There Will Be Blood
Produced and distributed by Miramax Films
Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson
Many American film reviewers must labor under the spell of Marxist sentimentality. It’s as though they have never recovered from their undergraduate viewing of Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sergei Eisenstein’s clever but facile Soviet-propaganda film. Not surprisingly, whenever left-wing politics show up on screen, they grow hopelessly nostalgic. How else to explain their near-unanimous canonization of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a botched adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 socialist novel Oil!? Reading their notices, I began to wonder if the film had left the poor scribblers ideologically befogged. Most seem to have surrendered their judgment and unashamedly cribbed the language in the studio’s press kit—“epic” being most frequently invoked, followed by comparisons with Citizen Kane and The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
But this film is not an epic. It has neither the historical scope nor the social depth to qualify for even the loosest sense of the word. And, unlike Orson Welles’ and John Huston’s peerless films—which, lest anyone think I’m allowing my politics to cloud my aesthetic judgment, are also thoroughly left-wing projects—Anderson’s film is an incoherent, unfinished psychodrama with occasional flashes of brilliance. The press notes tell us that it is “loosely” based on Sinclair’s novel. This is p.r.-speak. The film has almost nothing to do with its source. Instead of Sinclair’s expansive depiction of California high-stakes wheeling and dealing in the first decades of the 20th century, Anderson pits two American madmen against each other—one, a pitiless capitalist; the other, a religious huckster. Their battle is meant to represent the murderous consequences of the greed unleashed by America’s addictions to secular and sacred entrepreneurship. Critics have accepted the film’s largely undramatized thesis that capitalism and religion have been equally ruinous of what might have been a more brotherly ethos in our land. Perhaps Anderson had in mind the political culture that flourished so beneficently in the formerly Marxist states of the last century. Well, certainly, capitalism and religion have inflicted their share of crimes on the masses, but their infractions pale when compared with the oppressive and murderous policies systematically enforced by Marxist governments.
I suppose Miramax has dubbed the film an epic because it invokes not only Sinclair but the Bible. Or is it Anderson’s epic-size ambition they have in mind? The title comes from Exodus 7:19, in which the Lord commands Moses to stretch forth his rod over the waters of Egypt, “that there may be blood throughout the land.” This is the first of the Ten Plagues designed to goad Pharaoh into freeing the Jews. The relevance of this allusion is a bit obscure, but I suppose Anderson means that America is the new Egypt, afflicted figuratively and literally with the plague of a blood-letting capitalism.
Given the cautionary reference, you’d think Anderson would have examined the workings of the detested economic system in some detail, but, curiously, he doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on the oilman and the preacher, often to the exclusion of the novel’s fuller portrayal of their surrounding community and its economy. In fact, he has rewritten the novel so that the resulting narrative barely reflects the original. His primary characters are monsters driven by their sociopathic obsessions to succeed at all costs. This was not Sinclair’s purpose at all.
As a committed socialist, Sinclair was less interested in individual neurosis and criminality than in the American economic system, which his novels and essays portray as inherently unjust. His wealthy characters are generally not evil. They just cannot see beyond their bourgeois assumptions. As such, they are not fully responsible for the iniquities they blindly visit on the less privileged. In the opening pages of Oil!, his protagonist, J. Arnold Ross (whom Anderson has archly rechristened Plainview), drives along an early concrete highway. The highway is so narrow that approaching cars can barely pass and have no choice but to trust each other’s skill to negotiate the few inches of clearance provided them. Ross has taken his son Bunny along for the drive, and the boy thrills at each of these near misses as much as he would if he were on an amusement-park ride. The episode constitutes Sinclair’s clever metaphor for unfettered capitalist competition. It does not seem to occur to Ross and the other drivers that some authority—a socialist government, for instance—should intervene to protect them from their potential recklessness. Instead of demanding that the road be widened, Ross contents himself with calling inconsiderate drivers “road hogs.” This is Sinclair’s version of the free market, a childish competition in which participants are left to run the risk of devastating collision at every turn.
