“There are no good and bad men; there are only damaged men … “
We live in monstrous times, and monstrosities — contemporary, historical, allegorical — continue to fuel our darkest dreams. Yet it took no less a talent than Paul Thomas Anderson to unify that unholy trinity into a singular portrait of a perfect monster in the person of Daniel Plainview, brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis in the masterful There Will Be Blood, written, directed, and produced by Anderson.
There Will Be Blood is loosely based on the 1927 novel Oil!, which explores the genesis of the oil industry in the United States, by the staunchly socialist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s writing skewers the entrepreneurial spirit and primitive accumulation of capital that put everyday life in his era under siege, but at heart he was a humanist. This quality, which he shares with Paul Thomas Anderson, made the author’s, and makes the filmmaker’s, decision to conjure a man/monster devoid of humanity all the more arresting.
There Will Be Blood opens wordlessly in 1898, with Daniel Plainview deep in the bowels of the earth prospecting for silver. Filthy, desperate, and dogged in the extreme, he’s the type of early man for whom survival is all. Plainview is approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, as twin brothers, the cipher Paul and Plainview’s antagonist Reverend Eli Sunday) and is offered a tip concerning a parcel of land on his family’s ranch in California where oil can be found leeching from the ground. Failed prospector Plainview jumps at the opportunity to change his life and becomes, by hook and by crook, a successful oil man — and those who stand in his way do so at their own peril. Despite occasional moments of tenderness with his adopted son H. W. (Dillon Freasier), and with a man posing as his long-lost half-brother Henry Brands (Kevin J. O’Connor), Plainview is a soulless robber baron to the bone. He distrusts anything that might be construed as warmth or solidarity, because those feelings, whatever they might mean yet by their very nature, must inevitably intrude on what really matters, which for Plainview is his ruthless ambition, his inexorable drive to prosper at any cost.
What sets Plainview apart from his peers is the dark poetry that seeps from his pores the way the oil seeps from the ground. When he says in the film, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people . . . I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone,” Plainview gives voice to the misanthropy that drives men to perform unspeakable acts in unspeakable times and places in support of the power they crave.
When Plainview makes his pitch to the citizens of Little Boston, the backwater where he’s decided to drill for black gold, he sounds less like an oilman than an oily politician:
Family means children. Children means education. So wherever we set up camp, education is a necessity, and we’re just so happy to take care of that. So let’s build a wonderful school in Little Boston. These children are the future that we strive for and so they should have the very best of things. Now something else, and please don’t be insulted if I speak about this — bread. Let’s talk about bread. Now to my mind, it’s an abomination to consider that any man, woman or child in this magnificent country of ours should have to look upon a loaf of bread as a luxury. We’re going to dig water wells here. Water wells means irrigation, irrigation means cultivation. We’re going to raise crops here where before it just simply was impossible. You’re going to have more grain than you’ll know what to do with. Bread will be coming right out of your ears, ma’am. New roads. Agriculture. Employment, education. These are just a few of the things we can offer you, and I assure you ladies and gentlemen, that if we do find oil here, and I think there’s a very good chance that we will, this community of yours will not only survive, it will flourish.
Needless to say, the community of Little Boston doesn’t flourish, Daniel Plainview flourishes, and everyone else is relegated to bit player status in the drama of his ascent.
Those who have followed Paul Thomas Anderson’s career recognized from the start that he was an auteur of no small consequence. His best work prior to There Will Be Blood — Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999) — bore the stamp of an artist, working in a popular medium, who was unwilling to curb his vision, regardless of convention, taste, box office, and critical appraisal. The characters in Boogie Nights and Magnolia were no less obsessed than Daniel Plainview, though their obsessions could not be more different. But a common theme runs through the three films — that everyone gets crushed in the end, but those with a moral compass get crushed first, whereas those who get crushed second do so on the remains of those who preceded them. While that dark take on human nature might not satisfy the feel-good mandates of the medicated, it speaks directly to the tyranny of the present, even though, in the case of There Will Be Blood, it is couched in the vernacular of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
With its echoes of Greed (1924), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), There Will Be Blood, however towering, is not sui generis, but its themes of family, religion, avarice, and oil have not lost their currency; they’re as loaded as ever. Anderson denies any connection between the story he tells in There Will Be Blood and the abomination we find ourselves in, and continue to perpetuate, in the Middle East. But that link, however facile, is too perilous a shadow in his film to be ignored. And while Anderson may be a humanist, he is no moralist, realizing as he does that the complications of living life, no matter the century, no matter the mania, preclude any moralizing for moralizing’s sake.
In the last scene of There Will Be Blood, Eli Sunday visits Plainview in his oilman’s mansion, thirty years after the film began, to elicit memory, to play on his sympathy, to even go so far, at Plainview’s prompting, as to deny the existence of God — all for a taste of Daniel’s filthy lucre. This ugly exchange, compelling though it is, suggests that Anderson believes there are no good and bad men; there are only damaged men, and we’re in denial if we don’t count ourselves among them.