Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Paul Thomas Anderson is the most talented of the generally overhyped wunderkind directors to emerge in the mid 1990s. Of his first four pictures, my favourite was his debut, the diamond-hard little noir film Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney, 1996) that announced a truly interesting director. His spectacular follow-ups, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), were, in essence, extraordinary collections of character sketches without resolutions to match. Boogie Nights’ last act became a familiar guns-and-coke crime film, though with a dash of absurdism, and Magnolia’s even more surreal frog rain covered up some weak story terminations. Even at his least structured, however, it’s impossible to not give Anderson kudos for an ambition, coupled to the skill that backs it up, that dwarfed most of his competitors in the new American cinema.
There Will Be Blood is a kind of demonic howl from the wasteland, a frankly eccentric epic that’s part excoriating character study, part rewrite of the foundation texts of Gilded Age America, a darkly gothic tone poem with a sea of black comedy beneath its feet as thick as the oil its anti-hero Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) discovers. Anderson, frank about his influences, cites The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as his favourite film, but based the film on a section of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! (1927). He pays an amusing tribute to that film’s director, John Huston, by having Day-Lewis put on a Huston accent. Like Fred C. Dobbs, Plainview begins as a reasonably sane and sympathetic protagonist who spins towards monstrosity as his obsessions progress. The first 15 minutes of the film are wordless observation of Plainview toiling in his silver mine in the late 1890s. Breaking a leg and ribs after falling in his shaft, Plainview stuffs his pockets with ore, hoists himself out, and proceeds to crawl across miles of rugged earth to have the ore processed before getting medical attention.
Such fixation of will assures us Plainview is no common man. Shortly thereafter, two accidents provide him with future direction. The death of one of his hired labourers leaves him with the dead man’s infant son, and instead of striking silver in another mine, he hits oil. The film leaps forward a decade, to when Plainview is sought after for his skills as an oil driller. He has claimed the boy as his son, introducing him as his partner H. W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier). Daniel is straddled somewhere between tradesman and tycoon and needs the chance to drill a big oil deposit that he alone can exploit to make the final leap. Fortune knocks in the guise of Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), a religious but canny young man, who offers Daniel information about his family’s ranch near the barren hills of Little Boston, California, that has “oil seeping out of the ground.” All Paul wants for this is $500, and then he disappears.
Under the guise of shooting for quail, Daniel and H. W. peruse the Sunday’s rock farm and find Paul’s report was correct. Momentarily startled to find that Paul’s brother Eli (Dano again) is his lookalike twin, Daniel nonetheless proceeds to buy the ranch from their father Abel (David Willis), a frail man whose surface gentility conceals a basher of both bibles and children. Eli is a proper preacher, and knowing damn well why Daniel wants the ranch, extracts a promise from him to support his church if he finds any oil. Daniel shortly begins buying up land from the rest of the townsfolk to whom he poses as a benefactor, bringing not just wealth, but also stimulus for all aspects of local life.
Daniel attempts to keep his wildly antagonistic poles of personality in balance. He is ambitious, driven, as he confesses, to not let anyone else succeed— he only feels he has achieved something when he has crushed everybody else in the process. He wants to make enough money to get away from people altogether. Yet he also defines himself as a world builder and family man, intently protective of H. W. There is a war between something like rapacious nihilism and more humane aspirations within him. An atheist, he chafes at Eli’s pious posing, and deliberately insults him when Eli proposes to bless the first oil derrick. Instead, Daniel calls for Eli’s younger sister Mary (Sydney McCallister) whom he has learnt gets beaten for not saying her prayers.
