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Monday, June 09, 2008

Film Review: There Will Be Blood, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)

There Will Be Blood opens with a shot of two scruffy, barren hills, identical though unequal in stature, poking up from the California desert. Their surfaces are ugly if unremarkable but action stirs in the black solitude down below. A classical tragedy set in the not so old West--starting in 1898 and ending in 1927--the film charts the rise of oilman Daniel Plainview (a role for which Daniel Day Lewis won Best Actor) from lonely digger to psychotic tycoon, bedeviled by his nemesis, boy evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). They are two scruffy, barren, identical, but unequal hills emerging from an unloved wilderness.

Much has been made of TWBB's exploration of the relationship between wealth and religion, or, more specifically, the war of godless capitalism and godless Christianity, making the film entertaining as a commentary on both America writ large and today's GOP. Where Plainview represents capitalism and the corruptions of strength--he is a bully of great physicality--the scrawny Sunday embodies the corruptions of weakness, the poor who lash out against their exploitation by hatching their own dramatic and exploitive schemes. Largely overlooked, however, is how the film pivots on questions of familial identity. Relations are constructed and deconstructed out of material interest in the service of short- and long-term advantage, developing the theme in a way that any amateur Marxist could appreciate. The film's title, an allusion to MacBeth, is both promise and prophecy. We know that this cannot end well. Indeed, the final scene circles back to the first, with Plainview all alone in another cave he has built for himself, albeit one much more opulent and violent than the one where he began. But the title also invokes family and the ties of blood from which ambitious Americans have often sought escape, only to then recreate through choice, fraud, and force of will. Their blood will be willed.

We know little of Plainview's personal history. Like a creature from Plato's myth of the metals, he appears to us autochthonous, as if sprung fully formed from the infertile earth. The film's first twenty minutes pass in the silence of labor, broken only by grunts of pain, while Daniel strikes his ax inside his rocky womb. Eventually Plainview co-opts others for his quest, and when a fellow miner dies--the earth is both cradle and grave--he leaves an infant son whom Plainview adopts as his own flesh and blood. Paternity has its advantages. Townsfolk are more likely to sell their land to a family man, especially one who appears to be a dutiful and doting widower dad. And he is doting. The artificiality and self-interest of his fathering do not prevent his loving his son, "H.W." Even if he does not say it, and he eventually betrays it, his actions make clear that he is a father and a good one at that. This is a relation he has chosen and, as long as it is he who is doing the choosing, he lives his lie as well as any man could.

It soon becomes apparent, however, that Plainview cannot choose his own consequences. H.W. loses his hearing in a well accident, and Plainview must choose between the business he has fathered and the son he has businessed. Although he initially acts in good faith, the constant insinuations that he is not in fact raising his boy drive him to angry and narcissistic flights of self-defense. Then one day a stranger arrives claiming to be Daniel's long lost half-brother, Henry, bringing news from home. After initially befriending his "brother," Daniel discovers the fraud. It is too much for him to bear. There is, of course, little difference in principle between the two men's falsehoods, except that Plainview cannot stand to be made a fool when the choice of "family" is not his own, and so he kills to hide his own boyish naivete and his longing for bonds of blood long abandoned. Here is a man who can forgive himself his hatreds but not his loves, who can dare to be good but not bear to be stupid. When Eli Sunday reappears in the film's finale, his greatest error is to call himself Daniel's "brother," a reminder not only of the two men's resemblance but also of their recurrent humiliations. It is a fratricide waiting to be reborn--for both men, the one who kills and the one who succumbs.

The question, of course, is why we should care about these men, and on their own terms we may not. There is not enough good in Daniel, or Eli for that matter, for us to truly sympathize. It is difficult to transform classical tragedy--where characters bear not only there own humanity but also the weight of representing great social forces--into gritty western. To like this film, I suspect you must approach it in the abstract, as an exercise in sociology, political theory, and human psychology rather than a drama of flesh and blood. Such a filter turns the film's title into an irony, however, and makes Anderson--like Eli--a "false prophet." As mightily as he wields his ax, the director cannot quite get blood from this stone.


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