Paul Thomas Anderson’s new monster success film There Will Be Blood (“Blood”) has dynamic heft. Stylistically it really packs a wallop. The performances, production elements and creative juices, without doubt, seem to blend artistically to have pulled off a remarkably impressive work. One very considerable weight resides in the character of Daniel Plainview, the success-driven industrialist, and his representation by Daniel Day-Lewis, fast becoming the preëminent Titan of cinema. One might say his is the performance which gives the film its awesome freight. The Golden Globes, The British Film Awards and now the Academy Awards have duly rewarded him for his fine work. In “Blood,” Day-Lewis puts on an ominous human mask similar to the one he peered through as Billy the Butcher some years before in the human jungle of Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002). More buckets of blood and blood-drenched masks were required for Scorsese’s political gangster story; however, the greater smothering of faces and landscapes in “Blood” is from greasy oil pits, gushers, and still ponds of black shiny mud, enough of it to remind Americans of the horrible Sherwin-Williams’ advertisement of thick lead paint, pouring from a gallon pot down the face of the smiling globe. Both “Gangs” and “Blood” have much in common, being treatments of power struggles in American history that clearly point out patterns of greed and violence in unethical men, both the thugs and the elites who hire them. As lessons they might show how we got into the pathetic mess we’re in today, but they reveal in their allegorical and symbolic presentations only the continuation of the patterns and none of the solutions.
From the start, the action of “Blood” is fraught with the labor and dangers men faced in challenging nature to give up her treasures. In settings of raw landscapes dug by picks and shafted to scrape up first gold and silver and later drilled to scare out geysers of black gold, maniacal music plays an unsettling role throughout the film. At first when Daniel Plainview works as a lone silver miner in the fields of Texas, music hums menacingly as though swarms of killer bees or a plague of locusts are on the way. At best it is homo habilis or homo faber banging with his tools, as we await the Zarathustra overture.i Before long as the industry of Daniel and his crew strike rich seams, the music wells up into full-fledged industrial symphony. Music and action alone propel the first fifteen minutes. Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood, thirty-six years old, an Englishman like Day-Lewis, plays up the visual action with giant epic movements of dissonant mechanical and classical sounds. For me the music was agitating, perhaps deliberately so; a boisterous, noisy movie score that grated somewhat by its decibel level. The music punctuating in loud stabs the dialog between Daniel and the real-estate agent of Little Boston reminded me that someone usually adjusts the volume, but not in “Blood”: it’s fully intended. Fortunately, the loud blasts are balanced with breaks for long, intense periods of pure cinema. Greenwood’s contribution adds a grotesque cargo of suggestion. As music critic Alex Ross in The New Yorker (February 4, 2008, p. 76) notes: “It’s hard to think of a Hollywood production in which music plays such a vital role.” No doubt about it, “Blood” is a distinguished artistic composition of its several layers of collaboration. Because much of the music had been composed independently beforehand, e.g. an eighteen-minute piece entitled “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” Greenwood’s score did not qualify for any musical nominations in the American Oscar category. The Academy Awards rules notwithstanding, the Berlin film awards did grant top honors to Greenwood for “Blood”’s musical score.
The creative effort by Anderson in adapting a portion of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! for our historical time is a major force in the film. In “Blood”’s story, hardly consistent with the pattern or plot of Sinclair’s work, one cannot miss the allegorical manipulation of ideas and characters; it’s definitely working on a psychological level of character, a philosophical level of ethics, and a generalized historical level of empire’s rise and fall. The nature of such power-mongers of industry still prevails ever more gluttonously in our politics and business today. Through the thirty-years’ transformation of Plainview from a struggling silver miner into an oil tycoon and finally the lonely psychopathic figure of an impotent Midas, “Blood” moves the knowing, and in a more subtle way the unknowing, viewer as a deeply serious film for our times. People I know are talking about it with heavy nodding gestures. No fairy story fiction, this, but a mythic-historic tale of America’s way of power and industry. Esthetic and stylistic matters aside (read about them in the cinematic journals), the creative elements that come together in “Blood” point to an interpretation through social, political and historical awareness. The meaning and significance of “Blood” for older audiences and college students are easy to grasp in 2008, but are also universal enough to have been perceived in 20th century literature and film.
