Bright Lights Film Journal

There Will Be Blood – Missing Links

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood

Jason Robards as Earl Partridge in Magnolia, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Robards with David Warner (left) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue

The five films Paul Thomas Anderson has made to date fall neatly into two categories. On the one hand, there are the Altmanesque ensemble films, Boogie Nights and Magnolia; on the other, the “lonely man” films built around the performance of a single actor, Hard Eight (aka Sidney), Punch Drunk Love, and now, There Will Be Blood. Reviewers who rave about There Will Be Blood tend to prefer the “lonely man” films. They like Punch Drunk Love better than either Boogie Nights or Magnolia, and acclaim There Will Be Blood as Anderson’s greatest film to date. Me, I agree with Anderson himself who once said something to the effect that Magnolia was the best film he ever made or ever would be capable of making. I admire There Will Be Blood, but like it somewhat less than the ensemble films, finding it to be a flawed but compelling work by one of America’s most singularly talented filmmakers.

What with all the comparison of Anderson’s latest to the works of Altman, Kubrick, Malick, et al., there has been surprisingly little comparison of Anderson to Anderson. Yet the protagonist of There Will Be Blood, oilman Daniel Plainview (top) is clearly an outgrowth and development of Earl Partridge, the dying media tycoon played by Jason Robards in Magnolia (center). Plainview, like Partridge, is an angry, self-absorbed capitalist who pursues wealth and power at the expense of everything and everyone else in his life. Significantly, the closest ties both men have to humanity are severed when something happens to the most important person in their lives rendering that other person “imperfect.” In Partridge’s case, it is his wife Lily. When, in the film’s back story, she comes down with cancer, Partridge abandons both her and their son (played as an adult by Tom Cruise). In Plainview’s case [SPOILER?], it is his adopted son, H.W., whom Plainview abandons, physically and emotionally, after an accident leaves the boy deaf. By abandoning the people closest to them, Partridge and Plainview effectively abandon the human race.

When Anderson casts someone as well known as Robards, Cruise, or Burt Reynolds in one of his movies, he does so with the actor’s entire career in mind. Robards was a consummate film actor, but he was even more celebrated for his work on stage, particularly in the plays of Eugene O’Neill. The long guilt-drenched monologue Partridge delivers toward the end of Magnolia derives from the similarly guilt-drenched monologues spoken by Robards as Hickey in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. And one of Robards’ most memorable film roles, the title character in Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), may be Partridge and Plainview’s common ancestor. Or to put it another way, Partridge is the missing link between Cable Hogue and Plainview.

Both The Ballad of Cable Hogue and There Will Be Blood begin with their prospector protagonists scrambling in the desert for ore and discovering something else instead. Plainview discovers oil. Cable Hogue discovers the only water available for miles. On their way to wealth, both men form business alliances with men of the cloth. Hogue is joined by the wandering Rev. Joshua Stone (David Warner) who helps him establish his claim and becomes his closest friend. Plainview must reluctantly deal with the young evangelical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) whose family’s land sits atop the oil deposits Plainview covets. Where the two films differ radically is in their attitudes. Peckinpah’s film celebrates capitalist individualism, and views its preacher character sympathetically. In Anderson’s film, both the capitalist and the preacher are fundamentally despicable men, united only in their enduring hatred of each other and their quest for personal profit. Hogue maintains close friendships with Joshua and with Hildy, a good-hearted prostitute (Stella Stevens). Plainview fails at sustaining a loving relationship with anyone. He is sexless, and whatever drives he has are channeled into the accumulation of wealth.

There Will Be Blood is a well-shot, well-acted film with epic ambitions, but where it falls shortest is in its attempt to link Plainview to the greed and folly of the Reagan/Bush years. All the obvious elements are there – oil, blood, unfettered dog-eat-dog capitalism, and its unholy alliance with organized religion – but unlike, say, Chinatown or even Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood never quite connects the dots. Thus, viewed as political commentary, Anderson/s latest film fails to move beyond the specific to the universal. It remains a story about aberrant individuals, setting us up for some great unexpected insight about community and our present-day world that it never delivers.