2018 Tarkovsky Award Honorable Mention: Stephen Zambon
Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD
In There Will Be Blood, the audience is presented with the character Daniel Plainview. The movie centers on him, following his rise as an oilman. His arc is similar to Charles Foster Kane’s in Citizen Kane. Both men are ambitious anti-heroes who spend their lives accumulating wealth. They are different, however, in one important area. There is a definite reason for Kane’s pursuit of wealth: He is in search of love and understanding. For Plainview there is not as clear of a reason. He is a more enigmatic character.
From the beginning of the film, Plainview is cast as a representative of what I will call Americanism. There is a direct link between Plainview and this term: both are enigmatic. America is something almost undefinable. What is America? In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson explores the basis of American culture through the character of Daniel Plainview.
There Will Be Blood opens on a barren landscape. The audience sees in this landscape both the bankrupt values of Plainview and the emptiness of Americanism. The plot starts with Plainview mining for silver. While mining he falls and breaks his leg, and Plainview drags himself to civilization to trade in his silver. He walks with a limp for the rest of the film, representing the stifled moral character of Plainview. This scene establishes him as a man dedicated to his trade; he undergoes a considerable deal of pain to get his money. Throughout the scene he is a man alone. The audience sees the hyper-individualism of Plainview as he mines for silver. He does not seek help, and he pays for this by having to drag himself through the desert. There is a similar vein in American history of people seeking their fortune for themselves by themselves. Columbus was looking for a route to India; the 49’s were looking for gold; etc. From the beginning, Plainview is cast as a representative of this self absorbed search. The first scene ends on the same barren landscape that started the film, bookending with the representative wasteland. This entire first scene can be read as foreshadowing for the film to come, taking a metaphorical look into Plainview’s personality. He has a contempt for other people and a pursuit for wealth.
Later, Plainview builds his oil company. A worker is killed on his site leaving an orphan. Plainview adopts the child (or pretends to), named H.W.. He uses the child to help him look like a family man, even to the point of making up details like his “wife” dying in childbirth, so that he can get investors. Here the audience sees another vein of American culture: the mixing of family values and capitalism. Plainview takes advantage of the embedded family values for capitalistic self-promotion. Here the audience begins to see the complexity of Plainview. He is capable of good but ultimately is looking out for himself. He takes a kind act, adopting an orphan, and lies to turn it into a means to promote his business. This brings a question: did Plainview adopt H.W. with the intent of using him for business or did he adopt him and just so happen to take the business opportunity? He adopted him in an act of goodwill, but he used it to his own advantage. He sees his family as an extension of himself, so he uses it to promote his business as he does.
In an effort to expand his business, Plainview tries to buy land from the religious Sunday family. A son, Eli, aware that Plainview is trying to buy their land for a low price, demands a high price. The two reach the deal that Plainview will pay the low price for the land and donate $5000 to Eli’s church. Plainview now owns all the land he wanted to buy except for one hold-out: Mr. Bandy. He uses the land to construct a derrick. The derrick juts out of the landscape and penetrates the ground. This is a phallic image of self-absorbed power. Plainview has a complete domination of the barren, American landscape to a sexual degree. A similar phallic image will appear at the end of the film. Before it begins to pump oil, Eli asks him to let him bless the derrick. Plainview instead blesses it himself using different words than Eli had suggested. This marks the beginning of Eli’s and Plainview’s tense, back and forth power struggle. Here begins the very American conflict between religion and capitalism. Eli representing American fanatical religion and Plainview representing fanatical capitalism, this episode initiates the conflict between the two themes in the film. After oil extraction begins, an accident kills a worker. Another accident leaves H.W. deaf and the derrick in flames. Plainview starts to care for H.W. but returns to care for his business. Now the audience sees what was hinted at before: Plainview values his business over his adopted son. The imagery in this scene is hellish, like something out of Dante. This effect is achieved through a high contrast red-and-black color palette and a red vignette. Plainview’s face covered in mud, he looks like a demon. Eli claims that the accidents were Plainview’s fault for not letting Eli bless the derrick, and he demands the $5000 he still owes. Plainview beats Eli in response. This shows an escalation in the tension in their relationship and in the themes of the film. At this point, capitalism has an upper-hand over religion, but the themes will be further explored.
