The problem with so-called epoch-defining masterpieces is that with rare exceptions, they are often neither, settling instead for well-crafted epics that satisfy in spite of the hype. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a film that carries a near-impossible load of anticipation and expected brilliance, is not, in fact, the second coming of Citizen Kane (hell, it’s not even Giant), nor does it reach deep into the American soul for penetrating wisdom about How We Live Now. It is not a metaphor for our lives, nor is it the grand statement of our national heritage. Most critically, it fails even in its most obvious quest — to so expose evil that we recognize its charms almost by instinct, as if it had remained buried for centuries in a vault whose location was known only to preternatural filmmakers in search of immortality. Let’s be clear, though: There Will Be Blood is a good film — wonderful, even, in stretches — but as a complete work, and not the mere collection of set pieces and cinematographic wonder, it is curiously muted, as if the implied bloodletting of the title yielded instead an unexpected hagiography. For whatever the intentions of the director, screenwriter, or talented actors on board, the central figure — Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) — is not the monster one expects from pre-release fawning. In fact, I would hesitate to call him the villain of the piece, and prefer instead to see Mr. Plainview as an admirable, if eccentric, American titan.
Based purely on evidence that plays before us, Plainview is ambitious, yes, but well-spoken, fair, and even kind to his fellows. He builds an empire of oil wealth from mere patches of unclaimed ground, but not at the expense of his humanity. This is no rapacious devil of the dust; this man pays in cash, insists on legal contracts, and, from all appearances, not once resorts to violence to get his way (at least in terms of business). In fact, one of the few holdouts — a man who later relents when Plainview agrees to be baptized in a humiliating ritual — is healthy and happy for years on end, despite having challenged Plainview’s wild dreams of building a pipeline to the sea. This is your heartless megalomaniac who sends chills into the hearts of audiences around the globe? Much of the movie’s first half consists of Plainview’s tireless efforts to extract crude from the earth, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t put every bit of himself into the work. Far from an effete capitalist who exploits the poor while he dines on caviar and cheese, Plainview is an oil-soaked renegade who insists on pushing himself every bit as hard as those he employs. And if he is in fact beating his men into submission with threats of the whip or miserly wages, we witness nothing to support this untenable claim. Again, this is a fevered, single-minded entrepreneur, and for most of the film’s running time, we half expect him to be honored by the Chamber of Commerce, not pushed to the fringes by an angry populace.
Because we witness so much of Plainview’s bloodless rise (derricks under construction, town meetings to secure land), we are given no opportunity to loathe the man, unless of course we are expected to despise, as if by natural inclination, anyone who builds a business empire with grit and hard work. Sure, it was refreshing to watch a film that avoided all the clichés of the American capitalist (despite having a dark mustache, Plainview never once resorts to a melodramatic twirling), but at the same time, the attention to period detail (and the sweat and grime of the prairie) comes at the expense of any real perspective. The sheer craft of filmmaking is exhilarating to be sure (Anderson is one of our best, no doubt), but for large blocks of time, I couldn’t ascertain a point of view that gave a damn. This documentary-style approach challenges the notion that arm-twisting is necessary for an audience to join in, but without an accompanying emotional charge, the film often limps along, rather than sailing off the rails as it should. Above all, Anderson is a ballsy risk-taker, and he’s been willing to alienate the public in search of a vision (will anyone forget — or forgive — the frogs of Magnolia?), but here, he felt strangely grounded, as if he wanted to create a memorable canvas without any of the larger implications that got him into trouble on previous efforts. Maybe I’m wrong to crave more operatic overtones from my artists, but every time I expected breadth, I felt trapped by a frustrating insularity and timidity of purpose.
The great battle of the piece — between religion and commerce — brought the relevance I expected throughout, but even here, Plainview is merely bowing to pragmatism, not indulging in beastly heresy. Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday is an oil patch Elmer Gantry, and the sort of showman Plainview can respect, but half the time we don’t know what to make of him. He cries openly that disasters at the drill site (one causing Plainview’s son to lose his hearing) were the result of his not being allowed to bless the enterprise, but by the end, he is a simpering, pathetic fool begging for Plainview’s money. That a godly man would end up a money-grubbing hypocrite is hardly breaking news, so wouldn’t it be more fascinating if this boy wonder actually believed the swill he peddled? Perhaps he does, but the film is never clear on the matter, and only our prejudices regarding cinematic portrayals of church figures leads us in any real direction. At one point, when Sunday is roaring the holy wrath of his faith, Plainview smirks with knowing satisfaction, as if a bolt from the future had landed: control the people with Jesus, and they’ll do your bidding in business. Given how readily the lower classes of this country have continuously voted against their own economic interests because they fear the twin secular forces of homosexuality and abortion, this is a relevant turn, but outside of Plainview’s grin, nothing much is done with it. Plainview mouths platitudes and self-pitying apologies in order to grease the wheels of assorted land deals, but this essential political theme is curiously wasted, when it could have elevated the production into the revolutionary. Even Eli’s final act “execution,” which could be seen as the triumph of dollar over deity, comes too late to salvage the ship.
Perhaps Anderson never intended to take sides in the historical debate of labor versus capital, but how else are we to take an adaptation of an Upton Sinclair novel? And yet, about the worst thing Plainview does is send his boy away after he rebelliously sets fire to his home, but as he is deaf and the school is tailored towards his needs, this speaks less to cruelty than the actions of a responsible, caring father. What purpose would be served by keeping the handicapped child at the drilling site? Still, this “abandonment” is used to drive Plainview into a frenzy, as if he had to feel guilty for sparing his boy the rigors of oil work. Yes, evil can be subtle, and is best when not eye-popping and overwrought, but surely dialing it down to the point of sheer absence is not the preferred method. Plainview kills two people in this film: a man who pretends to be a half-brother, and later, Eli himself when he pays a visit to his mansion. Sure, murder hardly makes a man huggable, but honestly, that’s it? Both killings seem pretty reasonable under the circumstances, and the second violent act, occurring as it does it in the final scene when Plainview appears mentally unstable, is laughably ridiculous, thereby removing the assumed evil. Still, all comparisons to Noah Cross of Chinatown are absurd on their face. Whereas Noah’s amorality reflected a civilization in decline (then, and for the time in which the film was made), as well as incest and issues of power, Daniel’s is a simple hissy fit and personal grievance that begins and ends at the walls of the estate. And while Cross wanted the whole damn future, Plainview just wants to be left alone. He’s less a madman than a loud-mouthed loner.
As for the defining scene (fireside, of course), wherein Plainview relates his philosophy of life, the words mean little without the respective actions to back them up. While his line — “I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed” — is an American mantra if ever there was one, it falls with a thud in this context because at no point does he drive a competitor into the sea. He employs no tricks or games, no goons with which to carry out his bloody plans, and even though he’s all alone at film’s end, it’s just as likely that he played by the rules throughout. We’ll never know, of course, given the infuriating jumps in time (sixteen years at one point!) Besides, it sounds like the clarion call of sanity — not fiendish malice — to pursue wealth solely to have the independence of solitude. If anything, it is the mogul that desires deep social involvement who should be feared, not the man who wants to get away from it all and retire in silence. Fine, Plainview is unlikely to have opened libraries or colleges like his forebears in fortune, but that’s suddenly a qualification for hellfire? Without any real hatred for this man, or even a slight dislike, the impetus of the story falls apart, and we are left with a hollow exercise; more admirable than intoxicating. This is a film that might secure our applause, but it won’t live on through the ages, or force future generations to consider a time when a cinematic voice got it so right. What drives Plainview? What drives Anderson? Even now, it’s still a mystery.