“The king-times are fast finishing. There will be blood shed like water, and tears like mist. But the peoples will conquer in the end. I shall not live to see it, but I foresee it.”
When the king holds court, he is not to be disturbed. And so it is for oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, becoming richer by the second as his derricks pump black gold from the veins of the California earth, when Holy Roller Eli Sunday walks quietly but determinedly up to him midway through There Will Be Blood. Earlier in the film, Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) promises Sunday (Paul Dano) $5,000 for the coffers of the young preacher’s church in return for the liquid that surges and pools beneath the land; despite the gusher he quickly hits, Plainview fails to pay up, and Sunday has come for his money. The beating that ensues is one-sided, to say the least: Plainview knocks Sunday to the ground with resounding blows to the face, the evangelist recoiling until he finds himself backed into a pit of muddy, sludgy oil. Plainview literally rubs Sunday’s face in it, humiliating him by shoving fistfuls of this unholy ointment into his mouth. He chokes off Sunday’s own formidable power, his spooky whisper, until it is a desperate gargle.
Various critics have written of There Will Be Blood’s innumerable cinematic influences — Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, even 2001: A Space Odyssey — but the words that popped into my head watching this drubbing were about another film, one that Anderson himself has said was an influence.
The fighting isn’t fast or fancy; no one’s a quick draw or a sharpshooter. Instead, the fisticuffs are slow and awkward and unfailingly human; it’s a sloppy fight, with men crawling on the ground and clawing at each other’s legs. The other men stand idly by, watching these Americans make fools of themselves in a land they fail to understand. And though Dobbs and Curtin win the battle, there’s no clear winner once the film’s bigger picture emerges: The money they get from McCormick leads, almost fatefully, to their ruin.
I wrote that about the barroom brawl near the beginning of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but the description of the fight itself, and the consequences it breeds, seem equally applicable here. There Will Be Blood is, to be somewhat reductive, about battles: capitalism against Christianity, optimism against pessimism, past against present, gangster against Westerner. There may be a clear winner at first sight, but Anderson’s epic bristles with layers of meaning, densely allusive and fiercely, almost willfully, strange. In the end, it seems, the film foresees both kings “fast finishing,” and watching the violent descent allows a glimpse into America’s very own heart of darkness.
In the beginning, however, God said, “Let there be light.” Fittingly, for a film of Biblical intensity, Anderson (halfway) obliges, opening with a stark moonscape of the California desert, where the sun beats so hot you can practically feel the crack of dead ground beneath your feet. But there’s darkness here, too, supplied by Jonny Greenwood’s harsh, forcefully dissonant and disconcerting score — an alien wail of foreboding modernity — and, more subtly but maybe in the end more importantly, by a Germanic-lettered title reading “1898.”
Though muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, from which the film is “adapted” (“loosely culled from” is probably a more accurate way of putting it), begins just before World War I and the dawn of Wilsonian idealism, Anderson starts his historical epic of early 20th-century America in the time of Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick, the year of our first imperialist sojourns abroad. This isn’t just capitalism as frontier individualism — this, long before the Middle East became the world’s Texaco station, is where the roots of global power lie.
Quickly, Robert Elswit’s stunning camerawork establishes this interplay of light and dark as something to keep an eye on: the first shot of Plainview shows him pounding the wall of a silver mine with a pickax, his shadowy face illuminated only by the sparks his labor throws. To wit: Plainview falling into this infernal crevasse only to pull himself back into the searing light; Sunday’s white shirt and pallid, open face peering into Plainview’s snake-like eyes; an oil fire in the Western night; Sunday’s baptism into the world of capitalism in a puddle of sludge or, in a later, calmer kind of brawl that mirrors and inverts the first, Sunday dousing Plainview in crystal-clear holy water. In There Will Be Blood, even the blood is black, as though Elswit tipped the film on its side and drained all the color out, leaving only its negation.
The film is all hard labor and tenuous dividends, brute forces colliding and collapsing until what’s left is not a monument to the American past but a black hole within it. This is what Warshow calls “that sense of desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create” (Warshow, 129). Our collective sense of accomplishment, our uncanny ability to ignore that which threatens our ideals while taking on what threatens our pocketbooks, is the very thing that brings us low. This effervescent and often unquestioning belief in our own “city on a hill” — not for nothing is the film set in a town called Little Boston — doesn’t just gloss over the dark corners of our society but positively creates them. We tamp down this brooding, inimitable undertow, attempt to contain it, to hold it in pipes and barrels, to predict when and where it will erupt. But in a country known somewhat less for its revolutions, riots, and strikes than its more insidious, individual acts of terror (shootings in malls, deadly MySpace hoaxes, anonymous envelopes filled with white powder), what sloshes under the surface is nearly impossible to pinpoint until it bursts forth and knocks us flat.
