Thicker than Oil

'There Will Be Blood'

Why is it that the great characters of fiction and drama always, finally, elude us? Hamlet, Phaedra, Charles Foster Kane, the bums waiting for Godot, Anna Karenina, Huck Finn: they lure us on and lure us on and then they turn into Mona Lisas. Critic Eric Bentley wrote that the “enigmatic nature of great characters also carries a cosmic implication: that life is but a small light in the midst of a vast darkness.” That strikes me as profoundly true, for the great characters not only emerge out of that darkness but also carry that darkness within them.

It’s a good joke, then, that the first movie character in a long time to possess at least a glimmer of greatness should be named Plainview, since the oilman-protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!) is ultimately as opaque as he is fascinating. And precisely because of this final bafflement, it was essential for the character to appeal to our common humanity early in the movie so that it would be worth our while to wade through much obscurity toward a light we might never reach.

And this is what Anderson so brilliantly does in the long, silent sequence that opens his film. Though he will secure his fortune as a California oil entrepreneur in the first decade of the twentieth century, Daniel Plainview is first presented working a small silver mine all alone. When he falls into a pit and breaks his leg, Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis make us feel every excruciating twinge as the man climbs out and drags himself to safety. Agony is our invitation to empathy; he is our fellow animal, prey to the thousand natural shocks that all of us are heir to. So, at the start, we are on his side in a biological way.

Next, we see Plainview in charge of an oil-drilling crew, and the director’s slow, methodical pacing and detailed exposition of the work matches Plainview’s patience with his employees and his willingness to share their risks. So the man is a worker like us. We’re still on his side.

When one of his men is killed, leaving a motherless son behind, Plainview takes the infant under his wing. Just as we are about to admire his charity, the narrative skips forward a decade to reveal the oil man passing the boy off as his birth child to potential clients, and passing himself off as a widower, so that he will appear the perfect family man, and who could be more trustworthy in a business deal than a fine, upstanding, bereaved family man? Disgusting, right? What a monster this Plainview is. But in the very next scenes we see the man taking the boy, H.W., into his confidence and coaching him in the ways of business in such a lovingly paternal manner that we do feel a family bond there after all.

After the first explosion of oil from a well permanently deafens the boy, two images epitomize Plainview’s complexity. Having carried H.W. to safety, he returns to the geyser, and the director gives us a close-up of his beaming face. For a moment, we may think that this eruption that has nearly killed his heir is his real and only love. But then another shot, an overhead view of the man, still oil-spattered, lying next to the bewildered child who is wailing in a tentative, staccato way in a vain attempt to hear himself. His father gently pats him on the stomach and hushes him, softly urging him to accept his fate. If this scene were all we knew of There Will Be Blood, we might assume it was the most compassionate portrayal of loving family life since Tender Mercies.

It’s not. As Plainview confesses later, “There is a competition in me.” And this is not the normal aggressiveness of the ambitious businessman. Plainview feels within himself the same abyss that made Kurtz cry out, in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror! The horror!” His will to power is an effort to transcend the abyss within. The resentment he feels toward anyone who is not on his crew, not in his family, not under his protection, not on his side, is the resentment of the predator who treats anything that he cannot engorge as an enemy.

But where does this emptiness come from? Here, the story and the character stonewall us. We learn that Plainview had an unhappy childhood and unknowable parents, and we see him weep while looking at a photo of himself as a child. But Anderson is a dramatist, not a psychoanalyst. He shows us deeds and their impact but not their psychological roots. Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane remains mysterious despite Rosebud, but there’s no sled in There Will Be Blood, only the fragmented reminiscences of a man too injured and too proud to reminisce deeply; the memories of a brother who may not be a brother; the resentments of a son who was never a son. Trying to look inside Plainview is like trying to see a river’s bed when the water is coated with spilled oil.

Plainview is not the only character compensating for inner emptiness. The story gradually bears down on the oilman’s poisonous conflict with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the spuriously pious son of a farmer whose oil-rich land Plainview covets. Eli’s will to power is fed but not satisfied by his control over his congregation, and he wants to add Plainview’s workers and even the entrepreneur himself to his flock. Plainview balks at every turn. Why? Isn’t religion the opium of the masses? And shouldn’t the grasping capitalist make a deal with the grasping minister in order to provide workers with prayer instead of fair wages? But Plainview knows a major rival for the minds of men when he sees one, and that rival is God. Between the businessman and God’s vicar there will be blood, and it won’t be the blood of the lamb.

This movie has been accused of overreaching but isn’t there an underreaching here? Plainview rightly senses from the start that Sunday is a fraud, but suppose he had encountered a real servant of God, a Dorothy Day or a Sophie Scholl? To pit this perversely honest God-hater against a mere Tartuffe is to pull at least one essential punch.

But what riches there are in this movie. The hero may be maniacal but the film’s visual style isn’t. Anderson revives the art (so neglected since the era of The Godfather and Visconti’s The Leopard) of wide, sumptuous compositions explored by a patient, slowly moving camera (masterly cinematography by Robert Elswit). Anderson’s method invites your eyes to explore every inch of the screen, to feel the counterpoint between foreground and background, to sense the importance of the camera holding on a certain speaker’s face for a long time or the equal importance of a speaker being off screen while the listener is on. Anderson cuts to the next shot not because he’s nervous about boring the audience but because he has wrested all the meaning he can from a face or landscape and now must proceed to the next image.

The soundtrack is just as rich, whether we are listening to Anderson’s dialogue, which perfectly captures the curt eloquence of the American West, or to Jonny Greenwood’s electronic score signaling menace even when the images are idyllic.

And then there is Daniel Day-Lewis. Months before the film opened, I was boring family and friends with my atrocious imitations of what I had seen of Lewis’s performance in the previews. There was the face, villainously mustachioed and saturnine, and there was the voice elongating vowels and greasing each syllable like John Huston at his most vilely unctuous. So I assumed that this genius actor was simply on a hambone holiday, certainly delighting himself and maybe delighting us with a glorious caricature. How wrong I was. Just as there is visual counterpoint in Anderson’s compositions, there is emotional counterpoint in Day-Lewis’s acting. Menace in the eyes as the voice flatters and cajoles. The body striding forward in rage then bowing obsequiously. (Look at his commanding yet patient posture when H. W. lashes out at Plainview for sending him away for treatment.) Everything Day-Lewis does here embodies an extreme neediness, and neediness is not always pathetic; sometimes it is menacing. This great performance keeps inviting us to understand Plainview, and also keeps reminding us that we will never understand him, that he would never want us to understand him. Day-Lewis gives us a portrait of the great American moneymaker as an uninhabited and uninhabitable island.

Published in the 2008-02-15 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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