One of the most remarkable scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is also one of the simplest. The scene comes about three quarters of the way through the film. H.W., Daniel Plainview’s son, has just returned home after Daniel sent him away, not knowing how to deal with H.W.’s deafness. We see H.W. return in a long one-shot that makes use of the wide space and powerful effect of having close up sound with a wide shot, where it sounds as if the characters are right next to us even when they are far in the distance. That shot culminates in H.W. hitting Daniel, small fists flying at him, while Daniel shamefully holds a hand up for him to stop. This is a dramatic shot and a showy one but, to my mind, the more impressive scene is the one that immediately follows it.
Daniel and H.W. to go a restaurant. We don’t see them enter the restaurant or sit down at the table, we simply see them there, waiting, on opposite sides of the frame, not knowing what to do with each other. The scene is composed of [essentially] three shots, all of which are focused on Daniel and H.W., with the camera placed in a sort of ring around these central characters. Despite the somewhat complicated staging of the scene—other characters enter, Daniel gets up to speak with them, then returns—the basic camera set-ups don’t change.
The effect of this technique is that it keeps our attention focused on Daniel and H.W., to an intense degree. When, partway through the scene, a number of businessmen enter the restaurant, we first hear them rather than see them. There is a commotion of sound as they come in, changing the dynamic of the room. Then we see Daniel react to these men being there [and him recognizing them]. Then, finally, we see the men, but we see them through one of the original three camera setups which is still really focused on Daniel and H.W. Even though these men entering the restaurant is the new action in the scene and, really, what becomes the catalyst for the rest of the scene, these men only exist in the background of the shot. There is no cutaway to them, no special camera angle for them. We are being told, essentially, that the focus is on Daniel and H.W. and it is their reaction to these businessmen that is important, rather than the businessmen themselves.
The scene then settles into a shot that again is one of the original three set-ups. Only now the foreground of the shot is slightly obscured by these businessmen, who are sitting at a separate table from H.W. and Daniel. And, specifically, the frame is divided by a menu held up by one of these men. The foreground menu literally divides Daniel and H.W. in the frame, cutting between them, enacting the emotional division between them and the separation that Daniel feels. Anderson uses a similar trick in The Master, when Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are divided in two jail cells, the divider literally cutting the shot in half, separating the id and the ego their characters represent.
The majority of the rest of the scene plays out from this same camera angle, with the businessmen in the foreground. Much like in the preceding scene with the long one-shot, Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit make full use of the depth of field, having Daniel walk from the center of frame to the foreground to harass one of the businessmen. As a viewer it is a startling effect. Through the blurred figures of the business men, it felt as if we were peeking at Daniel, stealing a glance. As he walks up to them and to us it is startling and worrisome. We know he is a little drunk and angry and now he is much closer to us. The camera is low, at the level of the table, looking up at Daniel and the man he is harassing. Again, the attention stays focused on Daniel throughout. We see the other man but he is placed in the frame so that his presence almost seems incidental. Daniel is the focus, even though our perspective is from a seat at the table with these men. And, importantly, our perspective is from a low seat. All three of the main camera setups are lower than normal. All three of them are at the level of H.W.. What we’re really seeing is how H.W. sees his father, how H.W. imagines the businessmen see his father, how H.W. imagines his father sees himself. All of this is conveyed subtly, through the camera set-ups, through the careful editing and simple choreography. But the meticulous level of detail and the intense emotional focus is what makes even a simple scene in There Will Be Blood so impressive.