A man claiming to be his half-brother, Henry, meets Plainview. Plainview employs him and they seem to form a bond. H.W. learns that Henry is not Plainview’s half-brother from reading his diary and tries to kill him by lighting their house on fire. Plainview, not realizing the truth about “Henry”, is angered by H.W. But Plainview becomes suspicious of Henry and confronts him at gunpoint, asking whether he is in fact his half-brother. The man confesses that he is not Henry. Enraged, Plainview murders him and buries the body. This shows Plainview’s disregard for human life and hypocrisy. The two had what seemed to be an actual friendship, even if it was based on false pretenses. Plainview kills the man in spite of this. This acts as foreshadowing for the murder of Eli. Also, he lies to promote himself, pretending H.W. is his son, but cannot understand when someone else does the same thing. The audience now sees that Plainview is an angry and vengeful man. He is this way because he has such high expectations for how he wants to be treated but does not extend those expectations to other people. It also brings the theme of family in the film to a new level. Plainview values family so much that he is willing to kill someone who goes against it. We again see a mixing of family and capitalism. He could have fired the man for lying to him in a purely capitalistic way, but instead, since the issue of betrayal of family was involved so he murders the man. There is evidence throughout the film that he values family-his relationship to H.W.’s future wife as a child shows that he cares about the inner-workings of a family. When he learns that her father beats her for not praying, he talks to the girl asking if she is still beaten in front of her father.
After the killing, Mr. Bandy, the hold-out. wakes Plainview up, telling him he knows what happened the night before. He takes him to Eli Sunday’s church and wants him to repent. Mr. Bandy says that he will allow Plainview to build the oil pipeline if he does. Eli baptizes Plainview in a potent scene about the intersection between capitalism, religion, and family. Eli forces Plainview to renounce his sins of abandoning H.W., slaps him savagely, and only then does he baptize him. This scene shows that Eli is as vengeful as Plainview, getting back at him physically and emotionally. Here we see the power that religion has over capitalism and family values. There is a weakness in capitalism, and religion has the ability to exploit that weakness of its morbid greed. Religion also has power over family because of its vulnerability. The audience sees in this intersection of themes that the relationship between each of these themes is a power dynamic. The film’s ultimate question: which theme will overpower the others?
Some years later, Plainview is an alcoholic living alone in a mansion. This image recalls the end of Charles Foster Kane’s life, who also died alone in a mansion. Kane fills his lack of human relationships by accumulating possessions, while Plainview fills it with alcohol. It also recalls the image at the beginning of the film. The audience once again sees Plainview as an isolated man. The film bookends with a reminder of his stark individualism. Plainview tries to relive his ennui; he shoots a rifle at some furniture. Earlier in the film, Plainview asks what he would do with his life if he were to not be pursuing oil. In his apparent semiretirement, he has nothing to do. He then gets a visit from a now adult H.W. In their meeting, H.W. reveals that he will begin an oil business in Mexico. Plainview interprets this as H.W. trying to compete with him, but H.W. insists that he is not. Plainview, enraged, reveals to his adopted son that H.W. is in fact an orphan. This scene shows that, as Plainview gets older, his superficial values wither away leaving his core values revealed; it shows that he values money over family. As soon as family comes in conflict with his business, he needs to defend his true interest: capitalism. This ties up the premise of the film – capitalism triumphs over all. . The film has one last thread to finish: its conflict with religion. Eli visits Plainview in his mansion’s bowling alley. He says that he will sell Plainview Mr. Bandy’s land. He confesses he is desperate for money. Plainview responds that he will only buy the land if Eli renounces his faith. Eli does so in a ritual of humilation and Plainview reveals that he actually has sucked the oil out of the land with neighboring wells. He then taunts and kills Eli with a bowling pin, the second phallic image in the film. It shows that he dominates Eli completely in the same way that he dominated the landscape earlier. He ends the film saying, “It is finished”, echoing Jesus’s last words. This sacrilegious ending shows a complete domination of religion by capitalism – and the self-destructive hypocrisy and violence it spawns.
Capitalism has been a defining feature of American culture since the beginning. A power dynamic exists between each feature of American values. Other features of Americanism, like family and religion, according to Paul Thomas Anderson, are dominated by capitalism.