Paul Thomas Anderson has made a film about what he hates: greedy, heartless capitalism and snake-oil religion. Both have worked hand-in-glove to undermine the priorities of living a decent, fearless life in America. The regime of G.W. in the recent decade constitutes an almost fascist take-over of U.S. economy and culture. Likewise, when Sean Penn played Willie Stark in Steven Zillian’s All the King’s Men (2006), it rang tubular bells paralleling corruption of power in today’s government just as clearly as did Robert Rossen’s film of Robert Penn Warren’s novel in 1949. With “Blood”, it is likely few reviewers will comment on the film’s allegorical meanings, either because they feel today’s audiences are not partial to such criticisms of U.S. culture or that the then-and-now comparisons are rather obvious even for the low-brow audience who relish the catastrophes, the acts of violence, and the explosions as the main blasts of entertain-ment. Despite the fact that “Blood” seems more Indie than Hollywood giant, I have found little socio-historical critical treatment of this film, the major attention given to study of Daniel Plainview as a pitiable, tragic character — if indeed he can be called tragic or even dynamic (i.e. round or fully developed). His life is all labor and struggle, with a rise to success, and then a fall into a pathetic middle age of wretched indolence. Of literature and film, this biographical trajectory is a common plot structure and character arc. As D.H. Lawrence commented about the strength of Sinclair’s novel: “… [T]he thrill of the book is the way he [the father] becomes an oil magnate: the old American thrill of a lone hand and a huge success.”ii
Character development might have lent importance to consideration of a tragic protagonist, had we been offered glimpses of how and why Daniel Plainview became the daimonically-driven Titan, plundering the earth and undermining people’s basis of reality. Much is left for the audience to imagine what prevents Daniel from being more giving, generous or helpful to people who work for him. What is this moral mindset that does not budge from striving against, mistrusting and despising other people – hating all humanity? For tragedy more is required than gargantuan struggle or labor. Some nobility or heart is necessary for a man’s humanity to be felt. Thus, the great man brought low at the end of an active, success-oriented life by acknowledged mishaps or psychic impotence allows us to care for his fall, to sense the loss of noble status. When I viewed Plainview at the close of the film, I felt no upsurgence of sympathy, for his state was one of total lack — emptiness, meaninglessness, remorselessness, abject poverty of soul. As a man who never plumbed his identity, never searched inside for himself, he had no personal resources of heart and mind to save himself or ennoble himself in his solitude. What made him a heart of darkness we do not learn, but the lesson is simply: Don’t be like Daniel Plainview.
The critical degree that “Blood”‘s adaptation exposes is the mostly the allegorical dimension. The stately subjectivity of the main character, the bold, iconographic gestures, enhanced with some well chosen speeches, presents the portrait of Daniel Plainview as a dramatized history lesson: the nature and career of an ambitious 20th century oil industrialist. No narrator’s commentary is required, though one or two early scenes do begin with Daniel’s authoritarian voice-over. Generally, the performers’ deliberated words and slow-paced, mimed actions communicate powerfully on their own. Daniel Plainview is the great figure, big enough to appear Faustian, culture-making, and earth-moving, but, as I’ve suggested, the character itself is static, lacking tragic dynamic qualities. “Blood” is neither Aristotelian nor Shakespearian tragedy, but an example of warped American pathos following violence, anguish, and torment. Perhaps this may very well be what most people today have come to call, casually and loosely, tragedy. It’s bitter and sad as hell, but it is unredeemable sadness. In what way can we, the audience, pity this horrible, wicked man?
