I saw "There Will Be Blood" over the weekend, and I had a reaction to it I did not expect: incomprehension.
In this post I'm going to float some ideas I had about the movie and maybe get a conversation going with some of you who saw the movie. I think there's a lot of stuff going on in this film, a lot of themes and a lot of layers even, and I think there is more than one way to interpret the film. Of course, for those who have not yet seen the movie and still wish to, probably best not to read this post because I'll be dealing in spoilers indiscriminately. To you people I say go see the movie or just check back for the next post. So let's get into it.
Okay. Just us now.
First, let me say I really liked the movie. I haven't been able to get it out of my head since I saw it Friday night. Daniel Day Lewis is fantastic as the megalomaniacal Daniel Plainview. I liked in particular the first dialogue-free sequence leading up to the first oil strike. We know everything we need to know about Daniel Plainview in that sequence. The cinematography (which was also nominated for an Academy Award) is striking. The shot of Plainview hunkered down and munching on some bit of food while a twilight thunderstorm flashes in the distance behind him was probably the best shot I saw all year. And the music by Radiohead guitarist Brian Greenwood got me right where I lived by sounding exactly like a lost track from the "Shining" soundtrack. I could go on about what's great about this movie, but I'm more interested right now in what the hell it all meant.
I've been very careful not read anything about this movie -- no reviews, no actor interviews, none of the source material, etc. -- so I came to this movie absolutely fresh. When the end came, I was caught short. My reaction to the film's final line, "I'm done!" and the immediate cut to black following was a lot like my initial reaction to seeing "The Big Lebowski" back in Winston. I didn't quite know what to make of it. I suppose that puts "Blood" in good company. But I felt pretty dumb as the credits rolled. "There Will Be Blood" tied "No Country for Old Men" (another movie with an ambiguous ending) for the most nominations, so in addition to all the critics who loved this thing, there are a whole lot of Academy members who loved it and seemed to get it right away. I felt left out. So what was P.T. Anderson saying in this film?
Is it that capitalism is, at its core, a dehumanizing entity? After a few days thought, this is the best I've got for this. But there are some moments and throughlines in the film that muddy the waters a little. I think this movie defies any short and sweet interpretation.
The film starts with Daniel Plainview on his own. He lives by himself and works by himself. He is a man with a pick-axe working at a hole in the ground. Making it bigger. And though he seems so much a part of the earth as to be elemental in these first scenes, he doesn't seem unhappy. Or even exhausted. He seems deeply absorbed and even contented in his self-sufficiency. You can see a smile of pride when he manages to drag himself, broken-leg and all, over miles of rocky terrain to sell the bit silver (or was it gold?) he'd just mined. This sequence also establishes nicely Plainview's later hostility to God and religion. Clearly Plainview's never asked anyone, including a deity, for help with anything, and so distrusts those who would depend on anyone or anything besides themselves and their own hard work to get them through.
Some years later we see Plainview doing well enough to hire others. But even though Daniel now has others to interact with, hardly any words are spoken. One gets the impression that, perhaps, Plainview views his employees as units of work rather than people. Has the dehumanizing effect of Capitalism already begun to show in Plainview? Or is that Plainview is already an avowed Capitalist and we just see it more clearly the richer he gets?
An accident gives him a son and an heir. There are a few storylines and overarching conflicts in the film, but the primary one is between Daniel Plainview and his son. In these first scenes of Plainview with the infant and then the toddler (in that great scene in the train), we watch Plainview begin to question the wisdom of his solitary existence. When we see Plainview and his son twelve years on trying to buy more land to drill, we see a couple of things at once: 1.) Plainview's grown prosperous and is more articulate and savvy than we might have first suspected watching him whacking rocks in his makeshift mine, and 2.) his son has deepened his passion for work and making money because now he has someone he loves to pass it down to.
Plainview takes great pains to mentor the boy and include him in his work, even when he's making his son a party to the impending swindle of the Sunday family. After the accident at the derrick that results in the son going deaf, Plainview's attitude towards the boy changes. His feelings of powerlessness are alien to him and he begins to take the resentment he feels out on the boy by widening the gulf his son's deafness and Plainview's inability to fix that deafness has opened between them. Is this distance between them meant as a comment on how Capitalism has shaped Plainview's worldview so deeply that when his son ceases to be viable as an asset, Plainview ceases to love him?
