Here we are, everybody. The final installment (for now) of the Paul Thomas Anderson season of Directed Viewing. If you haven’t been playing along, you can find the prior installments by clicking those handy links. And if you’re new to the whole concept of this series, Directed Viewing is a series of articles discussing the entire filmography of a single director, usually in order, with an eye towards what a full understanding of their work can tell us about the creator themselves, if anything.
And now that we’re here, we arrive at undoubtedly the most famous and significant of Anderson’s films. We’ll be hopping into the discussion of the movie proper right away, but make sure to stick around after that for some final thoughts on Anderson, a look forward at his next project, and maybe even a sneak peek at the next season of Directed Viewing. It will continue to strive to be awesome!
There Will Be Blood (2007)
From the very beginning, There Will Be Blood creates a vision of America that is as harrowing and savage as it is beautiful. A man in the wilderness, working away at a silver mine, bearded and dirty and primal in the frenzy with which he chips away at the rock. In the middle of blasting a path, he slips on a ladder and tumbles down, breaking his leg. We watch him slowly force himself up, gathering his silver and heading into town, sprawled out on the floor of the prospector’s office as he gets the silver appraised. His priorities, debatable enough, are instantly clear. This is the introduction to Daniel Plainview, the self-professed plain speaking man of opportunity, played by a grizzled Daniel Day-Lewis.
Plainview takes his money and starts drilling for oil, his moment of triumph as they strike oil turned dark as one of his fellow drillers dies. Plainview, covered in crude, raising his black-stained hands up like a totem, finds himself adopting the now orphaned son of the dead worker.The son several years later becomes the baby-faced sidekick to his constant pitches to small towns across the ramshackle plains of California. Plainview wants oil, and wants a lot of it, and rolls out his seemingly generous terms like they’re random demands, never stopping to allow dissent or suggestion. His terms are iron-clad, leave them or take them. When a town has the gall to debate him, he walks out. He doesn’t need them–whether it’s because he has the luxury of choice or because he refuses to work with people with the backbone to stand up to him is never made explicitly clear.
He gets a prospect to a new oil field from a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who shrewdly sells the information for a huge sum and disappears with the money. Plainview and his son, H.W., make their way to the farm, posing as quail hunters, paying far less for the land than it’s worth over the objections of Paul’s twin brother Eli (Dano again), who is the local preacher and the only man who has a dim idea of just what Plainview is doing. Despite his objections, Plainview manages to buy up not only the Sunday land, but almost all of the land in the area. By the time the town has begun to realize that one man has their destinies in his pocket, he’s out front and center, selling them promises of schools and farms and improved infrastructure.
It’s at this point the machinery of the oil drilling starts to roll into town. A lone set of train tracks, stretching off into the horizon like they go into unknown infinity, are suddenly violated by the arrival of a big steam engine belching dirty smoke and dirty men in equal measure. The establishment of Plainview’s camp and the driving of the first wells comes with the manic efficiency of turn of the century progress, a sense of the mechanized march of capitalism that bespeaks to early silent short films of workers going about their business in that slightly too-fast way of the era that seems clock-like and more than a bit soulless.
Confronted with this influx of men, and feeling more than a little taken advantage of, Eli gets quickly to work converting as many men as possible to his Church of the Third Revelation, establishing himself as the only other source of power in the town. Where Plainview is deceptively gruff and confident, Eli is supplicating and soft-spoken. Plainview dismisses him more than once before finally going to see one of his sermons, delivered in a ramshackle wooden box where he stomps and shouts and casts the demons out of a woman in a frenzy, the camera following this theatrical evangelical act as if Eli was throwing the invasive cameras out along with the Devil.
But Plainview believes only in himself, or ownership (if the two could be disentangled), and isn’t moved; he knows his own when he sees him, and recognizes in Eli the same snake-oil salesman charm that he uses to get his contracts. Plainview is only selling material comforts, riches and the progress of a town. Eli is far more dangerous, a supposedly humbled man selling eternal salvation to a population who is too remote to recognize his tactics for the shame they are. We are not fooled, nor is Plainview, but Eli would never openly admit to being Plainview’s rival. That smiling self-depreciation alone is enough to make him Plainview’s enemy. To his mind, all men are either under his employ or rivals to the bitter end, and that is the simple way of the world.
