Burn, Baby, Burn
By Jeff Reichert
There Will Be Blood
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., Paramount Vantage
There Will Be Blood is a slow-moving whirlwind that suddenly, utterly spent, just finishes. Daniel Plainview, oil man, family man, small businessman, and half Blood’s lifeblood, head hung low between his shoulders, exhausted amidst the destroyed remains of his mansion’s bowling alley (it’s telling that this character would bring America’s most popular amateur sport into his home), the titular liquid collecting at the side of the frame, is suddenly bereft of enemies, bereft of the need to struggle, and thus Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is bereft of the need to continue. One almost wishes the film’s last frame would catch in the projector gate and burn, thus physically closing the loop on the movie’s final conflagration. This much-debated ending is the queasy aftermath of a serious purge. But even by the time the nauseous opening drone of Jonny Greenwood’s disquieting score segues into a sickening glissando, it was already clear that something’s not right in Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision of America—something unhealthy, maybe even unearthly, is in the process of becoming. The feature film that follows, Anderson’s fifth, quickly introduces us to this otherworldly, yet finally, utterly American creation, who commands the director’s widescreen frames through the film’s running length. (I’ll leave it an open question for now as to who is truly in control of There Will Be Blood.)
Plainview (ferociously embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis) is first witnessed hacking violently away at the walls of a nascent silver mine, and not offered the opportunity for dialogue or real human interaction until long after the film has begun. Left to his own devices for so much screen time, Plainview is literally a man apart from the world. And judging from the view of humanity he espouses much later in the film (and long after his feelings about mankind have come into plain view) he likes things that way: “I look at people and see the worst in them.” Plagued by luck both good and ill, his mettle is tested early in the narrative—after an accident leaves him at the bottom of the mine shaft with a broken leg, Anderson painfully tracks the man’s struggle to escape, but instead of resting upon reaching the summit, Plainview crawls further, all the way into town, clutching what seems to be a piece of silver. Anderson elides the duration of his journey, but judging from the vast emptiness of the film’s opening landscapes, we’re led to believe it’s quite far. The man’s shifting luck and his ability to capitalize on the good and continually surmount the bad (to the negation of his humanity) will be a dynamic that informs the entirety of There Will Be Blood. This is 1898, and Anderson exits the year leaving his creation flat on his back, leg broken, but bearing a small triumphant smile, he’s found his ore, but even greater, liquid riches await.
Though Anderson structures his nearly free of dialogue, suggesting the evocative power of silent cinema (everything we need know about Plainview can be discerned from the film’s prologue), it’s not long before he introduces the familiar trappings of the great American epic There Will Be Blood is to become. By 1911, Plainview’s traded the prospector’s beard for a thick moustache, raised a son (H.W., his business partner), and honed an oily smooth pitch that woos yokels across California into leasing him the drilling rights for their land. The film grows with him—leaving behind the confining space of a single mine (after a brief stopover in 1902, on the cusp of Plainview’s success), Jack Fisk’s “New Boston” set, a few towering wooden well towers mixed among the existing scattered frontier dwellings, is a marvelous bit of production design, providing ample room for the film to stretch out wihout ever feeling busy or cluttered.
The tribulations of drilling in New Boston occupy the main portion of the film, and many critics have used There Will Be Blood’s period setting and literary roots (Upton Sinclair’s Oil!) to wrongly describe it as some kind of a departure for Anderson. Even though the film may be located long before his beloved Los Angeles occupied the importance it does today (or more accurately, expands along with the invisible city’s history), this is all familiar territory—Anderson’s work has always been populated by naive strivers, con artists, escapees from troubled pasts, and most dangerously, false prophets, played by performers as widely varied as John C. Reilly, Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise, and Adam Sandler. Without much trouble, one could draw a mad crooked line connecting them all to each other around various poles of American masculinity. But they would all be awed (or cowed) by Daniel Plainview’s single-minded drive.
Unlike Gangs of New York’s Bob the Butcher, Daniel Plainview isn’t a stand-in for something so simple as perverted, weird “America.” He’s altogether more complex in makeup, yet his goals—profit, isolation, escape—are easier to define (in his name’s the thing). To match the country that birthed it, There Will Be Blood revolves around the fundamental dichotomy embodied by its two major characters: Day-Lewis’s Plainview and Paul Dano’s Elijah (mute in Little Miss Sunshine, Dano is here fiery and explosive). Elijah is a young New Boston preacher who uses the promise of oil money that Plainview never delivers as an opportunity for the construction of a new church (his brother Paul, also played by Dano, tips Plainview off to the existence of oil under New Boston). Plainview agrees to let Elijah bless the well before drilling commences but reneges on his promise, and accidents begin soon after, one of which leaves H.W. deafened in the wake of a blast. In this, Anderson suggests the hand of the supernatural; in their increasingly tense relationship, a system in which the goals of commerce vie with those of religion—the twin poles upon which America was founded are personified via an evangelist fencing with an oil man. Not quite a direct commentary on our present moment, which sees an oilman and pseudo-evangelist about to vacate the White House, There Will Be Blood casts Plainview as the complicated forbearer of the Bush-era. While not a movie immediately about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their ilk, the film’s, and Plainview’s silent guiding ideology is the ruthless McKinleyan social Darwinism so in vogue among contemporary conservatives.