When the long-lost half-brother arrives, Plainview's hopes for a viable familial partner are renewed. The son sees how his father has taken a shine to this interloper and sets their shack/house on fire in wordless protest. Speaking directly to the main theme of the film, does Anderson intend the son to represent the worker lashing out at the injustices inherent in the system?
And when the half-brother is proven false, Plainview brings the son back. Does he do this because he is as repentant as he proclaims in church, or is it because, in the absence of a trustworthy family member, a broken one will do? Do Plainview's nebulous relationships with his son and false half-brother speak to his interest in an heir and a buying into the traditional Capitalist ideas of creating wealth and finding ways to perpetuate it, or is it more simply a quest for some idealized vision of family? And if that's the case, how does this central character arc tie neatly into some expression of the director's meaning?
In the penultimate scene, the son, now grown, visits his father, now slightly bonkers, in his father's mansion, to announce his intention to break off from his father's company. Plainview's reaction is cruel and pitiless. He disowns his son, tells him he's adopted (which was news to him), and says "now you're a competitor," as if to say, "You're no longer my son."
Which brings us to the long final scene, which takes place in Daniel Plainview's two-lane private bowling alley. Eli, the faith-healing Reverend that Plainview disliked so, returns. He's gotten into radio and has become one of the first televangelists (a radiovangelist?). But he's also lost everything in the Crash, and wants to sell Plainview a plot of land with oil beneath it. Plainview agrees but only if Eli renounces God and himself as a vessel for His message. In a reversal of an earlier scene where Eli forces Daniel to admit he "abandoned [his] boy" in front of his congregation in exchange for the pipeline rights to the same plot of land, Eli does as instructed. In a cruel twist, Daniel then informs Eli that he already got all the oil out from beneath the plot of land in question, and then proceeds to twist the knife in all the deeper. The scene culminates in Daniel bludgeoning Eli to death with a bowling pin. His servant comes on the scene and, apparently undisturbed by the carnage, asks after his employer. To which Plainview says, "I'm done!" And that's the end of the film.
Of course this has to do with Daniel's son, but how? Yes Daniel hated Eli for what Eli made him do, admitting to the sin of abandoning his son, but what does it mean that Daniel killed Eli for it? That Daniel never brooked any disrespect? This seems to bear out. Take, for instance, the scene where the Standard Oil man tells Daniel how sorry he is for what happened to his son. Daniel takes this as a commentary on his parenting skills and threatens to cut his throat over it. The false half-brother disrespected Daniel by lying his way into Daniel's confidence -- Daniel kills him for it. Eli humiliates him at the Baptism and, years later, Daniel kills him for that.
Or are we supposed to take Daniel's murder of Eli more symbolically? Perhaps Daniel, the Capitalist, made insane by his devotion to greed, kills Eli because he discovers that, in his heart, Eli, the embodiment of Religion, is just another capitalist. And does Daniel kill the Capitalist in God-fearing clothes because Daniel has a "competition in [him]" that incites his primal urge to do literally what Capitalists do metaphorically, or does he kill Eli because he suddenly sees in Eli what he hates most in himself, and lashes out? By portraying two of Capitalism and Religion's most skillful practitioners as corrupt beyond all reckoning, is Anderson implicitly equating the two as irredeemably evil institutions? But if so, doesn't this idea fail to account for Anderson's emphasis on the relationship between Plainview and his son, a relationship that seems to exist outside of the larger concepts of Religion and Capitalism? For one, religion doesn't really play a role in that relationship, and two, the idea that Capitalism alone (i.e. Plainview's driving ambition) was the primary force behind the poisoned relationship between Plainview and his son doesn't quite encompass what was portrayed on-screen.
Does Plainview's quest for his elusive idea of "family" indicate a larger quest for meaning? Does his failure to find that meaning sour him on life? Does he distrust Eli and ultimately murder Eli because he sees how Eli cynically uses man's search for meaning for monetary reward?
Anyway, enough of all that.
I think I absorbed the film, and felt what I was meant to feel, but to comprehend it, something's missing for me. Some way of reading it that will make form, content and meaning all gel in my mind. I guess I'm just excited to hear what you all thought of it, and what you thought the movie meant. Like what did the line, "I'm done!" really mean, for example. I think "There Will Be Blood" is dense and its rewards not altogether apparent on a single viewing, but I think it's definitely worth thinking and writing about to get at the film's meaning. Which feels pretty rare for an American film. I'm not sure I liked "Blood" more than "No Country", but I felt like "Blood" drew from a much deeper well than did "No Country," and that's in its favor.