Anderson’s dour film admits no such scene. In his dealings, Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) deliberately encroaches on others, ferociously determined to refuse them any more quarter than he absolutely must. His idea is to crowd others off the road if he can. And why not? “There are times,” he explains, “when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.” Armed with such cynicism, he is not surprised when a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) offers to sell him information about the oil underneath the Sunday family farm without informing his father. Ignoring the implicit betrayal of the offer, Plainview tries to bargain the price down, as any good capitalist would. Later, he offers Paul’s father, Abel, $3,700 for his house. But Abel’s other son, Eli (also Paul Dano), points out that there’s oil on the property and demands another $10,000. Eli is a faith healer and wants the money to build a church for his congregation. Plainview is visibly put out by Eli’s demand, and you can hardly blame him. It’s not just the expense. Since Dano plays both Eli and Paul, the brothers are indistinguishable. This leaves Plainview—and the audience—to wonder if the two characters are twins or the same scheming young man playing him for a fool. Anderson doesn’t let on until he throws us a sort of ambiguous bone at the film’s alternately hilarious and gruesome conclusion.
Anderson offers us another puzzle. We are led to believe that Plainview is cheating the Sundays, but the offer of $3,700 for their small, deteriorating farmhouse would have been a princely sum in 1911, when far more substantial houses were going for half this amount. And, as Plainview points out to Eli, there’s no guarantee that he will find a workable oil reservoir, and searching for it will cost him greatly in equipment and time. Yet Day-Lewis’s performance suggests Plainview is robbing the Sundays. He must be. He’s a capitalist, after all.
Soon, Plainview goes about buying up the other farms in the area. This process is sketched in with a few scenes—some of them, vividly compelling; others, vague and unconvincing. Then, a Standard Oil agent offers Plainview a million dollars for his oilfield. In a fit of wholly unexpected lunacy, he threatens to come to the man’s home at night and cut his throat, should he persist in trying to drive him out of business. Anderson then jumps from 1911 to 1927, leaving out the story of Plainview’s ascent to megalomaniacal billionaire. We are to infer that his efforts drove him mad, but we do not see how or why. Instead, Anderson shows us Plainview sleeping in one of the lanes of his mansion’s indoor bowling alley, surrounded by empty wine bottles. That’s capitalist decadence for you, and, apparently, it’s all we need to know.
It is here that Plainview has his final showdown with Eli, who in some unexplained way has made his own fortune and is now in danger of losing it. Sinclair based Eli on Aimee Semple McPherson, the commercially successful evangelist of the 1920’s who made her fortune by transforming preaching into show business. A forward thinker, she anticipated today’s televangelists by taking profitably to the radio airwaves. Sinclair went to town with this material. Oddly, Anderson has ignored it, choosing to focus on Plainview and Eli as natural antagonists. Why should they hate each other? In their mutual contempt for the little guy, they would seem to be natural allies. Anderson does not explain.
Although Anderson’s film is an inchoate mess, it does have one continuing focus: betrayal between brothers. This he signals by naming Eli’s timid father Abel, the original fraternal victim. Then, we have the mystery of Paul and Eli echoed by the fractious relationship between Plainview and his long-lost brother. Finally, Eli tries to snooker the oil magnate by appealing to their shared spiritual brotherhood. It’s a corollary of Marxist theory that capitalist competition fosters literal and figurative fratricide by encouraging exploitation and even murder of one’s fellow man. But Anderson doesn’t earn his theme; he merely asserts it. Indeed, capitalism has sometimes promoted vicious business practices, but to portray this convincingly, a filmmaker should illustrate with instances. Certainly, the directors Anderson invokes—Welles and Huston—did.
Despite its failings, Blood is worth seeing, if only for Day-Lewis. He has created a spectacular caricature of the possessed capitalist. Sounding like John Huston giving one of his smarmy performances, he has the voice of a born manipulator, breathy and rumbling with oddly placed drawls and pauses. At one point, he tells his brother he sees “the worst in people. . . . To have you here gives me a second breath. I can’t keep doing this on my own with these . . . people.” The “these” that precedes “people” is hissed, and the improbably long pause that follows makes “people” seem as if he had been searching for some more appropriate term of obloquy to apply to the cretinous bipeds with whom he must deal. I don’t know whether Anderson meant it as such, but it’s a marvelously comic moment. Day-Lewis’s performance may be a stunt, but it’s a fascinating one. It reminded me not only of Huston’s vocal mannerisms but of Humphrey Bogart playing the mad gold prospector Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston’s adaptation of B. Traven’s Marxist novel. Like Bogart’s Dobbs, Plainview descends into greed-induced paranoia, and, as he does, he takes to muttering his suspicions to himself, limping about his oilfield like a coiled, gimlet-eyed demon, shuttered up in his perverse hatred for others.
By making Plainview such a magnificent monster, Day-Lewis has also made Blood a film worth watching, despite its half-baked political intentions.