There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (IMDB) finally made it to Fayetteville this week, and like a lot of people, I found it to be an impressive film, possibly my favorite in this year’s Oscars race. I’m not prepared to talk about it as an adaptation, as Miriam did so effectively, but I found the film’s bleak characterization of the oilman, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the religious huckster, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), to be a pretty compelling critique of the seemingly intertwined politics of oil and religion. Based on my relatively limited experience with Upton Sinclair, I have no doubt that the source novel, Oil!, is an overtly didactic attack on the exploitation and destruction caused by the pursuit of oil and the wealth that it offers. [[Spoilers follow]].

As Miriam reports, Anderson essentially turns Sinclair’s novel inside-out, eliminating the socialist turn taken by Plainview’s son (in the novel, his name is J. Arnold “Bunny” Ross, Jr) and by Eli’s brother Paul. In fact, the renaming of characters suggests the degree to which Anderson seems to want to distance himself from the original novel’s characterization of the oilman, Ross, who is described by Miriam as “ruthless, corrupt yet relatively mild-mannered and even fair-minded,” while the renaming of Eli Watkins seems to be a nod to the turn-of-the-century evangelist Billy Sunday, leading Miriam to argue that the film places emphasis on psychology rather than politics, on Plainview and Sunday’s emptiness and greed rather than on the more corrosive effects of capitalism.

To a great extent, I’m inclined to agree. And Plainview’s violent outbursts, including his brutal beating of Eli during the film’s final scene, certainly suggest an unchecked desire (as OGIC puts it, Plainview “wants something”).  I had initially hoped to defend the film in part as a commentary on our current political moment, on the ways in which Sinclair’s novel can be recycled to comment on the ongoing relationship between the politics of oil and religion, but I think that Miriam is right to suggest that Anderson more or less closes off the most interesting political readings.  It was impossible for me to watch a film about an oilman and a preacher without thinking about the current administration and its use of religious rhetoric to gain votes while passing legislation friendly to major corporations and ensuring that oil companies continue to accumulate record profits. In the film, both Plainview and Sunday cynically manipulate stagecraft, performance, rhetoric to convince their congregations or audiences to bend to their will.  In fact, here is where the name change of Eli’s character worked for me, connecting him to some of the excesses associated with Billy Sunday, who prospered incredibly, taking in millions of dollars and taking conservative political positions in the pulpit, while his listeners struggled financially.  At the same time, Plainview’s loathing of other humans–he never marries and adopts an orphan son largely to manipulate customers into regarding him more sympathetically–and his unquenchable thirst (“I drink your milkshake”) suggests that the true capitalist will never be satisfied.  Despite the physical dangers of the wells and the emotional destruction of his family, the Plainviews of the world will continue to drink up, to consume, until there’s nothing left.

That being said, this more “psychological” approach also leaves us with few alternatives.  Plainview’s soon leaves his father not to become a socialist fighting back against capitalism but to compete with his father, moving his practices of exploitation and destruction across the border to Mexico.  The corrupt preacher, Eli, is gone, but his socialist brother, Paul, is simply his double, yet another capitalist bent on making a buck.  Thus, even in a year where voters are clamoring for change, in a moment when the environmental destruction caused by the pursuit and consumption of oil is now indisputable, Anderson can offer no alternatives to the status quo.  In fact, his film goes well out of its way to eliminate socialism–and any other political and economic alternative–from the story.

14 Comments »

  1. Chris Said,

    January 26, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

    Oo, kind of wish you’d let me know there were going to spoiler-ish details discussed in this review. It just opened here in Waco, too, and I’m going to see it soon.

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 26, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    Sorry about that. I take it you missed the “spoilers follow” warning at the end of the first paragraph? :-)

    No matter what, I look forward to your reading of the film. I think it’s the kind of film that I’ll continue to appreciate long after having seen it.

    I should probably mention that I thought it was a beautifully crafted film. Daniel Day-Lewis should win the Oscar, and while I haven’t seen all of the performances in the supporting actor category, I’m utterly perplexed that Paul Dano didn’t get nominated. I also really liked Anderson’s use of music in the film.

  3. Chris Said,

    January 27, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

    Oops, guess I skimmed right over that sentence — sorry about that! My bad.