Myself, not idealistically Christian enough to forgive all sins of my enemy, I cannot find anything redeemable in Daniel Plainview’s crass humanity. Faust’s inexhaustible striving as Goethe presented him keeps the culture hero out of the Devil’s clutches. Plainview has too much of the devil in him from the start. Faust struggles against all odds by his will to power, but he has dreams of intellectual and physical powers that so long as he strives, he can never become victim of his desires. Goethe’s theme, “He who strives is never lost,” falls flat in America’s rise to industrial dominance. Striving for success and power does not equip Daniel Plainview with intellectual prowess or material wealth that might be used for humanitarian benefits. As we suspect so often in the enormous, undeserved gains of corporate elites, the wealth comes from the labor and strife of impoverished multitudes, and it will be stored for private power and protection against the commonweal. Injustices of the extremely wealthy and powerful seldom reap just desserts, unless they find themselves deprived of all companionship, impotent in ways to continue to please themselves in idleness. Plainview rebuffed the Standard Oil negotiator’s offer of a million dollars by questioning what he would do with himself if he retired. He knew he’d be helpless in retirement.
The earth-moving and ecological arrangement of the landscape in “Blood” fills in and complements the ambition of Plainview, which is not only plain, but quite megalo-maniacally singular in purpose: a hubristic perspective on living by cut-throat competition to own the earth. Capitalism in the extreme, it’s the sort we’re used to today in global corporatism, the desire to take all and do away with competition. The character study is filled with such unhappy events that it seems inexcusable that Daniel Plainview cannot dig within himself and rearrange the interior landscape of his mind and heart. The man is ambition personified. In “Blood” there is enough land taking and exploitation of poor owners’ entitlements that economic factors alone dictate the direction Plainview’s life will take. The ironical symbolic quail hunting expedition Plainview and his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) enact in a strategy to plunder the Sunday Ranch lands is characteristic of the underhanded duplicity that empire makers and robber barons have employed and still do employ in our times. The Roman generals and Caesars, after destroying with their professional legions the manpower of foreign villages and towns and plundering the precious goods, promised civilization to the survivors who were already culturally advanced “barbarians.” Promising roads, aqueducts and laws, the encamped armies then proceeded to occupy the mines and send the bounty to Rome. Daniel Plainview is an imperialist of the same Roman stamp. Literarily, it’s as though Melville’s Captain Ahab tells Neptune he is herring hunting while in reality he’s seeking to conquer the majestic emperor of the deeps. The quail is, of course, a red herring.
Daniel Plainview is a forcefully driven man who can brook no one’s competition for the very resource that will become the necessary bane of modern civilization and the pollution of the planet. In hindsight, the main tragic mistake of 20th century industrialism was to have put such emphasis on oil as the major fuel of the planet’s growth and progress. Just as coal fuel was in the 19th century, coal and petrochemicals are now joined with nuclear fuel waste as major pollutants endangering the viability of the earth. Trouble is few industrialists like Plainview envision the future beyond the means of acquiring more land, digging more wells, and raking in ever-greater profits; Daniel’s conscience is dormant to stall most of his impulsive acts. He is a protagonist who wants to have it all, keep it all, and make the most, while all others – everyone, everywhere — get little or none. This includes his adopted family member, named H.W., the orphaned son of a laborer killed in a shaft accident. This son Daniel would rather banish and disown to save himself the need to compete against him. The one scrap of hope for any salvation from Daniel’s life is that his son will be a better man for the cruel lesson he learned at his father’s hands.
In adopting the boy, bringing him up, caring for him as a father might, Daniel looks potentially good-souled. One portrait of Daniel on a train with the baby boy reaching up to pull at his whiskers is a promise of an interesting, tender story of a rough father and good son. As the boy grows up, we realize Daniel exploits the boy in his strategy to sway ordinary folks’ judgments in business negotiations in the presence of a good man and his good son. Paternal care and nurture are evident in their relationship, but as the plot thickens, the boy suffers a loss of hearing and his need for care becomes a burden on the father’s attentions. In fact, in one or two radical departures from the third person point of view, we see through the boy’s eyes, subjectively and soundlessly, the harsh, grimacing face of disgruntle Daniel as he speaks askance and then moves off in angry impatience. Many have found the relationship between Daniel and H.W. a caring, loving partnership. I will admit there is promise of the nurturing father in Daniel, but this hope is dashed on the slimy boards of the derrick platform once the boy is maimed. Daniel cannot suffer any weakness and we see his concern for his boy diminish as the care-taking becomes a burden. Using his “son” as a means to an end paid off; however, he would wish the boy to become his heir, to take over after he’s gone. Nevertheless, this criminal, using people for his own ends, is no great-hearted hero. The potential good in Daniel is dominated by his innate meanness. It’s the dark side of the popular TV shows of the fifties: mother and wife absent, the tough father and disciplined son (or sons) brave dangers together (e.g. Bonanza, the Rifleman, the Andy Griffith Show, etc). Not all fathers and sons were friends as in those rosy fairytales.
