Film is both a visual and a narrative medium and as such, the entire point of it is to tell by showing. Where literature has the power to grant us access to a character’s thoughts, film allows us to experience their emotions via expressions, body language, and subconscious communications to which words could never do justice. And even though the addition of sound to movies revolutionized the medium and how effectively it could tell its stories, there are still moments that are better told by images alone, with a score perhaps but no interfering dialogue, just the subject, the scene, and narrative silence.
Think of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and [SPOILER] its ending that features a silent family dinner that emotionally balances the explosive and excessive violence that precedes it. Or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, a film about sound that scores its most pivotal scene in silence as Harry Caul destroys his apartment searching for the listening device his paranoia has convinced him is there. Or the staggering 26-minute heist scene from Jules Dassin’s Rififi ‐- widely regarded as the best heist film and perhaps the greatest French noir of all-time ‐- that takes advantage of the tension silence creates to craft a thrilling cinematic experience. And of course, who could forget the greatest and most purposeful dialogue-free sequence in cinema history, the “Dawn of Man” sequence that opens Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Without a single word Kubrick cinematically birthed all of humanity and civilization.
In the modern-era, hands down the greatest use of narrative silence has to be the fourteen-minute opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, in which the entire world of the film, the complete character of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), and the atmosphere of the story are established before a single word is spoken. However, the opening scene is just one example of the impact silence has on There Will Be Blood, a film that makes frequent use of dialogue-free scenes throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, to various effects.
But, of course, it all starts with that opening. Let’s call it the “Dawn of Dan,” because like the sequence in Kubrick’s film, Anderson’s silent opening shows an ascent, an evolution of character from one thing to another. In Plainview’s case, we see him as a solo prospector, a lone, desperate figure in the barren wilds of the American desert scavenging below the surface for unpromised riches. We see him hire on a team of men, establish small derricks, suffer small defeats ‐- like the accident that kills one of Daniel’s men and leaves Daniel to care for the man’s orphaned infant son as his own ‐- and earns small successes in the form of black lakes of oil.
By the time Plainview does speak, his infamous “I’m an oil man” monologue, we know almost all there is to know about him: we know he is inexhaustible in his quest for wealth and success, we know he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, we know he is not afraid to get his soul dirty, we know there is a certain callousness to his spirit, but at the same time we know he is capable of great warmth, compassion, and tenderness in dealing with H.W., his “son,” and we know that he is a force of will, of persona, and indeed of nature.
The only non-ambient sound in these scenes is Jonny Greenwood’s dolefully screeching score, which adds a sense of tension, like this whole world is hanging by razor wire stretched to its limit, ready to snap and slash everything apart. Furthermore, by following all we’ve seen in silence with an eloquent monologue as his aural introduction, Plainview’s capabilities and perceived potential are augmented to the nth degree; he is as smart as he is able and thus now also a force to be reckoned with. Silence in the opening is a narrator, then, it is the method by which we learn about the world we’ve just walked into, it is the injection of emotion that infects us with the film’s intent, the only cure for which is letting the narrative run its course.
Beyond the opening, silence is also used throughout the film to enhance a sense of isolation, be it geographically, socially, or spiritually. Sweeping panoramas of the landscape and static shots of men against the expanse saying nothing, just being among the absence, reveal what a lonely life Daniel, his son, and his team live, how far removed they are from “civilization” or even just the common bustle of everyday living, and make us wonder what kind of man with what kind of temperament from what kind of background would willingly give himself to such a life.
Scenes of humble people huddled over meager meals communicating only by the scrape of utensils against empty bowls reveal the dependence that daily life used to entail (and does still though less noticeably) and how so often people put their fates in the hands of a god -‐ itself another silence, a silent acceptance of personal powerlessness ‐- only to run through his fingers. There is no god in this corner of the country, nothing can grow here, nothing can flourish, only rocks, angry and wrestling each other for millennia, squeezing every last, black drop of blood from one another. This is a place of savagery, not salvation, this is a place no faith can take purchase because there are no eternal rewards, only those of the fleeting, earthly variety. This is a place where prayers aren’t answered because they aren’t heard and are therefore better left unsaid, or better left to silence.