In a staggering sequence, Daniel’s team hits its first gusher on the site. Exploding out of the earth without warning, it knocks H. W. for six and renders him deaf. But even this can’t hold Daniel away from the gusher, which catches on fire, consuming black gold and derrick as it burns through the night like a fountain from hell. Daniel’s plan is to build a pipeline to the sea, thus circumventing the exorbitant carrying charges of the railways. But with H. W. deaf and taking care of him becoming increasingly problematic, Daniel eventually has him shipped away to a special home. He has found another emotional surrogate to be his confidante in a world he readily admits to despising—his half-brother Henry Brands (Kevin J. O’Connor), who shows up to tell him of his father’s death and ask for a job. Henry’s own life is a flop, and he accounts that he’s done his share of sinning. Daniel’s father had a mistress—Henry’s mother—and Daniel knew about it. Daniel has come from a background that made him a misanthropist, and yet he clings to familial loyalty like a life buoy to remain sane long enough to gain the separateness he craves.
Daniel finds a true rival in Eli, whose beatific manners and showy sermons conceal an ambition and malignancy nearly equal to Daniel’s. Prodding Daniel to pay over the money he promised the church, Eli is instead slapped and dragged through the mud by Daniel as he takes out his pain over H. W.’s deafness on the phony, showy faith healer. Eli, in turn, attacks his father for selling Daniel their oil and raising the errant Paul to be the “stupid son of a stupid father.” The film’s air of throbbing menace begins to solidify in Daniel’s and Eli’s first revelations of the violence we sense in them. Thus, Anderson takes by the throat a deep-rooted hypocrisy in the American tradition—a reverence for immense greed coupled with a pretence to spiritual enlightenment. Meditating on this American split personality, Norman Mailer once commented that “Jesus and Evel Knievel don’t sit too well in the same psyche.”
One does not have to look far in classic Hollywood films to see the way this relationship is enshrined and supposed to work, for example, somebody like Spencer Tracy taking Clark Gable to task for greed and sin as in San Francisco (1938), or, cogently, the oil-prospecting epic Boom Town (1940) where Tracy is not a priest, but his relationship to Gable is the same. It’s a moral framework that’s still popular in Hollywood. In There Will Be Blood, Eli is ancestor to the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jerry Falwells who grew rich and powerful exploiting the lingering guilt and anxiety in a country “under God” but dedicated otherwise to mammon. Eli will eventually become a tycoon of religion as Daniel becomes one of oil. The film deconstructs both the socialistic simplicities of Sinclair’s writing, and the affirmation of the American founding fantasy in writers like Edna Ferber. Daniel and Eli have divergent definitions of the landscape around them. The Sundays and their like have sought this anti-Eden as a place of purification by trial, its remote aridity fit for moral regeneration. For Daniel, it’s nothing to be conquered and made to yield something. For both, the oil has an importance beyond the practical. It’s the blood of the earth, the blood of the lamb, the redemptive substance. To emphasize this relationshiop, Daniel is shown placing a sacramental dab of the ooze on the infant H. W.’s forehead.
Daniel takes Henry with him to survey the route for their pipeline to the coast. Daniel only opens up to people with whom he assumes a family relationship, H. W. and Henry. When Standard Oil executive Tilford (David Warshofsky), attempting to buy Daniel out, makes a casual reference to his deaf son, Daniel’s response is a renewed fury to accomplish his plan. It’s apparent that Daniel is mad and that the trigger to his madness will be found somewhere in the dark nexus between his ambition and his love of family. It comes out like one of his gushers when a casual slip in conversation makes him realise Henry is an impostor. In fact he’s a drifter who has taken on Henry’s identity. Although he swears that Henry died of tuberculosis, Daniel shoots him and buries his body. He is found the next day by one of the Little Boston townsfolk, Bandy (Colton Woodward), whose land he needs to build the pipeline and has followed him to the coast.
Bandy offers Daniel a deal; he can build the pipe across his land if Daniel is baptised at Eli’s church. This leads to the bitterest of humiliations for Daniel, who must get on his knees, shout out the confession “I have abandoned my child,” and accept Eli’s slaps in the face. Eli is playing with fire here. Nonetheless, it seems to have a momentary effect on Daniel, who shortly thereafter has H. W. brought back. But there’s something fawning, desperate, off kilter in both his welcoming back of his boy and a subsequent encounter with Tilford in a restaurant. Daniel prods both, attempting to exact a pleasure of reunion and victory, but without truly succeeding.