H.W. had perhaps felt the lack of love, the distance from the father, to be wary of his every action early on. But he knew to be an obedient listener and servant. The poor kid, in juvenile age, already possessed a cagey business mind. With his friend, Mary Sunday, in a dialogue about money, 11 year-old H.W. showed himself shrewdly non-committal so as not to give the father’s game away. After the boy was deafened by the well explosion, Daniel treated him with less respect and consideration. His dad shoved a glass of whiskey milk down the boy’s gullet to “put him out” as much as to kill the pain. Later, after discovering and perusing Daniel’s brother’s diary in a carry-bag, H.W. set their shack afire while the father slept. Was this to kill the father or just an attempt to seek attention, or to show his deep discontent? What had he discovered in that diary about his father?
Following this unruly behavior, H.W. was sent off against his will, without warning, without a farewell, to have schooling for his handicap. Ironically, H.W. was saved by the blast that made him deaf. No longer able to hear his father, he ceased to take lessons about business and power from Daniel, and he went to San Francisco where he met people outside of the oil industry. Upon returning to the field, H.W. had a new companion, the helpful, well-meaning tutor of sign language. An irritation to the father who did not learn to sign, this remove from personal communication with Daniel was a continuation of his saving grace. Daniel himself could only tolerate those who listened to and obeyed him; antagonist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) informed Daniel that he never listened to anyone. This deafness motif plays a very important role in “Blood.”
Besides deafness to others, another great problem of the father’s character growth, and one that is necessary for self-knowledge and self-improvement, is his inability to engage in dialogue. Most people learn through talking with others. Throughout “Blood,” dialogue is not conversational in a personal way. Spoken script is not frequently used to show a strong connection or loving bond between father and son. Daniel tells other what to do. He is a teacher, instructor, and mentor in practical things, business strategies, and engineering. Except for business, Daniel does not have much idle talk to impart even to his right-hand man, Fletcher Henderson (Ciàran Hinds), or to any of his associates. He gets personal when he berates someone, but never praises anyone, never offers a kind word without ulterior motives. For Daniel, speech is rich only in making contracts and buying out other people, and showing one’s contempt for equally powerful antagonists in the same field of land, oil, and water exploitation. Daniel Plainview is so impersonal in his all-encompassing drive to possess he gives himself to this infinite passion in the same way Faust sold himself to Mephistopheles for the sake of knowledge. Drinking and in a slack mood, Daniel tells his pretender-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), he has no love for humanity, only hatred. He saw only the worst in people. Never once does he tap into the well of his sick soul to consider a cure or transformation. For all his gaining industrial prowess, Daniel Plainview acquired no creative spirit to move himself to the frontiers of consciousness so he might push through and make a break from his neurosis or schizophrenia. .
The inner voice Daniel listens to for guidance is like that of an obedient schizophrenic’s. Nevertheless, his oil work is practical, within his capabilities to manage, and the results pay off. What do we really know about Daniel the man? We know he’s gratified by success, but he’s never satisfied. There is no end to his greed and no mentor or friend knows him who dares counter Daniel’s wishes. We know he had a brother, a sister, and parents, but his departure from the family was a divorce either by his own choice, or a father’s banishing for some wrong committed. Once he left home, he could not return. We have to guess the reasons why. There is no romance in him, no sexual urge that he would crave a woman. His erotic drive seems to be subsumed in the need for wealth and power. In striving for silver or oil, Daniel loses his head a time or two. He becomes a point-blank murderer of the imposter Henry to whom he divulged his inner nature. Another’s crime against Daniel, whether for gain, security or otherwise, is unforgivable and earns irrational, lawless justice of the gun. Like most magnates, tycoons, and political elites, Daniel sees himself above the law.