During this same period, Plainview’s adopted son H.W. is injured during a drilling explosion, losing his hearing. The boy retreats into himself during this period, at the same time a man purporting to be Plainview’s long lost half-brother arrives looking for a job. Plainview takes him into his confidence, seemingly unsure who to turn to now that his son cannot hear him. H.W. acts out against this new, distrustful intrusion, leaving Plainview to send him away to a school for the deaf. In fact, Plainview outright abandons him on the train, claiming they’re going together and getting up ‘to check the tickets’ right before the train pulls from the station. H.W. becomes, in his disability, just one more problem for Plainview to deal with.
Unfortunately, without H.W. there, Plainview’s misanthropy swells beyond its prior, already-crushing frame to encompass all of Plainview’s world view. He sends away incredible buyout offers with condemnation for daring to say he should spend time tending to his son. When Eli dares to come to demand the money promised to him by Plainview when he bought the land, Plainview attacks him and demands to know why his God and his faith healing couldn’t restore H.W.’s hearing. When he and his half-brother go to survey the one holdout in town, a plot of land that is necessary to build a pipe-line, Plainview admits to his only other kin
“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. […] There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone. […] I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little.”
When, shortly thereafter, a memory he brings up doesn’t illicit an expected response from this man, Plainview relizes this man isn’t who he claims. His supposed half-brother wakes up with Plainview pointing a gun in his face and admits that he was only a friend of a man who claimed to be Plainview’s brother, dead several years of tuberculosis. He only came here to try to make a living. Plainview, having already sent away the only person he trusted and loved for saying that this man wasn’t who he claimed, shoots the interloper over his pleas for mercy. He buries the body and supposedly all is well, only to wake up the next morning with the man who had been holding out on him standing over him, suggesting he knows what Plainview has done and offering to allow him to build the pipeline, but not to drill, only if he submits to baptism by Eli.
Eli, of course, takes this opportunity to belittle and shame his opponent. Plainview is made to kneel down, limp and all, in front of the entire town where Eli forces him to admit that he’s sinned and reneged on promises and has abandoned his son. Plainview, grudgingly admitting all these things, has a moment of realization during the confession and each time Eli makes him admit he abandoned his son shouts this with greater and greater conviction. Eli glows with triumph at this supposed weakness, not knowing that in exposing Plainview to a realization of his own shortcomings, has earned himself burning hatred for the rest of his days.
The last fifth of the movie is a coda years after all of this, long after Plainview has retreated into a mansion where he sits in darkness, rich and drunk. H.W., who grew up and married the girl (a member of Eli’s family) he became friends with in town, comes to announce that he’s going to start his own company. Plainview, enraged that even the son he dared to trust and care about would supposedly betray him, lashes out with the truth that he was simply a ‘bastard from a basket’ and that H.W. has nothing of Plainview in him. H.W., in a show of compassion and measured response unique to a movie about men without, sadly walks away and leaves his father to his own anger, memories of H.W.s childhood leaving Plainview in an even darker place, descending the stairs to his basement, drink in hand, passing out in the middle of his personal bowling alley.
It’s here, in the end, at his supposed lowest point, that Eli finds him. Eli, now dressed in a fine suit and a famous radio preacher, helps him up and offers him a supposed business proposition. He’s come into possession of the drilling rights of the last bit of land that Plainview could never get, and now ruined by the depression and in desperate need of money, is willing to sell them to Plainview. Plainview, hung over and gnawing on a cold steak like an animal, offers that he’ll take the deal only if Eli admits that he’s a false prophet and that his god is a false one. After all these years, the memory of Eli’s attack at his vulnerability hasn’t fled, and he’s going to do Eli one better. Eli, his back as against the wall as Plainview’s once was, relents and denounces himself and his faith again and again at his urging.
It’s here that Plainview reveals his ultimate triumph. He didn’t need the land, and refuses to buy it, having already drained all that oil when it seeped into the surrounding land and wells he was draining. It’s gone, and all hope of Eli’s salvation at Plainview’s hands is gone with it, as Plainview blossoms from indignation into fully self-righteous rage that Eli would even dare to think to come here for Plainview’s help. He stalks Eli down the bowling alley, a hunched over wretch of a man, shouting “I am the third revelation! I told you I would eat you, Eli. I told you I would eat you up!”
In this moment, Plainview is transformed from man into monster. Eli, begging for understanding and compassion, is greeted with Plainview bludgeoning him to death with a bowling pin like a caveman hunched over his prey. It took decades, but Plainview finally triumphed over all his competitors who stood in his way, his ambition and greed hollowing him out, the only other man who equalled his reach laid low by faith instead of Plainview’s supposedly superior ruthless cunning. Eli bleeding in a corner, Plainview sits and waits for his butler to come after hearing the screaming, only to tell him “I’m finished.”