The film is not a battle of good and evil, though, despite the constant tension between light and dark. Sunday turns out to be a cynical “false prophet” with either an acute case of megalomania or just a canny eye for an emerging market. His roof-raising sermons mirror Plainview’s well-honed sales pitch just as his baptism by oil mirrors Plainview’s baptism by water: “I’m an oilman” and “Get the Devil out” are both just incendiary incantations, charms for warding off skeptics while getting the believers to stand up and yell “Amen.” The nature of the tongues may be different; the syntax remains the same.
Given that religion and money come (for a time) to some sort of gentleman’s agreement, the drama lies in this balance between failure and optimism, within the film as a whole and within the characters themselves, a balance to which Warshow and any other fan of old Hollywood’s penchant for genre will be keenly attuned. Anderson and company turn out to have crafted not only a genre picture but the genre picture, a seamless melding of those two quintessentially American modes of filmmaking: the gangster picture and the Western.
Little Boston is an imaginary city in the fullest sense of the term, a metropolis that exists only in Plainview’s head, on his topographical maps of desire. He seems constantly surrounded by blueprints and schematics, by pencil sketches of wells and the rough polygons that represent plots of land; he lays on hands just as Sunday does, magicking away the demons that hide in the gap between paper and earth, the unforeseeable — perhaps evil — forces conspiring to defeat him. Capitalism, as Marx wrote, is indeed a kind of conjuring act, a way of transmuting raw materials into money and power through mysterious, almost religious means. But it is a system first and foremost of people, of buyers and sellers, of haves and have nots, of workers and owners; though Plainview separates himself from the mass through his superhuman devotion to pushing forward, making fortune upon fortune from silver and then oil, he needs those less successful to encircle him — people whose faces he can rub in the mud, to whom he can sermonize about the possibilities at hand.
Plainview, then, may resemble Fred C. Dobbs, sensing in other prospectors not just profit motive but personal vendettas and minuscule affronts. In his preternatural ability to smell out profit not just for private gain but for the ability to lord over others, however, he seems better matched to Scarface:
“I have a competition in me,” he says to his (faux) half brother. “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’ve built up my hatreds over the years little by little. I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone. I can’t keep doing this on my own, with these . . . people.”
He’s opening the frontier, forever riding into new lands, but he has the deep-set eyes and darkened features, the blistering violence, of a gangster. His activity, as Warshow writes about the gangster, “is actually a form of rational enterprise, involving fairly definite goals and various techniques for achieving them. But this rationality is usually no more than a vague background . . . his activity becomes a kind of pure criminality: he hurts people” (Warshow, 131).
There Will Be Blood twists this brutality, pushing it beneath Plainview’s equanimous face to seethe and simmer until it boils over. As with the rising fervor of Eli’s sermons, grabbing an elderly woman and shaking Satan away, the oilman’s murderousness seems to crawl out of him like a devil, beginning with a startling, low hiss and ending with a flash of glee. Their skills are not technical but emotional — they live by their ability to cajole and convince, to gather a flock and lead them to salvation. But they must continue to administer the drug, to force it upon the unwilling: religion (and capitalism) may be the opium of the masses, but the high inevitably wears off. As the narrative moves forward the brutality is amplified. Eli, after being cheated out of his money, leaps at his father across the dinner table, holding him down as he was held down by Plainview; Daniel, after discovering his half-brother is a fake, shoots the pitiable creature in the flickering light of a campfire and proceeds to bury him without a second thought.
For both men, rising quickly in their chosen spheres and incensed by any intimation of failure, of being duped, “brutality itself becomes at once the means to success and the content of success — a success that is defined in its most general terms, not as accomplishment or specific gain, but simply as the unlimited possibility of aggression” (Warshow, 132). They build up their hatreds little by little, fueled by petty humiliations and forced confessions, becoming more devout believers in the false prophecies they’ve created for themselves. In other words, the tragic hero’s tragic flaw is that he doesn’t know he has one.