  4. Shaun Huston Said,

    January 29, 2008 @ 1:02 am

    One could argue that the first step towards meaningful political change is critique, and as far as I can see Anderson is offering a much more trenchant argument against capitalism than pretty much anyone in the presidential field. The fact that There Will Be Blood is adapted from a novel that undoubtedly spells out alternatives in ways that the film doesn’t complicates how one understands the movie, but I also think that inserting a socialist labor organizer as a hero or nemesis to Plainview would have marginalized the film in ways that would have kept it from attracting a wider audience as it is now. Both Eli and Daniel have their souls consumed by a desire to dominate and control others and to wring a profit from the world at all costs. This desire is ultimately their undoing. Daniel maybe triumphant over Eli, but he loses all of his connections to humanity at large and is left with a big, empty house for all of his success. Even if the film is read as essentially foreclosing alternatives to a world used up by the Daniel Plainviews of the world, that argument goes farther in indicting America’s political economy than even Dennis Kucinich is willing to go.

    Having written all of that, I’m not sure that I disagree with you insofar as, for a movie about God and oil, There Will Be Blood seems far more removed from our present moment than you would assume from its dramatic themes. And in that regard I do think that it could be more satisfying than it is. On the other hand, I think Paul Thomas Anderson is of a generation of filmmakers who is primarily influenced by other films, and I think that classic, building-of-America epics like Giant are probably more immediate references than are current political debates.

  5. Chuck Said,

    January 29, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

    Good points, Shaun. I don’t know if the socialist character would have “worked” here, but it’s interesting that it’s impossible (or apparently really difficult) to depict anything other than the critique. It’s also noteworthy that the film’s critique is much more of an indictment of capitalism than anything in contemporary presidential discourse.

    And, of course, you’re right to connect the film to other “building-of-America” films such as Giant.

  6. Dylan Said,

    February 8, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

    Just saw the movie. First off, PT Anderson is pretty much the tops in my book, so I hold him to a high standard and he’s pretty much always delivered for me.

    I wasn’t as taken as some people have been by TWBB, but I liked it.

    I don’t know anything about Sinclair’s original book, but it doesn’t surprise me to find out that some socialistic themes are in the book. I wasn’t really all that struck by the “oil as religion/religion as oil” aspect as I was by the theme of unchecked capitalism.

    Every time Plainview tries to take an economic step forward, someone gets hit in the head. He finds a chunk of silver, he’s hit in the head. Later, he’s digging in the bottom of a well and the man next to him gets hit in the head. Later, while he’s a little removed (in the tent) a man at the bottom of his well is hit over the head. Eventually, at the end, Plainview himself is the one doing the bashing over the head.

  7. Chuck Said,

    February 9, 2008 @ 9:24 am

    And, of course, as the well first opens, there is the explosion and his son loses his hearing. Not quite the same thing, but a head injury none the less. I think that my interest in the socialist themes comes more form their absolute exclusion from the movie and the choice to have the son go to Mexico to compete against his dad within the oil industry rather than to have him become a socialist and fight against the abuses of capitalism in general.

  8. cynthia Said,

    February 11, 2008 @ 8:28 am

    i dont think the film is even much of an indictment of capitalism–what are the negative consequences of capitalism in the film for society? we are reading that into the film but i see none. some individual deaths and injuries, but beyond these singular deaths in disparate locales–any of which could have been daniel himself, as he was down in the wells right next to them–the communities themselves, at least in the film, are not shown to be harmed, unless i’m forgetting something. money comes where there was poverty before, the preacher is forced to stop beating his daughter, there’s no mention of any environmental destruction or anything larger. i think pt anderson’s interest is entirely in personal psychology, and oil and religion are the latest vehicles he’s using to explore that.

  9. Chuck Said,

    February 11, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    I may be basing this reading on things that are only implicit in the film, and you raise some good objections here. In a sense, I’m assuming a viewer who will be able to (and choose to) read the environmental and economic consequences into the film, but you’re right to point out that almost all of those consequences are personal. Eli is a liar and a sham who preys upon his flock, but they don’t seem particularly harmed. Daniel drinks Eli’s milkshake before beating him to death, but again, the film dramatizes the psychological at the expense of the political.