And that is the true scope of There Will Be Blood, a story of America in both of its driving forces, of secular capitalism and the desire of ownership and influence; and the rising response of evangelical Christianity, packaging the same subjugation and need for power into a sense of moral superiority. Of course the two would come to blows, neither could stand the existence of the other, neither could allow anything else to rival them. It was blasphemy to them both, relgious or not. In fact, the only person who escapes the ultimate cancerous destruction of this whole system is H.W., who took seemingly the best things from both sides and fled towards the middle way, narrowly avoiding ruin through the grace of his tragedy that pushed him away from Plainview’s favor.
And this is, in the end, a story of Plainview. He is the American Man personified, a mixture of all the quirks and contradictions that our country has so long celebrated and idolized. He is a man of supposedly stoic bearing, hiding deep passions. A man of self-professed plain speaking, even when he’s lying through his teeth. A man of a certain nobility, the rugged individualism of all of our heroes, used as a front to push away the people he detests. He is John Wayne and Henry Ford wrapped into one man, with all of the qualities of American myth and utterly detestible for it. This is what our culture can unleash upon us, our best qualities in extremis turned to violence and petty squabbles, ambition little more than the culturally acceptable form of human nature.
I described There Will Be Blood as a horrific look at American, and I stand by it. It’s a beautiful film, and that beauty is used to show us the basest nature of humanity, of someone who has everything and still wants and wants until he devours every good thing in his life. It is the horror of ourselves, a mirror into the depths of what our culture prizes, laid bare for us to sympathize with as much as we recoil from it. Daniel Plainview is all of us, our fathers and our heroes, only with the conviction to see the excesses of his feeling to the end. And it’s only the power with which we reflexively reject it that we come through the experience of this movie, this masterpiece, with a greater understanding of that innate destruction in ourselves. As much as Plainview would hate it, what Anderson gives us is a sermon on our own social morality.
So Now Then
Five movies isn’t a huge career, but Paul Thomas Anderson is not a speedy director and still fairly early in his career. For someone just barely over 40, he’s achieved the kind of notoriety that many directors never manage. And with potentially several more decades of movies left in him, we’re left at the end of this project wondering exactly where his career might go. But even with less than half a dozen movies to his name, themes have begun to emerge.
All of his movies, even Magnolia’s pieces, revolve around a central character that is as ambitious as he is self-destructive, a man who walks the line between success and failure and the audience’s tolerances for rooting for or against like it’s a circus act. I feel like that’s the one, big through line of all of his work, from the modest crime drama of Hard Eight to the reflective meta-commentary on comedic typecasting of Punch-Drunk Love to the two sided coin of traditional American Dream aspirational epics like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood.
Those two in particular I feel are the key to understanding Anderson, with a reverence for the small moments in a person’s life that build up over time, like erosion of water over rocks, and carve mountains and cast entire lives into disarray. Dirk Digger or Daniel Plainview, the two men couldn’t be more different yet stand for the same thing. They are us, our society, as contradictory and ridiculous as it always is and always has been. And it is how these supposed outsiders rise up and fall low that form the backbone of Anderson’s work. Discussions of Anderson’s formalism only go so, but even this early the obsessions that drive him are there to mine.
His next movie is The Master, currently being shot and reportedly a potential roman à clef for Scientology starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, where Hoffman plays the leader of a post-WWII religion/cult and Phoenix plays a drifter who gets wrapped up in it only to start to question it when things get too serious. It sounds as deeply Anderson as any of his movies, probably deeply concerned with the same faith versus showmanship qualities that ran rife in Eli’s story in There Will Be Blood, extrapolated outward into a post-war sense of a world on the brink. Or maybe not. The joy of these projects is you get an idea of what might be coming, but (especially with younger directors) you’re never quite sure.
But no matter what the movie turns into, Directed Viewing will return again and hopefully many many more times in the future, as Anderson makes more movies and further extends his already rich cinematic legacy higher and higher.
And that’s it! I’ve been trying to refine what these Directed Viewing seasons represent, with a tighter focus on recurring themes and hopefully a more comfortable mix of macro and micro views at the movies than the last project (Curse you, Jarmusch!) had. If you liked it, let me know. If you didn’t like it, well, let me know that, too. I’m happy to take criticism and suggestions of what to do from anybody who has them.
That wraps it up for Paul Thomas Anderson, but Directed Viewing continues on! I’m thankfully working with enough of a buffer that the next season will start next week! I have the next two seasons already planned out and in various stages of production, but if you want to suggest a director for this project let me know. I have a working list, but the more interest someone gets the more likely I am to push them higher on the priority list.
image created by Dan Seagraves