And so the quick rise must be followed by the precipitate fall, the fast finish. The film’s battle royale takes place in a stark bowling alley hidden in the bowels of Plainview’s California mansion, the proprietor sprawled on the floor in a drunken stupor. Roused by Sunday’s smug offer to sell the one remaining parcel of Little Boston to fund his ever-growing Church of the Third Revelation, Plainview forces his nemesis to call out, in the most raspily sermonizing voice he can muster, that he is a “false prophet,” a liar, a crook, a man no better than Plainview himself. The scuffle that follows is not unlike the one described at the beginning of this piece — awkward and sloppy, punctuated by the thwack of wooden bowling pins against the sleek parquet floor and by Sunday’s pre-verbal cries for mercy. This is not a battle of kings but of lonely gunslingers, men whose pride takes precedence over everything they have to lose. When Plainview knocks in Sunday’s skull with two monstrous raps of the bowling pin, the tired satisfaction on his face is not of a man who has conquered — for in the end this sniveling preacher never threatened his wealth, and Plainview will never take over the church — but of a man finally alone. He has this dusty street to himself.
The brilliance of Anderson’s film is that, by following the structure of the gangster picture, he once again rids us of a clear winner. Sitting on the barren floor of his dark, empty house, abandoned by his son, Plainview may have triumphed over the single force that threatened his supremacy, that attempted to extract from him not just money but the superiority of being right — but he is utterly alone, with no chance to regain what he has lost, in life if not in business, along the way. “It is dangerous to be alone,” Warshow writes:
“And yet the very conditions of success make it impossible not to be alone, for success is always the establishment of an individual pre-eminence that must be imposed on others, in whom it automatically arouses hatred; the successful man is an outlaw. The gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual; the final bullet thrusts him back, makes him, after all, a failure” (Warshow, 133)
Though no bullet thrusts him back, the timing of this finale, like the timing of the film’s opening frames, is suggestive. It is 1927, two years before the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, and it seems possible, if we take the film as a prophecy of sorts, that Plainview will fall victim to forces that he cannot control, that he cannot beat back. Failure is a kind of death, and the mass failure of capitalism — the failure of our near-religious devotion to inscrutable phenomena that punish us in inexplicable ways, the failure to cast away those demons with magic once more — may kill off Plainview, too. The world may be his, as the bright lights of a billboard in Scarface cry out to the dying gangster, but not for long.
I have missed much here, by focusing on genre as a way of reading the film, but the epic, like the gangster film or the Western — and There Will be Blood has elements of all three — tries to take everything in. Genre takes stock in where we are going and where we have been, mythologizing the past and prophesying the future. It’s an archive of our self-conception, a cinematic topography of desire. We are all men in white hats, riding in to save the day; or individuals trying valiantly to succeed in a rough world; or perhaps more likely the Cleavers, settled into happy, bland lives with only the most minute of troubles. The genres that define us, that show us to the world and feed “our collective sense of “accomplishment,” tap some vein in our history that constantly seeks what it is, exactly, to be “American.” Cinema has famously been called a mirror, and genre is the ultimate reflection of the national psyche, staking a Technicolor claim on the unflagging optimism of the American promise.
By denying the Western’s impulse to depict our national assurance, our confidence in being able to conquer any enemy with steadfastness and hard work, Anderson creates a new mythology of the past. Our “city on a hill,” our continental Little Boston, is just an “imaginary city,” — at once “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become” (Warshow, 131). He shows that many promises have been broken, whether between 1898 and 1927 or 1948 and 2007, that our dreams too often denature, by dint of greed for money and power, into gritty practicalities we could never have imagined.
It may be too easy to see this nexus of religion and oil in our own era, but the arc from imperialism to decline that structures the film seems a prophecy not just of Plainview’s future but ours, too. He is us, you might say, what we want to be (unutterably wealthy and powerful) and what we are afraid we may become (violent, dark, isolated). In the final estimation, There Will Be Blood suggests that what is quintessentially American fuels both our success and our ultimate downfall, our excursions into the world and our humiliated retreat from it. What makes us us, what makes Plainview Plainview, what makes the gangster the gangster, is the very drive to the top, to being alone, that puts us in danger. There has been blood in our imperial adventures from Cuba to Vietnam to Iraq, and our repeated failures in each of those locales continue to suggest that the king-times are coming to a close. We may not live to see it, but Anderson foresees it: the world may be ours, but not for long.
All quotes except the one following the second paragraph come from Robert Warshow’s “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (In The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, New York: Athenaeum, 1970, pp. 127-133).