There Will Be Blood (2007)

Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson

Dan Sallitt and Zach Campbell have already done the lion’s share of the work on There Will Be Blood, so go read them first. I want to add a few rambling thoughts while they’re still fresh, though. Like nearly everyone else, apparently, I was overwhelmed by the sheer force of will in Anderson’s filmmaking but am still unsure of what to make of it, exactly.

Dan’s most helpful insight is: “every time Anderson has a chance to situate Plainview in a social context, he seems not even to notice the opportunity.” I was reminded of that observation when a friend asked what the church congregation represents in the film. I’m tempted to say it doesn’t represent anything at all. And neither does the oil industry, really. Zach, you are being just Lukacsian enough, I think. History, for Anderson, is nothing more than Lukacs’s “collection of curiosities and oddities.” What does Jameson call it? “Pastiche”? “Blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs”? By deliberately erasing all social context from the film — where are the reaction shots? where are the transactions, organizations, and relationships? — Anderson has turned history into a fairy tale and has undermined every potential opportunity to investigate social institutions like capitalism and religion. As a result, most of the questions begged by the film are made irrelevant. Is Plainview’s acquisition of wealth amoral? Is Sunday a charlatan? Are preachers and tycoons the scourge of America or a mixed blessing? Anderson’s understanding of capital and faith are so anemic as to make words like “morality,” “greed,” and “belief” totally useless as a point of inquiry here.

So what is Anderson interested in? I’m not sure if he knows, but near as I can tell he’s interested in Daniel Plainview. Dan seems to accept at face value Plainview’s confession at the end of the film that he never cared for his son, H.W., but I’m not so sure. Anderson intercuts a really strange flashback after their final argument in which Plainview remembers — fondly, by all appearances — a day when he happily (if awkwardly) played with H.W. and the young Mary. It’s the only time, as I recall, that we fully enter his subjectivity. I don’t doubt that Plainview recognized and exploited the advantage of having a child along with him when he met with landowners (maybe it occurred to him only after his competitor mentioned it in passing), but I actually think he cared for the boy, just as he genuinely cared for Henry before discovering him to be an imposter. (Why else to include the Henry subplot at all, other than to create a parallelism of sorts?) Plainview is the main focus of the film, and he’s what? A misanthrope who takes rejection particularly bad? A boogey man? A guy who didn’t get enough hugs as a child?

If this film is a character piece — and I think it’s more that than anything else — then Anderson needs to give us a person to work with. I’m from the “contemplative” school of film criticism. I tend to think that any camera fixated wisely enough and patiently enough on any human face will eventually reveal, with a kind of Bazinian realism, a depth of character that’s impossible to achieve with even the best dramaturgy. (In Devotional Cinema, Nathaniel Dorsky writes: “The total genius of your hand is more profound than anything you could have calculated with your intellect. One’s hand is a devotional object.”) And, strangely enough, that’s where the greatest strengths of There Will Be Blood lie — the two hours of screen time enjoyed by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose acting is stagey and theatrical in an Elia Kazan-ish way but whose sunburned face, stooped shoulders, and bum knee give Plainview more life than he maybe deserves.

But Anderson isn’t a contemplative filmmaker. He’s downright bombastic — never happier than when emotions are red-lined, music a-blaring, camera swinging at a frenzy. (He’s well on his way to becoming the Michael Bay of the art house, in fact. P.T.A.: “Okay, guys, we’re gonna dolly forward nice and steady on this one.” Grips: “No shit. Really? [sigh]”) Anderson is always anticipating the next big show — Sunday’s wondrous healing, Plainview’s slapfight, the great and cynical baptism scene, Sunday’s leap across the dining room table, and, of course, the murders. To keep us primed, the soundtrack feeds us a steady stream of dissonance, fear, and loathing. Anderson is so good at those scenes, so gifted as a manipulator of our emotions and allegiances, that we overlook the banality and senselessness of the drama. What a fascinating mess of a movie.