The Story of Two Masked Men

There Will Be Blood 01

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood, is as intense as it is powerful. It is a dark and beautiful movie, and if it does not earn the Academy Award for Best Picture, I feel certain it will at least be nominated.

Much has been written already about this film, and I’m not going to rehash any of what has already been said. I just have a few thoughts I wanted to share. This is not the easiest film to parse, so I will try to explain the pieces of it that make sense to me. Spoilers are therefore inevitable.

The film is about two fundamentally American characters, each conforming to a certain established type, and each wearing that type like a mask as a means of achieving success. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an self-made businessman who is attempting to capitalize on the Oil rush of the early 20th century. He wears the mask of a plain-spoken, down-to-earth, sensible businessman, when in fact he is a ruthless and cunning entrepreneur. Paul Dano (the mute brother in Little Miss Sunshine) plays Eli Sunday, a self-proclaimed prophet and preacher who is attempting to exploit the poverty and hopelessness of the time to build his own church. He wears the mask of the man of God, when he really is a desperate, calculating opportunist.

Though there is certainly an allegory of business vs. religion underlying the film, the story mostly focuses on Plainview’s character, and on his relationships with those close to him, as he tries to build his Oil business.

Comparisons have been rightly made to Citizen Kane, and other such “Rise and Fall” stories, and Plainview has a fatal flaw like his cinematic forebearers. With a nod to the New Calvinism that is so popular today in America, Plainview’s flaw is that in his relentless pursuit of success, he has a complete lack of tolerance for weakness and failure. There is a great moment at the end of the film’s trailer where Plainview says “I can’t keep doing this on my own. With these…people.” This comes after Plainview is explaining how he hates most everybody, and has trouble finding anything to like in most people he meets. What he means is that he simply cannot stand the weakness in people, the frailty. The film opens with Plainview mining for gold on his own and suffering a broken leg. He climbs out of the mine and pulls himself back to town, surviving simply on force of will. What Plainview cannot stand is anyone weaker than he.

This complete lack of tolerance for other people’s weakness provides the conflict Plainview has with those close to him, most significantly his adopted son and his adopted brother. He clearly grows to love his son H.W., and cares for him constantly until H.W. is injured in a major oil drilling accident, and is rendered completely deaf. Only then do we start to see Plainview exhibit the kind of attitude he takes with others with his own son (though even then he tends to him still). Next, Plainview is visited by a man claiming to be his long, lost brother from another mother, Henry. Plainview latches on to Henry in a very significant way, essentially making him his new partner in the business (replacing his now deaf and understandably depressed son). This last through much of the story, until Plainview “realizes” that Henry is not really his brother, but an opportunistic con-man trying to get ahead. This “realization” only happens after Henry succumbs to alcohol and prostitutes, and we see Plainview start to look at him as he sees the great teeming masses of poor souls he cannot stand.

This is a flaw that Plainview ironically shares with his preacher nemesis Eli Sunday, as we see most starkly in one scene where Eli climbs over the dinner table to beat his father, calling him “stupid” and “weak.” He is angered that his father allowed Plainview into their community and was so easily duped into accepting far less money than the land was worth. In this incredibly un-pious behavior, Eli reveals his true masters and demons.

Ultimately the film is about some of the most fundamental issues America and American culture have been dealing with for centuries: identity, independence, strength vs. weakness, the role of religion, etc. Watching Anderson’s new film, you really do get the feeling you are watching a classic of American Cinema – a film that will be watched and discussed for the next century in the same way that many early films are still watched and discussed today.

Some random other bits:

  • Before the film, we saw the trailer for Michael Haneke’s new film Funny Games. While I am definitely interested in this film, the trailer tries a little too hard to make the Kubrick connection, and if anything There Will Be Blood has more Kubrick in it than anything Haneke is likely to produce.

  • Though very intense and at times violent, the film feels almost old fashioned in its lack of specific visual gore. In a time when we are accustomed to seeing ears, fingers, and even heads lopped off, the violence in Anderson’s film is starkly impressionistic.

  • The music is one of the key elements that makes There Will Be Blood a success. Composed by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead’s guitarist), it is unlike much any other movie music you’ve ever heard (with the exception of some of Kubrick’s stranger choices). Greenwood’s choices are so involved that I could see watching the film yet again simply to absorb and analyze the commentary of the music on the visuals. It really is a character in its own right and is quite the achievement from this first-time narrative film composer.

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