The mythos at work in “Blood,” as symbolized by the movie poster’s title sentence in Gothic script, (There will Be Blood), hearkens back to biblical narratives. The name Daniel, as in Book of Daniel the Prophet, brings up Mesopotamian biblical symbolism. On the other hand, the name Plainview strikes one as Puritan in the “Young Goodman Brown” tradition of story, a name resonant with early American colonial righteousness. My thoughts stuck for a while on the early maiming in his fall down a shaft, out of which Daniel dragged himself and on a crudely splinted broken leg headed for the assayer’s office. Not to the doctor’s office, mind you. Movie plots have spent hours on such survival endeavors, but Anderson’s editing takes Daniel straight from shaft to town. Anderson has a bigger story to tell. Daniel is like a Jacob who would wrestle with God. And yet, Ironically, Daniel is more like the God who will maim Jacob in the wrestling match for top-dog. Obviously this biblical reference I picked up on is psychological. “Blood” feels like an Old Testament biblical moral tale with very little fathoming of the interior lives of the main characters. Outside of Plainview the viewer never has to dig to deep to comprehend the nature of other characters. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is a stereotyped religious prodigy who fits into the Elmer Gantry business. The sheer incommensurability of young Reverend Sunday and Daniel Plainview resembles for me the fraternal strife of biblical Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, the internecine slaughter in divvying up the spoils of empire. In moral terms, the revelation that both Eli and Daniel should have encountered in their antagonism makes their dance of vengeance a futile struggle.
In terms of the daimonic, Daniel wished to avoid conflict. He lost his head in face of contest. In the tavern scene when he encountered his Standard Oil competition, Daniel played himself as a fool. Earlier he had warned the company scout he would cut his throat if he tried to get in his way. At the dining table of his enemy, Daniel reminded the fearful, cautious agent of his threat; then boldly taking up the man’s whiskey glass, he downed the contents. My fear was that Daniel could “go off” and actually shove the broken glass into the agent’s throat. The moment before he smacked the glass back down upon the table was fraught with potential for violence. Daniel danced on the edge of madness. This scene was an apex of emotional tension for me. Was such a crime possible, with his adopted son looking on? What kept Daniel from following through? Rollo May in his renowned work Love and Will explains the nature of the daimonic personality as follows:
If we think of the daimonic as man’s struggle with forces within his own unconscious which, at the same time are rooted in the objective world, we can understand how this conflict would be brought closer to the surface, made more demanding and available […]. The daimonic is more apt to come out when we are struggling with an inner problem; it is the conflict which brings the unconscious dimensions closer to the surface where they can be tapped. Conflict presupposes some need for a shift, some change in Gestalt, within the person; he struggles for a new life, as it were. This opens up the channels to creativity.iii
Daniel did not want conflict of any sort because he did not want to change. He did not seek new life; he had no creative bent to seek new experience or to push himself to new consciousness. In this way he is not in the least tragic; the tragic figure becomes aware of fatal errors that lead to a fall from grace.
For the last act of the film, we behold the indolence and waste in the life of a super-rich oil magnate, not unlike the end of Orson Welles’ miserable Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, John Huston’s despicable land-Czar, Noah Cross, in Chinatown, or the failed financial or industrial Titans of Theodore Dreiser’s American tragedies. In act three, the only contestant left to confront Daniel is oily Reverend Eli Sunday, who strangely expected to get the one-up on Daniel by offering the land he thought the oil man would still want. Alas, the land had been drained and exhausted by Daniel, and, if he wanted money, Eli Sunday’s must shame himself before God to get Daniel’s help. This plainly is retribution for Daniel’s shameful baptism for the sake of gaining the land of a God-fearing man. So, it comes down to a contest of wills between two greedy “brothers”, one a religious scam-artist, the other a nasty oil czar. If one had waited patiently for buckets of blood, the finale did pay up in part. However, this resolution is no resolution, just an extension of the wickedness of an unchangeable madman.
