Critics have found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s work many points of reference with other filmmakers’. And with good reason. ‘Boogie Nights’ is a prime example: the aesthetics of ‘Goodfellas’ welded to the narrative infrastructure of ‘Short Cuts’ with a final scene that plays like a love-letter to Tarantino.
The adjective most critics trotted out for ‘There Will Be Blood’ was "Kubrickian". Again, with good reason. The more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that ‘There Will Be Blood’ is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
Wait! Put the phone down! No need to summon the men in the white coats. Tear up those committal papers. I can explain.
The lengthy prologue of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has a large black monolith turn up at the dawn of evolution. This is where mankind is at: they’re apes, huddling in packs, unable to find a way to disable, let alone dine on, the lumbering mammals they have dimly identified as a source of food. Stronger packs attack them. The encounter with the monolith changes everything. One particular ape finds a bone, picks it up. A few tentative experiments and the ape realises it can smash other bones with it. Synapses fuse; possibilities open. Hey, you can also use the bone to fend off the aggressor pack. You can bash their skulls in with it. Hey, if you can use it to kill other apes, you can use it to kill mammals. Violence follows: violence, carnivorous instincts and the application of the first tools. An ape flings a bone triumphantly into the air. Match cut: a spaceship drifting elegantly through the silent emptiness of the galaxy.
Kubrick’s genius (ever so slightly borrowed, it has to be said, from Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Canterbury Tale’) is to edit out the whole bloody and ignominious history of human development while brilliantly suggesting it. To omit wars and genocide and greed and disharmony and transport us seamlessly to a point at which humanity has ventured beyond the stars.
‘There Will Be Blood’ basically fills in the gap. Well, some of it. It fills in the gap where mankind is just about ready to shuck off its agriculturalism, embrace industrialism and the internal combustion engine with a teat-sucking dependency, and fast-forward itself towards advanced technology while at the same time irrevocably fucking up this planet.
Has mankind ever made a more self-destructive discovery than oil? How many wars, how much politicking? Had anything before oil inspired quite so much greed, made money a god quite as intrinsically? The central conflict of ‘There Will Be Blood’ – business vs. the church – doesn’t need any explanation. Anderson’s genius is that he shows both belief systems, both forms of worship, as inherently flawed. And, just to make things even thornier, inherently intertwined.
We first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1898, digging for gold. He’s alone, in the wild, cold and unshaven and squatting where he’s made camp, bedraggled and a barely recognisable figure of a man, his appearance not too far removed from one of Kubrick’s apes.
The finding of it almost kills him, but he strikes lucky. The gold finances his next enterprise: prospecting. He’s running his own outfit, employing some men. They strike oil. Then tragedy strikes. One is killed in an accident, orphaning an infant son. Another jump ahead in time: to 1911. Plainview is passing the boy, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) off as his own, the angelic lad a deal-clencher as the loquacious and persuasive Plainview establishes himself as a contractor. It’s at this stage of his career that the weasly Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) approaches him demanding cash up front for the location of an oil-rich area of land. Paying up – but not before threatening the lad with severe retribution should this information prove false – Plainview and H.W. inveigle themselves into Paul’s homestead. This is where Plainview meets Paul’s twin brother (and fire-and-brimstone preacher) Eli (also Dano) and the two men find themselves at odds.
For all that Eli bashes the Bible with the best of ’em, it’s Plainview who emerges as an almost Old Testament figure – or at least a corrupted and perverse parody of one. Plainview abandons and betrays the son who isn’t his son and mistrusts and finally murders the brother who isn’t his brother. For all that Eli is as obsessed with money as Plainview, for all that his sanctimonious behaviour belies a snivelling cowardice and a petty desire for one-upmanship (at one point he attempts to humiliate Plainview in a travesty of baptism which the oilman has been forced into in order to complete a business deal), Plainview commits the film’s greatest act of hypocrisy: the man who profits from and then turns his back on a false son commits murder when a familial deception is perpetrated on him.
‘There Will Be Blood’ is a deep and troubling film that, for the most part, plays out as supremely entertaining and sometimes darkly funny, particularly in its divisive final scene which I know that some people vehemently hate but which I found so uproariously inspired that almost stood and applauded in the middle of the cinema. "Draaaaaiiinnnnnage, Eli boy!" Fantastic. And don’t get me started on "I drink your milkshake". Also, is it just me, or does the Plainview of this final scene seem to revert to the apelike figure which opened the movie?
You can watch ‘There Will Be Blood’ and take it as a morality tale, as a study in greed, as a comment on the loneliness and soullessness of the financially successful. You can take it as a comedy as black as the oil itself. The more you watch it, though, the more emerges. It’s a film that grows on you, even if (like me) you thought it was a bona fide masterpiece first time round. Again, it’s comparable to the oil: it bubbles up slowly from the depths only for its last scene to burst across the screen like a geyser, Day-Lewis’s incendiary performance searing the whole magnificent thing into your mind.
Kudos, too, to Robert Elswit’s awe-inspiring cinematography (like Day-Lewis, his work on the film earned an Oscar) and Jonny Greenwood’s often daringly experimental score, Anderson only deviating from Greenwood’s music as Plainview starts his drilling operation in celebratory style (and again for the end credits) to the stirring strains of the Brahms violin concerto. ‘There Will Be Blood’ claims the piece the way ‘2001’ claimed Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’.
When Mikhail Lermontov wrote his great embittered ironic novel, its protagonist Pechorin setting the archetype for the anti-hero in Russian literature (and perhaps in literature as a whole), he called it ‘A Hero of Our Time’. So here’s to Daniel Plainview, a hero of our time. Here’s to Daniel Plainview, huckster, oilman, miser, misanthrope and murderer. Here’s to Daniel Plainview who, perhaps more than anyone in cinema since Kubrick’s apes, truly points the way to the stars.