MUSE Film Club - There Will Be Blood

07/11/2020

Ben Jordan excavates Paul Thomas Anderson's epic of blood and oil

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Image by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

By Ben Jordan

Spoilers Ahead

Daniel Plainview is an “oil man”, as he’s apt to make us aware—but he wasn’t always that way. The opening minutes of There Will Be Blood are dedicated to a much younger Plainview. It is 1898, and Daniel Plainview is a prospector. Aside from a brief remark he remains silent for the entirety of his opening. It’s a subtle gesture, but in an opening characterised by its restraint, it can’t help but stand out. Incited by a piece of silver, Plainview whimpers in exultation: “There she is,” he laments, “There she is”. It is a hollow victory: stuck underground, alone, Plainview has suffered from a debilitating fall. His black, haggard frame convulses in pain as he ascends into the light. Aside from a limp that plagues him for the remainder of the film, he emerges unscathed. Reminiscing over the event later, he brushes it aside: “I don’t like to explain myself,” he tells Henry, the man masquerading as his brother.

Flash-forward to 1902. Plainview is still taciturn, albeit no longer for the sake of silver—he is an “oil man,” after-all. It is important that Anderson introduces Plainview to us as an ‘ordinary’ man. In spite of his stature, he is still a man of flesh and blood—but the blood of Plainview is viscous, and black; it is crude, and sickly. That said, he is not the antichrist. Day-Lewis’s performance is ostentatious enough to uphold an illusion of theatricality whilst remaining nuanced enough to retain the humanity inherent in Plainview’s character. This is testament not only to his skill as an actor, but to the astuteness of Anderson’s script. There are no monsters in There Will Be Blood, only men.

The genuine elation we witness when Plainview first chances upon oil is testament to that; it may be the only time we see him smile, but he smiles nonetheless. After anointing himself in the fruits of his first strike, Plainview chances upon Paul Sunday, the less fanatic but equally opportunistic younger brother of the film’s secondary protagonist, Eli. He is directed to the town of Little Boston, where the bulk of the film’s narrative takes place. Upon first encountering Eli, Daniel is stupefied. The resemblance between the pair is more than uncanny, and he is visibly taken aback. Daniel later refers to Paul as the “prophet” of the pair. “It was Paul who told me about you, he’s the prophet, he’s the smart one… You’re just the afterbirth, Eli.” Afterbirth he may be, but if the film has a central antagonist, it isn’t him—Eli is depicted as more of a stumbling-block than anything else. I’d like to propose that the antagonist, or at the very least, the antithesis of There Will Be Blood, is God.

Like most Western epics, There Will Be Blood has an air of the Old Testament about it. Plainview’s rich, magnetic drawl tends to inspire or intimidate all those who come into contact with it. He is a man of independent means, but his staunch individualism and indefatigable tenacity ultimately wind up getting him nowhere. He ends up rich, but once again, he is alone. It’s hard to feel too bad for Plainview, however; solitude is evidently favourable to him. As he notes to Henry in an earlier scene, he yearns to “get away from everyone,” to live alone, and to live comfortably. Plainview confides in Henry, which renders the subsequent reveal of his deceit all the more crippling. He reminisces about a house from “their” childhood. “I wanted to live in it, and eat in it, and clean it… I think if I saw that house now it would make me sick.” Still, he dreams of building a house someday, if only to shut himself away from the world. “Give me the blood and let me get out of here,” he howls—but what exactly is he referring to? Is it oil, the lifeblood of the land, or the blood of Christ?

The life of the Christian certainly acts as an apt counterpoint to the life of the oil baron. Eli, self-centred though he may be, is an active member of his community; a self-described “proud son of these hills,” he strives to further his Church for the sake of tightening his spiritual stranglehold over Little Boston. In spite of this, Eli is a hypocrite, and he receives his retribution at the film’s ending. Having incurred the wrath of a vehement Plainview, he is promptly bludgeoned to death by a bowling-pin. If I had to infer anything from the film’s iconic closing scene, it is that it is indicative of the triumph of individualism. Capitalism has prevailed over Christianity as the pre-eminent thought process of contemporary America, and the film reflects this. Eli turns away from God, and is punished accordingly. Perhaps Anderson is of the opinion that we are in for the same fate. In his 2010 retrospective, Peter Bradshaw proposed that we ought to interpret this film as a  “post-apocalyptic” indication into “our own exhausted future without oil”. In the absence of God—or indeed, a suitable surrogate—what are we to make of ourselves? Is it better to look to the world around us for answers, or the world beyond? The answers may be uncertain, but the mastery of this film is anything but.