect of the scene is the use of diegetic sound and non-diegetic music.  In classical narration non-diegetic music mostly emphasizes the feelings of the characters or the mood.  However, in There Will Be Blood, music becomes a part of mise-en-scene and functions as strongly as visuals in the film.  Johnny Greenwood, guitarist of the rock band Radiohead, composed the original score of There Will Be Blood.  This composition is definitely something to be experienced because the musician created exactly the music needed for the narration.  It alienates us because we don’t expect to hear African drum themes or electronic tunes in a film set at the beginning of the 20th century.  Also the general repetitive structure of this ambitious composition disturbs the audience.

In the “oil comes out of the ground” scene, the music becomes the most dominant aspect of the soundtrack.  There are only two instances when dialogue is heard.  The other two important sounds in this scene are the explosion of oil and the burning of oil after it interfaces with oxygen.  The sound of the explosion and the musical composition stand in the forefront in the set-up of the scene.  That’s why sound design has a metaphoric discourse.  Michel Chion says that metaphoric use of sound is one of the most fruitful, flexible and inexpensive methods: by choosing carefully what to eliminate, and reassociating different sounds that seem at first hearing to be somewhat at odds with the accompanying image, the filmmaker can open up a perceptual vacuum into which the mind of the audience must inevitably rush.  That creates a reason to perceive the soundtrack metaphorically in order to enrich the discourse of the film.

The dominant sound in the beginning of the scene is that of gas coming up underground.  Then oil gushes out and breaks the roof of the tower.  Daniel’s son, H.W., falls from the roof.  When we see the little boy, the volume decreases and we understand the boy has lost his hearing.  Afterwards, Daniel Plainview comes and gets his son and asks him if he is ok.  In this moment non-diegetic music starts to play in the background.  When he goes back to the draining area, he cuts the ropes that hold the tower.  In this part of the scene we hear African drums, handbell and other percussion instruments, in a repetitive composition that reminds us of primitive tribal music.  The repetitive structure of the music starts to sound like a heartbeat in the following minutes.  This is not a coincidence.  The meaning of this melody can be found in the context of the film, which uses oil as a metaphor for blood.  In the opening scene we see oil splashes on the camera lens.  The director uses the “blood splashed on the lens in war films” convention to match graphically blood and oil.  In another scene we see a drop of oil smeared on the forehead of a baby as a cultural reference to blood on the forehead.  It is even obvious in the film’s title: There will be “oil,” that’s why “There Will Be Blood.”  This is also a reference to our time, the wars to exploit energy sources and oil in the Middle East.

In addition, the village is set in a desert, and its people eat only potatoes and can’t grow anything because the land is not productive for agriculture.  Daniel Plainview claims that after he sells the oil that comes out of this ground, the village will flourish.  The oil will be a vein of life for this village.

Thus the heartbeat-like musical composition matches the meaning of this scene.  When oil comes out of the ground, the promised life signifier comes out of the ground at the same time.  That’s why the music starts to beat like a heart.  Under this heartbeat melody we also start to hear violins in the background, reminding us of musical scores that are composed for horror films.  Not only do they create an uncanny situation, these violins also foreshadow the horrific events that will happen after this draining.  This meaning is also emphasized with visual differences at the beginning and end of the scene.  When we start to hear violins, the oil starts to burn as it interfaces with oxygen, and after this the sun sets and the sky grows darker.  Afterwards we see only the burning oil.  Musical and visual choices come together to create a horrific atmosphere.

The music in this scene can be called anempathetic, or as Michel Chion describes it, the music is indifferent to the conventional feeling of the scene.  This juxtaposition of scene with indifferent music has the effect not of freezing emotion but rather of intensifying it, by inscribing it on a cosmic background.  In classical narration, music is used in the background and the emotions of characters become more prominent.  The music gets only a supporting role in these kinds of scenes.  But in There Will Be Blood, the music is the most important element of the scene and it creates the meaning.  That’s why it alienates audiences and makes them think about the discourse behind using this kind of melody.  It creates a cosmic background as Chion mentioned.  It creates a path between past and present, causing us to make a connection between the beginning of the 20th century and the 21st century, even a connection with post 9/11 American politics, that brings us to the conclusion that oil created blood in the Middle East.

Repetitive structure in the musical composition also points up the historical context of the film.  The story’s turning point is the discovery of oil, and the melody repeats itself till the end of that scene.  The film may be saying this kind of horrific event will repeat itself and will not end until the oil ends. The music stops when Daniel Plainview’s men explode dynamite in order to stop the flow of oil.

As mentioned above, the use of African drums in the composition reminds us of the primitive nature of men, as well.  Daniel Plainview is a primitive man, his only wish to gain power and to be a rich businessman.  He is asexual; he doesn’t need friends, even a child.  He rejects all of his human feelings.  The musical composition serves to remind us of these characteristics, while at some level it makes a connection with the “success” of Daniel Plainview, showing how a capitalist system creates primitive people by feeding them with greed.

Works Cited

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994

Bordwell, David. Narration in Fiction Film, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985

Monaco, James. How to Read a Film, Oxford University Press, 2000