In a season of excellent, if totally depressing, films, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is probably the best. Yes, there’s actually something more soul-greying than the amoral universe of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. BLOOD is depressing and epic and great because we intuit truth about not one, but two turns of the century: the 19th as it became the 20th, and where we are now, on the cusp of the 21st.
Loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS and felt myself second-guessing my appreciation of his talent with MAGNOLIA (uh, okay, interesting that everyone is singing Aimee Mann’s song…not exactly pleasurable or especially meaningful for me, but I’ll meet you halfway). And really wondering what the heck I saw in his work by the time of PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. (Adam Sandler’s man-boy with anger management issues I found too freaking creepy to want any woman to end up with him. Ick. I don’t care how many harmoniums fall out of the sky, this is veering into twee Wes Anderson, “hooked on my own wacky enfant terrible/boy wonder genius” territory for me.)
But I’m back as a huge admirer of Anderson’s talent with THERE WILL BE BLOOD, an adaptation of sorts of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1927 novel, Oil!
There’s both blood and a reptilian bloodlessness to the film, which details the rise of a hardscrabble silver miner, Daniel Plainview, to middleweight oil baron in the period 1898-1927. Daniel Day-Lewis is outstanding–I mean out of this universe good, Oscar-worthy freaking amazing–as Plainview. Paul Dano (the loveable older brother who takes a vow of silence in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) holds his own as a savvy charismatic preacher against formidable Day-Lewis, and the boy who plays Plainview’s adopted son H.W., Dillion Freasier, has an anachronistic, expressive face just right for somber daguerrotype.
DNA strands of all of Anderson’s previous obsessions are here, reconfigured into powerful new form. There’s the faintly comic but mostly terrifying knife-edge balance of volatile menace found in the firecracker scene in BOOGIE NIGHTS (Sister Christian on the soundtrack while a coked-up nutjob waves a gun in Dirk Diggler’s face) and the intense father-son obsessions in BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA.
From the opening raw whine and scraping violin scree! scree! scree!, reminiscent of the alarming and hysterical strings of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, THERE WILL BE BLOOD fills you with foreboding. If nothing else, the auditory assault serves notice that the landscape would sooner chew you up as spit you out in a lake of biblical hellfire. Anderson has pitched performances just a little too tight to be comfortable and wound up his audience so we’re uneasily aware of how oligarchies stop at nothing to self-perpetuate and how symbiotically they exist with a certain kind of organized religion. Had he slackened the pitch, I think we might have missed the critique in his depiction and mistaken it for an Ayn Rand-ian celebration of Daniel Plainview as maverick entrepreneur or millionaire eccentric in the vein of Howard Hughes.* But instead, Anderson swipes a few interesting elements of horror sound design just to let us know which side of the divide he’s on. You’re meant to regard Plainview with horror and loathing, even pity.
And ultimately it seems glaringly apparent to me that THERE WILL BE BLOOD contains a none-too coded nod to the most prominent oil dynasty that’s had the privilege of inhabiting 1600 Pennsylvania Ave in recent memory: Bush 41 and Bush 43.
There’s often been a strain of father-son angst in Anderson’s films, whether it was little boy lost Dirk Diggler in BOOGIE NIGHTS or most notably MAGNOLIA (Tom Cruise exploited brilliantly here), but in Plainview’s relationship with H.W., I think Anderson has succeeded in sublimating those semi-autobiographical concerns into a deeper meditation on the drives and needs of a robber baron. I’d argue that you can’t directly map Plainview onto Bush 41 and H.W. onto Bush 43–instead, BLOOD seems to mine a larger emotional truth about men who devote their entire beings to the pursuit of wealth. If anything, the few glimpses we get into Plainview’s soul are when we understand him as a son, a brother, and a father. The move from personal to epic is key; we’ve all had an opportunity to psychoanalyze Bush 43 and his Oedipal misadventures played out, to our misfortune and others’ misery, in national and international arenas.
But maybe what Anderson is saying is that these damaged men need the violence and greed bubbling beneath an unforgiving American landscape in order to flower: that like the cowboy, the oilmen is one of our archetypes of the Wild West. He’s just as bound up in a rapacious Manifest Destiny, and bridges an earlier era of “homesteading” with the increasingly abstract and modern methods of wealth creation in the Gilded Age; Plainview triumphs by being preternaturally attuned to the intricacies of land grabs and claim-jumping and air and water rights. The law is his pickaxe. With his somber boy H.W. (Herbert Walker…Bush?) at his side, Plainview easily fleeces entire communities. It’s like using a baby to take candy from a baby.
Anderson writes and directs two provocative arias: one occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film in which Plainview decides someone close to him cannot be trusted, and so he brings another person into the fold. He tells that person (I’m paraphrasing here), “I…hate everyone. I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I have a competition in me…I want no one else to succeed. I use them, and then I move on.” It’s as close as an emotionally stunted, essentially unloveable man will come to a confession, or to self-knowledge, for that matter.
If Plainview’s cold, calculating will to chisel wealth out of the ground is indomitable, so is Eli Sunday’s. The Sundays are one of the first families to be bought out by Plainview and their land is littered with Plainview’s oil derricks. Eli’s naive, courtly manner just barely masks his worldly ambition for his church. He’s no less conniving, no less advantage-seeking on behalf of his religion than Plainview is for his business concerns, and this may dismay true believers.
For those of us of a more skeptical bent, it makes absolute sense that a soulless business needs the partnership of the soul business to provide succor, as when a drill bit slips and crushes one of Plainview’s men deep inside the hole. It’s only then that Plainview develops a grudging respect for Sunday’s Church of the Third Revelation. The church can always rely on big business’ collateral damage to deliver the lost and vulnerable to its door; in return, big business outsources any pretense of caring for individual workers or the community it works within to the church.
Cynical? Or realistic? THERE WILL BE BLOOD certainly builds to an unsettling climax between the two adversaries, Plainview and Sunday. The other provocative aria is one they share (“I am a false prophet”/”milkshake”). Their history has been one of unwilling and mutually contemptuous interdependence, with one or the other seeking the upper hand and in doing so, reveling in the humiliation of the other.
But if the robber baron is the definition of unloveability, has come to personify chilly utilitarianism (even toward the loyal and beloved H.W.), then what will Plainview do when he’s beyond redemption? What then of the symbiotic relationship between Plainview and Sunday, and the last few moments of the film?
Perhaps the answer can be found by looking at our lame duck president. He’s often gassed on about his religious faith, though lately Iraq is clearly a disaster and the U.S. economy threatens to drag down the world’s markets with it. Maybe the more enduring faith is Bush 43′s trust that once he leaves office, he’ll fail upward to bigger and better things. I’m sure he’s counting on it. And so it is with Plainview.
* This interpretive minefield, so to speak, carries over from Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel written in naturalist/socialist realist vein. There’s a risk in depicting societal dynamics in Darwinistic terms–instead of agreeing with your critique of the Hobbesian “nasty, brutish, and short” quality of life under capitalism, it’s entirely possible for political conservatives to read endorsement of that way of life insofar as it confirms their worldview and belief that there should be a hierarchy of elites and the oppressed.