Silence also enhances dread in There Will Be Blood. In scenes such as the one where a worker’s bumble leads to the death by falling object of another worker in one of Daniel’s wells, or when Daniel sits watching his derrick burn, or the aftermath of H.W.’s accident, or Daniel chasing H.W. through the night after the boy set fire to their cabin, the lack of dialogue and in some instances score adds the tension of silence to the scene, its own inevitable breaking highlighting the same fragility in narrative; we know a fallout is coming, an emotional snap that will merge the physical chaos of what we’re seeing with the emotional chaos of what the characters are experiencing, but we don’t know when that moment will arrive, we can’t, because there are no aural clues or cues in the scene, nothing to mark our place in the emotional progress of the characters. Silence here is a misdirection, or rather a manipulation of expectation, leaving us in the dark as well.
In addition to mirroring his isolation, silence also reflects Daniel’s superiority, at least from his own perspective. There Will Be Blood is riddled with scenes of Plainview off on his own staring in silent contemplation at his land, his camps, his derricks, his son ‐ his empire, in short, his dominion. In this silence, his realm becomes the only thing in existence and he the gods-eye-view of his own life. Daniel is a man who seeks no council, we never see him even entertain the notion of a lover, let alone a spouse, and his only partner is his adopted son, who he can bend and shape to his will until he cannot, and then he can dispose of him by stashing him off with a tutor in a school for the deaf and mute. The Plainview universe is of Plainview’s own making, his will is the big bang and his vengeance controls it. Thus in scenes when he surveys what he has made there is no dialogue, because there is no voice more important than his, and he does not need to hear it aloud.
And finally, silence in There Will Be Blood is used to illustrate emotional intimacy and distance, the latter here being different from emotional isolation, because it isn’t drawing attention to a character’s loneliness, but rather a character’s specific rejection of another person, a willful withdrawal of attachment. I am speaking, of course, about Daniel’s relationship with his son. Before the accident which robs the boy of his hearing, the silences between the two of them were of the comfortable variety, the sort that occurs not because people have nothing to say to one another, but because they know each other so well and are so synchronized in thought, belief, and rationale, that theirs is a language involving unspoken facets.
But after the accident a different kind of silence descends between them, a silence meant to be a solid thing blocking one from another. There’s nothing Daniel can say to take away his son’s infirmity and set their dual destinies back on track, so he will say nothing more, he will let his prolonged silence, here willful ignorance, erect a wall between he and his son that neither will ever get over, around or under. This is the great silence of There Will Be Blood, the one that pervades, that exists eternally, and that will cast a shadow over both men all their days.
Even the last, tumultuous scene of the film utilizes the power of silence, which initially might strike you as odd given that it’s a long, dialogue-driven scene, a kind of opposing force to the silent opening. But consider this: the entire movie to now we have watched Daniel make himself. We haven’t heard it, we have watched it, that’s what those first scenes were showing, how the man became himself.
But when it comes time for Daniel’s final devolution when it comes time for the tension to snap and the whole of him to collapse into his liquor-fueled madness, it isn’t shown as much as it is told, he talks himself into the frenzy that crescendos in the murder of Eli. The silence of the opening and the rest of the film is refuted, it is dominated, and as a result, we feel the impact of its absence. We juxtapose the unfettered chaos of the ending against the restrained unraveling of the film until then, and for our efforts, we are rewarded with the gut-punch of the film’s final moments.
When Daniel is being baptized by Eli, the preacher asks him if he is a sinner. Daniel says he is, but in a low, calm, barely-audible voice to which Eli replies:
“Oh, the Lord can’t hear you, Daniel. Say it to him. Go ahead and speak to him. It’s all right.”
Eli here recognizes silence is Daniel’s chief defense, it is his refuge, his council, and his power; as long as he is kept by himself no other man can own him. But Eli wants Daniel owned, he wants to be the agent of Daniel’s ownership because he believes that will make Daniel beholden to him and he wants to bend the man’s power to his own benefit. But as he learns in this scene and with more finality at the end, the only think worse than a silent Plainview is a screaming one, and not even the Lord is refuge from a man muted to reason by ambition.