This last act infantilizes Daniel too much in my view. The final violence and bloodletting do not enhance the film’s worth. It is fulsome artistry, no matter the high degree of histrionics. Is this the penchant of young, daimonic filmmakers of our time? Could not someone have advised Paul Thomas Anderson to trust his good sense and look to the history of classic films? The turning point about the vanity of power had been reached in the father’s denial of the son’s worth. We did not need to be sucked further into the vacuum of emptiness. Daniel had murdered once and, sure, he could murder again. He acted as though human guilt could not penetrate his steely soul, as though he were invulnerable against the avenging Furies. Therefore, his career or course did not change much from his indomitable drive toward total power, the power to do anything. He did make one bad judgment: to give up loving his son. From the start, Daniel was determined to act like a God-favored Titan to get whatever he wanted. His icon is gross in industrial mythology, as was the image of Kronos devouring his offspring to keep grip on his divine supremacy. Daniel is wicked to the core, a human Moloch, before whom one is more likely to be sacrificed than blessed. Daniel’s trajectory is morally downward; he is no model to emulate. This is not tragic history; it is hubristic vainglory at its worst.
Paul Thomas Anderson is revising history for a good purpose, to show how capitalism works in wicked ways. Looking back at his concern for human integrity and family community in his previous films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia), Anderson has exhibited his intense desire to wake souls from slumber. His purpose is to undermine the values that lead people towards unhealthy lives; he wants to indict the capitalist greed of our culture that does no good for society; and to effect change, he wants to shock the audience with a historical horror story. His hatred of charlatan religiosity seems obvious. I believe he has a moral bent. However, There Will Be Blood stands as a lengthy hell-fire sermon, and for all of the magnificent artistry of the film, the story does not offer a possibility of change. Somewhere in the story of relentless, ambitious greed there needs to be an example of the just behavior that humanizes society, an illustration, however brief, of how people avoid the temptation to take the wrong path. Even H.W. chose to go into oil drilling. Its history in Mexico is not exemplary.
The single contender for prizes in the movie awards competitions that most vies with “Blood” is No Country for Old Men. The main category I see here is “Best Fire-and-Brimstone Sermon.” Like Anderson, the Coen Brothers have used powerful stylistic artistry to show the nature of gang warfare in the borderlands of Southwest Texas. As in “Blood,” “No Country” does not give us a clear hero, either. The degrees of wickedness in “No Country” are highly fraught with blood crimes committed in the search for gargantuan drug profits. Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem), a super-clever assassin, is the embodiment of evil. The sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is a decent law officer who knows his trade, but fears to meet what he cannot understand. He gives up the ghost because he knows he cannot save the county from the deprave marauders who are littering the highway with bodies. He retires, understanding his impotence in the face of the destructive forces at work, which leave a wake of machine-gun murders along the main highway, in the desert, and in motel rooms. A good man, Sheriff Bell knows his human limitations, but his message and the film’s negative theme offer no solution to turn American culture back from the abyss. Well-made movies that continue to bombard the senses and plunge the curious mind into despair are failing society. We need more than artistry and celebrated histrionics; we need some guidance away from the tar pits of death and destruction.
When I wrote about Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, I prophesied that this was new cinema, grim and cynical theater of cruelty that left the solutions to torture and human depravity up to the audience. Like Cormac McCarthy, Von Trier is raging: “Wake up!” Recently, a friend explained this to me as the purpose of the modern intellectual film as in “Blood.” It says, “You figure it out.” Now, after 7 years of the 21st century, after two regimes of the Bush/Cheney administration, with the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars ongoing, with stupid propaganda still effective, the planet in entropic collapse, I am less optimistic. People will accept whatever they are taught. Therefore, ours is a time for art to show some suggestion of moral guidance. The zombies are not going to wake up, except for more blood—and –damn! – they’re athletic, not as lethargic as the uninfected general population.
iThanks to Roger Erickson of Tacoma Film Club for this insightful suggestion about the humming musical tension of “Blood”’s prologue.
ii Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore (New York: Viking, 1962), v.2, p 991.
iii (New York: Dell Pub., 1973. p.170).