***Hopefully Derek Hill won't need any introductions to my readers here but just in case...Derek is the author of one of the great modern books on cinema, Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion Into the American New Wave, and the author of the terrific blog Detours. Derek is one of my favorite writers on the planet, my friend and now co-conspirator (as I was honored to have some of my work appear in a book he was featured in as well). I am honored to present this brand new and powerful new piece on There Will be Blood that Derek wrote specifically for our blogathon and it's a real doozy...overflowing with the same passion, fire and intelligence that all of Derek's work contains. So, enough of my intro...read the article!***
There Will Be Blood: Into the Void
“They were sold out. Fought and died down there in that desert and then they were sold out by their own country. “
--Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West
“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.”
"Property, the whole fucking thing is about property."
--The Thin Red Line
Seeing There Will Be Blood in the theatre for the first time was a revelation. Nestled in my seat, the lights lowered, the auditorium filling with light as a wash of strings threaded into my ears... a bleached landscape appeared that could have been today, 200 years ago, or at the beginning of time. Visually and aurally I was immediately reminded of Kubrick and Ligetti respectively... 2001: A Space Odyssey. Daniel Day-Lewis methodically wielding the pick-axe in the confines of the earth, searching for silver within the rock but finding evidence of oil instead, snapped me back to the present... the past? It was hypnotic. And when this silent creature fell to his certain doom down to the depths of the mine shaft, but somehow clawing his way back to life with a broken leg and across the cracked earth of the desert floor to... to what? So that he could make sure his claim of oil was certified. I was stunned and hooked. The opening 15 minutes are extraordinary in that no dialogue is spoken--a perfectly hypnotic synthesis of sound and vision that is the most riveting pure cinema that Anderson has ever directed. When we do first hear voices, it comes in the guise of a rational sounding business offer. It’s a con. And we are seduced. The rest of the film continues at this same brilliant artistry. Though as it went on, I realized that this was no straight period film, no mere historical Western. This was a horror film—an apocalyptic American fable that could have only been birthed with such savagery during the devolution of the Bush reign when big business and religious mania entwined to make global policy.
Each generation gets the monster it deserves. The Depression era received King King. The Atomic Age got Godzilla. The 1980s saw a mob of faceless, personality-vacant slasher killers dominate the screens. And the 1990s saw the rise of intellectually brilliant sociopaths like Hannibal Lecter charm audiences. In the Bush era--an age of rampant stupidity, greed, open political corruption, illegal wars, and religious/political demagoguery—we get Daniel Plainview.
It’s debatable whether Plainview is actually worse than the religious hypocrite Eli Sunday, his nemesis and moral reflection. He is a con man and a murderer after all. But he is honest with himself, unlike Sunday who will be revealed as a fraud in the end and pay for his pretensions with his own blood. Plainview is nevertheless a hulking monster of a character. As personified by Daniel Day-Lewis, Plainview slopes powerfully through every scene he is in with a domineering physicality both horrifying and entrancing. This is a truly great actor at work. But like all classic monsters, we can never console ourselves that we are watching something purely inhuman. The best horror films are never consoling or entirely escapist. They reveal and force us to explore our darker natures while always reminding us that the line between us and them is not always as clear as we’d like. For what’s more human than unbridled ambition, alcoholism, madness, thievery, and murder as a solution to vexing problems? As strong and resilient as Plainview is, he is also tragically weak and deluded.
It’s a brilliant, dare I say masterful performance. There is genius in Day-Lewis that is extraordinary to watch—a mix of gruff charisma, nuance, aggressive theatricality, and complete verisimilitude to his character. It was also fitting that Day-Lewis seemed to be evoking the vocal cadence and slightly stooped posture of director John Huston for the role, although in interviews the notoriously private actor claims to have not done so intentionally. Regardless, Huston makes for a proper template for Plainview. Huston was a charmer on screen and off, but also bullying, rebellious, intimidating, and fearless--attributes that could describe Plainview as well. All one has to do is remember Huston’s turn as the real estate tycoon Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown, a character who charms his way through the film until he can no longer hide the sickness inside. When Cross slowly wraps his gargantuan arms around his granddaughter/daughter at the film’s conclusion, his mammoth hand shielding her eyes from the site of her mother’s corpse, we are repulsed because there is no recourse for morality or justice. The “bad guy” gets away with it and we feel helpless because the movies, which usually protects us from the truth of matters, has betrayed us in a whole different way. There is no punishment for the wicked, no moral recompense for the innocent, no reassurance or comfort for the audience. It’s a vile, thoroughly nightmarish cinematic moment and unforgettable.
Plainview moves to the same satanic rhythms as Cross, and Paul Thomas Anderson strives to deliver a killing blow at the end of his film to match that of Polanski. That Anderson doesn’t quite pull it off doesn’t lessen the film’s overall impact for me. Plainview’s murder of the hypocrite evangelist Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano, is ludicrous in its blackly comedic grotesquery. But in the film’s headlong plunge into the black hole of Plainview’s madness, perhaps it’s an inevitable finale for a character who symbolizes America at its worst and most ruthlessly pragmatic, much as Cross did and Charles Foster Kane/Orson Welles did before that. To look into the eyes of these men is to see the architects of the United States and... perhaps the agents of its destruction as well. Perhaps Anderson had been right to end the film on such an acidic, incomprehensibly absurd note after all. When the center can no longer hold... there’s always laughter.
I left the theatre shaken, but excited. Anderson evoked the time period with exquisite realism, and with his editor Dylan Tichenor, allowed us ample breathing space to think, to let our eyes explore the frame in a manner I haven’t experienced in a major American commercial film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or The New World. It was exhausting, but an experience I wanted to have again.
It would be months before I got a chance to see the film once more. By that time, I was living in a small, rural village in Ireland and the poison of Bush’s America felt a bit more distant, although with the 2008 elections looming and practically every Irishman wanting to talk about them, the bad aftertaste was still heavy. And that beastly shadow of Plainview’s stretched far as well. He had crept inside me like no other fictional character in recent memory. Seeing it for the second time was an even more challenging experience for me. Yes, Plainview seemed to personify the ruthlessness and delirium at the heart of the so-called American Dream. Though this second time around his humanity oozed out more as well—the tenderness he displays to his son H.W., the way he laughs and plays with him, and even confides in him as a trusted business confidant. But Plainview’s destruction is also embedded in his relationship with H.W. For me, the moment comes not in the red herring of him “abandoning” the boy on the train—Plainview is clearly troubled by doing it--but when he leaves his son, who has been seriously injured during a well explosion, in the tent and goes to stand guard at the well to watch the flames rage into the night. Plainview seems to step into the void at that moment, never to return. He is majestically satanic, prideful, and intoxicated by the dream of vast wealth that will soon be his knowing that “there’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me.” It is in front of the red furnace that he has forsaken his humanity. He is weak. And in return for all of that wealth he will be rewarded with alcoholism, wrath, sloth, and madness. “I have a competition in me,” Plainview states at one point. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” If that’s not humanity and contemporary America at its most raw, vile, and tragic, then I don’t know what else is.