    To be fair to PTA, the psychological can be interesting, but given the origins of the story, the film almost seems resistant to anything genuinely political or at least indifferent towards the political. That being said, I found PTA’s account of the origin of the milkshake line to be pretty interesting (and to show quite a bit of research on his part).

    Here’s the USA Today version of the origin of the milkshake line.

  10. cynthia Said,

    February 11, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

    yeah he’s definitely not into politics. and i don’t think his take on psychology is terrribly deep or interesting either, really. i also have a problem with the milkshake line…from what i recall, in the context of the oil business, daniel plainview is saying he’s pumping oil out from all of the land around that one plot, and because it’s just one big sea of oil down there, he doesn’t need that one plot–it’ll get sucked up along with the rest. the milkshake metaphor, visually, doesn’t actually work for that at all. what’s actually happening is that it’s one giant milkshake all connected, not two separate ones and i’m putting my straw into yours. he’s saying he doesn’t need a straw, basically. my 12 other straws will drain you on their own.

  11. Chuck Said,

    February 11, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    I liked the performances by Lewis and Dano well enough, but as OGIC mentions in her review (which I cited above), it’s not necessarily enough to imply that Plainview “wants something,” so I’m willing to entertain the idea that there’s not as much there as everyone thinks. Still, I’ll take the psychological depth here over what I’ve seen in most movies this year.

    You’re right about the logic of the milkshake metaphor, but given the context of the film, I think it works well enough, and suggests a historicizing that I hadn’t previously recognized. So I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that one.

  12. Jack Upland Said,

    March 4, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

    I think that the book is much better than the movie. I think the movie suffers from not having a hero. I don’t think the novel would be criticised for having a conservative politician in it, so why criticise it for having a socialist agitator – the kind of person who was a feature of the US in the 1920s.

    I think the renaming of the characters is punning, so as well as referring to Billy Sunday, Eli Sunday evokes religion. And Plainview attests the oilman’s singlemindedness and aggressive and simplistic attitude to other people…

  13. Lara Said,

    March 7, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

    TWBB was, in my view a high brow slasher complete with over wrought, exaggarated characters and gruesome killings. Having said that, it was beautifully acted and filmed.

  14. Jordan Gardner Said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    TWBB! Jeez Louise! What a masterpiece! The way Day-Lewis radiated his character’s inner psychology is fascinating. Plainview, a tragic hero, touched me in the part of my inner psyche which only reacts to “truth”. I understand him. I respect him. I’m part of him. To reach so high, to work so hard, to effect so much …. To be so intelligent, brave, honest and aware of what it takes to create anything “important,” necessarily makes one alone and misunderstood. 99 percent of people I watch and hear, are not interesting, passionate, strong, brave or intelligent. Not being able, they need leadership and so, hang onto the effective shirt tails and hope to steal or grasp some crumbs, but they hate to be dependent , so they’ll hate the golden goose, before they suck it dry and destroy it. It’s just jealousy. Plainview did everything to it’s greater level. Loved, hated, worked, manipulated, lead, sacrificed, suffered, but kept the faith … in himself. He was a most capable human being and went as far as his capabilities allowed himself to go, in a great country which allowed him to. Boys … Girls … This is the kind of person, in a crisis that you want to be on the right hand of. He is precisely the kind of personality, the kind of man I hope we do have in place, and will give authority if it’s needed for our nation’s protection and help. Because Plainview is every person and every country and every government. And despite his faults, he’s probably the best of the bunch. That’s the truth, and I know few people who can handle the truth. Leon Uris, [I believe it was] said, “The wheels of heaven turn on righteousness. The wheels of the earth turn on oil.” When America, heaven forbid, runs out of oil and rice, the weak will cry and holler, “How could this happen! Why did our government let this happen!” Of course, they’ll say, “It’s Bush’s fault”. The only foolish thing about President Bush is that he chose to give public service by being our president. He certainly didn’t have to! I pray for him daily and feel sorry for anyone who tries to protect this country. Because we don’t seem to be able to individually be able to protect us from ourselves Ingrates, fools, unaware of the facts of survival? Most are. Good Lord. Read the classics. And as Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” It’s all war, every day, for every living thing, so you might as well be good at it. Well, I’m tired of fools, but grateful I’m not going to be around, considering my age, much longer. This country allowed me to go as far as I could go to realize my potential. I’ve had a great run, done very well. God bless America.

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