H. W.’s flirtation with Mary Sunday crystallises in the film’s final segment, in 1927, when the pair (Russell Harvard and Colleen Foy) are married in a ceremony she communicates to him by sign language. Daniel has walled himself up in his Xanadu, reminding us of a mix of Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley as he sits around in his cocoon drinking copiously and shooting household objects. He has finally achieved his isolation from humanity—all too well. When H. W. announces his attention to go off on his own with Mary to Mexico and start his own drilling company, Daniel cruelly informs him of his true origin as a foundling. “Thank god there is no part of you in me,” is H. W.’s response before walking out. Anderson’s recurring motif of men who chafe under the control of obnoxious families, especially domineering father figures, here achieves an almost Shakespearean vividness.
H. W.’s restraint is the bravest behaviour in the film. Something murderous, long incubated in Daniel, is now awake. He drinks himself stupid and falls asleep on his private bowling alley, only to be roused by Eli. Now a famous radio preacher, Eli has come in the guise of making a friendly overture to arrange for the final sale of Bandy’s land, but actually desperately needs money because his investments have gone south in the Wall Street crash. Daniel forces Eli to declare his God is mere superstition before informing him that any oil on Bandy’s property is long gone, sucked out by all the drilling around it, yielding the now famously hilarious analogy of drinking another man’s milkshake with a long straw. But humiliating Eli isn’t enough now. Daniel chases Eli around the alley like Wile E. Coyote, tossing bowling balls at him before beating his brains out with a pin. His servant finds him seated by Eli’s corpse. Daniels sighs in a mood of weary satisfaction, “I’m finished.”
His statement is double-edged: he may or may not be finished in the sense that he’s going to prison or the madhouse, but he’s certainly finished in terms of his quest to smash both competing humans and competing values. I found the finale perfect; many have not, but it simply takes to a kind of ecstatic extreme the alternations of dark humour and grim confirmation that vibrate through the work. More importantly, There Will Be Blood refuses to hide behind abstractions, like No Country for Old Men’s gutless conclusion, and goes instead for a finale heroic in its risk-taking intensity. Whilst it explores allegory and symbolism—the doppelganger siblings are imbued with an edge of surrealism—but its characters are properly realized.
As Boogie Nights and Magnolia showed their debts to Scorsese’s style and Altman’s structuring, There Will Be Blood leaps off from Gangs of New York, by borrowing Gangs’ lead actor to give another epic performance pitched close to extravagant grotesquery, and taking up a vision of American history not too long after Gangs concluded. Like Gangs, too, it approaches American history through a sense of mythic metaphor—Gangs referenced both Christian and pagan mythology as There Will Be Blood references Cain and Abel and other Biblical tropes. However, There Will Be Blood represents Anderson’s full maturation, both returning to the stark sense of the American landscape that made Hard Eight’s opening hypnotic, but also expanding beyond it. His alien perspective on landscape and industry resemble Werner Herzog’s, whilst his taut mixture of visual lucidity and tonal flux recall Kubrick in a masterful slow burn.
As in his earlier films, Anderson maintains a disquieting balance between hilarity and horror, perhaps most clearly seen before in Boogie Nights, when Alfred Molina chases the feckless heroes in his underwear with a shotgun in hand. As with the perverse romance Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood achieves a kind of texture of unease, but unlike the former film is not aggressively twee. Shot for shot, it’s a triumph that avoids the archness that occasionally afflicted The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, but perhaps even more so in its sound textures, from the careful use of sound effects to the score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Music is as vital as sinew for connecting the tissue in Anderson’s films, even more so than in Scorsese’s and Tarantino’s (or the airier but equally vital fashion of Sofia Coppola), aiming as it does for a musical compulsion to their structure. There Will Be Blood becomes a kind of modernist symphony.