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Violence in the Future Tense : a Review of “There Will Be Blood”

Posted by Remy on April 10, 2009


Daniel Plainview is a new messiah, bringing bread, education, and wealth. Daniel Plainview is a Satan, an accuser, a murderer, a liar, and a drinker of blood. Both Christ and Antichrist, Daniel Plainview, embodies America, our industrialism and our greed, our benevolence and our violence. Taking one part Flannery O’Conner, one part Rene’ Girard, and passing Sinclair Upton through St. John’s gospel, Paul Thomas Anderson orchestrates a film that captures the American zeitgeist, that recapitulates our founding, this time in Little Boston, and the tea party replayed with Texas tea.

The movie begins underground with Daniel Plainview digging for silver. The claustrophobia of the mineshaft, the ominous soundtrack, and the accident that breaks Plainview’s leg, hobbling him the rest of the movie, set the stage for the events that follow. We watch as he becomes an oil man, becomes the father figure to an orphaned boy, he goes wildcatting and strikes it rich in a town notable only for its self-proclaimed prophet of the third revelation, Eli Sunday. These two rising stars struggle against each other; Eli hocking the wares of the church, Plainview the wealth of oil, resulting in the promised climax of the title. Both baptism and oil are likened to the Blood of the Lamb, both wish to bring health to the town, both rely on their tongues to accomplish their ends.

At its black heart, the movie is about envy. Some seem to think that Anderson’s film is guilty of sprawling; a sin committed in grandiose style by “Magnolia”, but a charge that misses “There Will Be Blood”, for it depicts a very tight spiral of mimetic violence, particularly brother–brother conflict. The first set of brother’s are Paul and Eli Sunday, whose father’s name, Abel, indicates the archetype of fraternal conflict. It continues with Eli and Daniel (a brother through marriage and baptism) and later with Henry (posing as his brother) and Daniel. But conflict is not limited to brothers alone, it spills out into the public square as Daniel’s competition with the local church for the time of his workers and his tussle in the market with Standard Oil. His son H.W. is pulled into it when he torches Henry’s bed and later breaks with his father to form his own company. In the screenplay this conflict is made even more clear when Fletcher Hamilton, Daniel’s chief assistant, complains about Henry’s inclusion in the company despite his own involvement from the beginning (a scene trimmed, no doubt, because this drew the attention away from Daniel Plainview’s mimetic cycle). Every scene revolves around bitter competition. I could march through the film scene by scene indicating how relentless this theme is, and could argue that it is every bit as economic as his previous film, Punch-drunk Love.

Like Anderson’s previous films the actors rise to their highest limits. Daniel Day-Lewis seizes us by the throat with his performance, but unlike many actors in out-sized roles today, he never overleaps his intensity into parody. His mania is brutally simple, menacing, and he is matched by Paul Dano’s scene gnawing performance of Eli Sunday. The role of the corrupt preacher is difficult to play without falling into thin caricature, but he manages to convey an earnest man of faith in the grip of intense jealousies and lusts. The movie itself is a veritable highlight reel of classic cinema, the baptism scene, the fight between Eli and Plainview, the oil fire, even smaller scenes such as Daniel and baby H.W. on the train are intensely gripping.

The significance of the film, however, goes beyond its technical merits. “There Will Be Blood” is a promise that hangs over the entire film, but a promise that does not end when the movie ends. It is extended beyond the film –there will be blood– today and beyond. The movie could very well be expanded globally and called There Will Be Wars. The beginnings of the oil industry is the true founding of America and P.T. Anderson, avoiding the terse pablum that most politically conscious films fall into, is calling out the scapegoating, the holy-rolling, the hucksters, and the shysters by running this ethos out to its logical demise.

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