Inasmuch as the ascendancy of paleoconservatism within our government defines the last decade of American politics, There Will Be Blood is a political American film. (Its focus on oil, our controversial, cheapest energy option, located near exclusively in quantity amongst the world’s more troubled regions—nearly enough to convince one of the existence of a cruelly ironic higher power—is a cry for help). It is a film about America with a complicated, nervous view of the place, but also a film about patrimony, about actions begetting other actions—necessarily biblical to its very core. Even without Elijah and his church, this, Anderson’s most formally restrained film (witness how few of his convoluted choreographed takes draw attention to themselves), would have a monolithic, monotheistic rigor all its own, and Plainview’s evolution away from the human would at the very least be an elemental force approaching the godlike. Yet in pitting Daniel and Elijah against each other, Anderson’s spoken directly to the great American divide without the lazy finger-pointing didacticism of contemporary documentary. In the film’s final third Plainview agrees to baptism at Elijah’s hands in order to procure a key piece of land necessary to build a pipeline to the sea. The scene’s a blackly comedic microcosm of the film’s major struggle, but the performers’ skill adds layers of masochistic complexity. As simple as it’d be to vilify Plainview, his frank confession that he’s abandoned his son (he earlier sent him off to a school for the deaf) in front of the assembled congregants suggests remorse. And for his part, Elijah, scrubbed clean with the aspect of a choir-boy and gripped with uncommon fervor, can’t mask the degree to which he revels in Daniel’s humiliation. As it turns out, Day-Lewis’s worship turns out to be purer than Dano’s—nothing is simple in Anderson’s moral universe.
It’s telling, and necessary, that There Will Be Blood ends right as the world’s economy began its collapse into depression in 1927. Incalculably wealthy (and appropriately eccentric enough—the aged Plainview is introduced hunched over in a chair using his foyer as a shooting gallery), and having weathered the robber baron era as an independent businessman without ever having had to delve into politics, he’s ridden out the end days of laissez-faire capitalism to a fortune. The film casts a sidelong glance at the uncomfortable bind that would be the New Deal; introducing the hand of government as a corrective to the laws of supply and demand was a necessary fix at the time (and remains so), but only induced that ever-shifting djinn that is commerce to find new ways to master government, thus leaving us with the entirely sickened democratic process we endure currently. Today Daniel Plainview might head mercenary group Blackwater. But then he doesn’t much like people. His final bowling alley confrontation with Elijah is a shocking bit of filmmaking and performance that’s already been divisive, but to these eyes represents an utterly unique bit of creation that speaks to the moment in which it was staged, as well as our own: witness the fragmentation of the conservative movement into warring factions of evangelists, corporatists, and international interventionists.
Already leading the pack towards an Academy Award, it’s tempting to chalk the adulation surrounding Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview up to a happy victim of hype (and the winner is: Ellen Page!). Before seeing the film it’s certainly easy to do so, afterwards, well nigh impossible. Less a performance than a total immersion or inhabitation, Plainview’s simultaneously a cipher (we don’t know a great deal about his past other than that he comes from the Midwest, if he is to be believed) and crystal clear (every tic bespeaks of some kind of calculation). Starting with Plainview’s gruff voice and clipped diction Day-Lewis works outward to the squint of his eyes, the mouth caught always near smirk. His pitches for oil rights especially capture the man—viewed in medium close-up, his body below his chin unmoving, mouth chomping, eyebrows dancing, head swiveling mechanically to create obligatory eye contact. Granted a limp from that mining accident at the beginning of the film, Plainview’s tense, awkward gait only further bespeaks of coiled tension, potential waiting to be actualized. There aren’t many performances quite this big in cinema, and usually when they, are the containing movie rightfully cedes ground. But in There Will Be Blood one senses Anderson and Lewis engaged in a match of one-upmanship—as crazy as Plainview becomes, the director pulling the strings may be even more coolly insane.
In a year that’s been remarkably good for American movies, There Will Be Blood handily outshines them all. In the Reverse Shot camp, we’ve had the pleasure of seriously debating the merits of at least a baker’s dozen worth of homegrown titles: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Death Proof, I’m Not There, Into the Wild, Margot at the Wedding, The Mist, No Country for Old Men, Ratatouille, Redacted, Superbad, We Own the Night, Youth Without Youth, and Zodiac—all worthy of discussion for different reasons, many produced well within the studio system, some independently. And while we certainly don’t agree on all of them, having that potential at year’s end bespeaks of something special in our cinematic water. There Will Be Blood’s western historicism has aligned it in many minds with the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, but they’re actually flipside narratives of the American Dream: Josh Brolin tries to run and scheme his way to a better life but cruel fate catches him along the way, Plainview, on the other hand, is self-actualization (and the self-negation that comes along with it) personified. Blood’s closer to a formally sublimated I’m Not There, replacing Haynes’s shattered-glass refraction of Bob Dylan with a cool update on classical storytelling that’s no less expansively about the great American (self) experiment.
There Will Be Blood is a movie that will be appreciated and raved about worldwide (“beloved” is perhaps a little too soft a word for a movie this diamond hard), but can only be truly and fully absorbed by those who’ve lived their lives immersed in America. It’s not terribly often that we get a shot at a film that could rightly be described as epochal, and we’re lucky to have lived through two in the past three years—counting, of course, Terrence Malick’s similarly meaning-laden, visually lush The New World. (And A.I. Artificial Intelligence is only just behind us as well.) Not to raise ire, but there’s something to this kind of American studio-inflected filmmaking—the possibility that a grand, expensive cinematic canvas can yield the grandest most expansive results in the right hands. This claim certainly opens me up to criticism, but what other recent films have spoken so vastly and so eloquently? This preference is probably also a distinctly American prejudice. Oil is the very blood of the earth—the blood of its history. How better to tackle its import to our lives than via There Will Be Blood, a film which has cinema (the lubricant for that other American engine—cultural ideology) coursing through its veins? Perhaps the best measure of its greatness is that, even after a few thousand words expended, I’ve truly barely scratched the surface of what makes There Will Be Blood such a wonder to behold.