There Will Be Meaning
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
I have never liked Paul Thomas Anderson’s films: I walked out of the cinema in the middle of Boogie Nights, I would not have made it through Sydney without Philip Baker Hall’s magnetic presence, and neither have nor intend to see Magnolia (although I somewhat enjoyed Punch-Drunk Love). So no one need to take what I’m about to say about There Will Be Blood seriously (consider that your disclaimer).
It could be because of the subject (or the reputation of Daniel Day Lewis’ performance as Daniel Plainview) that I was really tempted to watch There Will Be Blood. I did so with the same cold detachment that the director seems to reserve for his characters. I remained cold throughout the film, occasionally observing its beauty, but profoundly untouched by its themes. I wondered why that was. The film was linearly constructed, narratively straightforward and rather slowly paced, but not to its detriment. In other cases, I would characterize it as hypnotic, but it never managed to draw me in, leaving me as a viewer on the margins of an experience that excluded me for the most part. In a sense, it could have been any other period piece by any other filmmaker. But something sets the film apart, for better or for worse.
Anderson manifests, apart from a highly evolved visual style, a disregard for reality (or realism). One of Plainview’s workers dies, his orphaned infant immediately adopted without explanation or obvious motivation from the main character. The boy, HW, is taken on with a dedication and stubborn tenderness (the most interesting relationship of the entire film and somewhat alien to its grand central themes) that lasts until he becomes “defective” (at least, that’s what one is led to assume by the subsequent behavior of Plainview). The boy loses his hearing in an accident – a gas explosion that leads to a persistent oil well fire – in the most beautiful sequence of the movie. Its force was significantly lessened by the fact that I had recently watched the far superior Siberiade (1979) by Andrey Konchalovskiy, that featured a similar accident as its climax, an accident that seals the fate of its hero (scored inimitably by Eduard Artemyev).
There is also little or no explanation for the double appearance of Paul Dano who, hypothetically, plays two identical twins, again with no obvious reason. Women are conspicuous by their absence, and the brief episode with Mary Sunday, the sister of Paul Dano’s character (the girl ends up marrying HW in a wedding ceremony that seems to come from a different movie) is also of little consequence to the story. Despite its linearity (or because of it?), some of the episodes retain a surrealist quality, a sort of disjunction from the main body of the film. The introduction of Plainview’s supposed half-brother, the repeated questions posed by Daniel Day Lewis before he (or the camera) even come close to the stranger, the attempt of HW to set the ‘intruder’ on fire (along with his own father?) remain as enigmatic as the main character’s motivation. Why would he even take the stranger in? And why would he react by murdering the impostor upon discovering the truth? Plainview is set up as unhinged early on, but again there is no logic behind this. Is it his greed that made him so or the manic persecution of his goal to get rich is a result of his personality? The ferocious antagonism between Daniel Day Lewis’ and Paul Dano’s characters is also inexplicable. Dano’s preacher and self-proclaimed healer obviously gets on Plainview’s nerves (he is also an impostor, but of a different kind), but is his treatment justified? Is it because he dared suggest that HW’s deafness was Daniel’s fault because he refused to let him bless the well before starting to drill?
Even so, the problem does not lie here. Not everything needs to be explained away in a movie and ellipsis is not necessarily a defective narrative mode (not to me, at least). The main shortcoming of the film lies precisely, ironically so, in the grandiosity of its themes. Daniel Plainview is not a man, but a symbol. The problem is not that his motivation is unclear. It is that he has none, because he is simply not human. He lies outside history, and time, as a perpetual symbol of whatever the director is trying to say. Money over religion, greed over family, violence over humanity. Because Paul Thomas Anderson wants to say something very big about American history, the nature of large-scale capitalist enterprise (paradoxically though, the film does not contain an ounce of social criticism), the primitive motivations of human nature etc., he ends up with a film that is at times an ironic commentary of the process of its own making. Daniel Day Lewis sitting at his “director’s chair”, watching the oil well fire shoot into the sky, or proclaiming that he’s finished after bashing Paul Dano’s brains in the final scene. A memory is inserted there, the happy memory of a child playing with his father, and the viewer is left looking for the lost humanity of Daniel Plainview. Except that he never had any. He ends up exactly where he started and just as his director intended him: with no connection to a living soul; in plain view, but completely hidden.