Sunday, April 19, 2009

Social Commentary Within There Will Be Blood

I wrote this essay for my film class, what do you think? Format is a little strange because of Blogger, sorry!

Social Commentary Within There Will Be Blood

When viewing Paul Thomas Anderson’s tour de force There Will Be Blood it is beyond the bounds of possibility to ignore the blatant messages about humanity buried not so far under the surface. The first time we hear Daniel Plainview speak, the swift, prideful manner in which he introduces himself, not to mention his staccato method of speaking, automatically alerts us that this is a man not to be reckoned with. Paul Thomas Anderson has been criticized for directing Day-Lewis to speak in this manner, critics claiming that no one spoke like Plainview one hundred years ago. These critics are missing the message hidden underneath the speech. Plainview represents power and intellect, a fact that will be proven multiple times over the course of the film. This is the first time we are alerted to Paul Thomas Anderson’s multi-layered character approach, for at first we do not know what to make of Daniel Plainview. His plain speaking partnered with the blank stare of his composed and silent son H.W. Plainview unsettles us, but we’re not sure why. From the first moment we heard Daniel Plainview open his mouth, we grasp that he is not an ordinary man and the film will not take us in an ordinary direction. Paul Thomas Anderson pens and directs this film beautifully, horrifically, disturbingly, and tragically. His personal opinions are shoved so forcefully in our faces that we are shocked into submission, waiting eagerly for the next action of the complicated Mr. Plainview. Daniel Plainview is an allegory for everything Paul Thomas Anderson sees as inhuman in humanity.

The theme that is repeated time and time again throughout this film is the consequences of power, greed and ambition. Every struggle that Daniel must endure is sprung from his own need to be the best and to make the most profit. With every action Daniel takes, Paul Thomas Anderson is creating a twisted web of wrongs that represent the harm that humans do to themselves. When Daniel discovers oil in the sleepy, hyper religious town of Little Boston, California, he buys everything. He knows, however, that he is not dealing with economic scholars, he is dealing with uneducated country people who do not know the going rate of oil or land or anything in between. This is illustrated when Daniel tells his son "Well, we won’t pay them oil prices. We’ll pay them quail prices". While this may be an overtly obvious sign of greed and deception on Plainview’s part, the movie’s poignancy does not always lie in its subtlety. Anderson has a habit of setting the more perturbing aspects of humanity right under our nose and letting us smell it for ourselves with no perfumes or deodorants. At the root of Daniel’s money obsession is his insecurities. One can only infer that growing up, Daniel had a sense of inferiority and now as an adult has a fierce need to prove himself. Of course, this is only speculation, but what other reason could a man have for being so callously ambitious? He is an unhappy man with no family, no trust, and nothing but his money for love.

Daniel Plainview is without a doubt one of the most complex characters to grace the silver screen. His exterior is hard, brash and unforgiving. He commits heinous moral crimes, such as abandoning his son because of his disability and threatening to slit a man’s throat for making a general statement. These are the events that stick out in a movie goers mind, the events that create the character profile inside of our heads. We see Daniel Plainview as a greedy, manipulative, and uncaring person lost in the hustle of the empire he has created. However, this is merely the surface characterization of a subject like Daniel Plainview. Throughout the film we are presented with some subtle and not so subtle examples of a less terrifying Daniel, someone who is trapped without being fully aware of their bindings. Firstly, there is the question of why Daniel adopts H.W. if he is only out for himself? There were many other men at the oil well he worked on, and any one of them could have taken the child. Why then did Daniel volunteer to devote the next two decades of his life to fatherhood? We also see other moments of tenderness between H.W. and Daniel, the occasional light pat on the head, the immediate concern when the well explodes, the affectionate caress to ease the pain of deftness, and the prolonged embrace when they are reunited. These are the subtleties of Daniel Plainview’s character. These are the things that let you know that somewhere, maybe buried deep, is some form of love and compassion for H.W.. We also see a shade of Daniel’s less monstrous side show up in his conversations with his so called brother, Henry Brands. In a most likely slightly drunken conversation, Plainview actually voices his need for a relationship with another human. "I see the worst in people. I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need" Daniel states. "Henry... to have you here gives me a second breath. I can't keep doing this on my own with these... people. [laughs]". This is one of the first times we see a true vulnerability within Daniel. The desperate tone of sorrow in his voice and eyes give away the true depth of his hatred he has for himself. Paul Thomas Anderson does a wonderful job creating such a multi dimensional character with so many layers. This is how people are, people are not just single-faceted, they are complex and confusing and horrifying, and this is what Paul Thomas Anderson wants us to understand.

The most blatantly obvious parallel Paul Thomas Anderson seems to draw to society is concerning religion. The religious undertones, or more aptly called overtones, in this movie are staggering. First and foremost there is Eli Sunday, who seems to be a representative of everything Anderson sees wrong with religion. Even to the most untrained religious eye, Eli Sunday appears crazy. You watch him and his calm, reserved demeanor is uncomfortable. Everything he says is uncomfortable, forced, and a little unsettling. From the first moment they meet, Daniel and Eli begin a battle of control over the other. When Daniel offers the aforementioned "quail prices" for the Sunday Ranch, Eli demands a greater sum, claiming to know about the oil on the land and wanting funding for his church. We are then introduced to the skeptic side of Daniel Plainview. In response to his request for church funding, Daniel replies, with a smirk on his face that juxtaposes the calm and soothing tone of his voice, "That’s good, Eli. That’s a good one." This of course can be taken as "yes, that’s a very good thing for you to want money for, Eli" or, the more likely meaning, "That’s a funny joke, Eli. That’s a good one." Daniel, being the man that he is, is not religious. He sees religion as a sign of weakness. Depending on a "higher power" to bring you happiness and success just discredits your own ability to bring yourself success and happiness, and Daniel Plainview will let nothing discredit him. Another example of Daniel’s agnosticism is the iconic scene of his baptism. We as the audience know that Daniel is only going through with the baptism as a condition to purchase some necessary land for his pipeline. Eli, who has had a less then righteous battle with Daniel over the last few years, is fully aware of Daniel’s scorn for the church and uses this as just another way to torment him. There are a few interesting ways to interpret this scene. First, and probably the most obvious, is the mental anguish and humiliation Eli Sunday inflicts on Daniel. He is forcing Daniel to confess he has sinned, confess that he has done wrong, and to Daniel, he is never wrong. He is stubborn and never admits his mistakes. The most moving section of this scene is when Eli forces Daniel to repeatedly scream "I’ve abandoned my son! I’ve abandoned my boy!" One can tell that not only is Daniel overcome with a powerful guilt over sending H.W. away, he is also consumed with a rage at Eli for demoralizing and embarrassing him in front of the people he has deceived for the last few years. Eli, in an act that would surely not be considered Christ-like, proceeds to slap Daniel several times across the face, dehumanizing and emasculating him even further. These revenge driven actions that Eli takes part in represent the hypocrisy that is so prevalent in today’s religious society. Eli can sin six ways to Sunday, but to him, at the end of the day, he is the preacher and all is forgiven.

At the end of the film, after Daniel has lost his son, his companions, and his sanity, the most poignant moment is revealed. When Eli comes to visit, begging for Daniel’s help economically, Daniel sees this as the final showdown. Eli is begging him, Eli needs his help, and damn it if Daniel isn’t going to take full advantage of the situation and humiliate, dehumanize and emasculate him as much as he can in return. Eli begs him for a lease on the Bandy track, a piece of land he believe to be undeveloped. Daniel knows very well that this land has already been dried out, but chooses not to share this information with Eli. Daniel may be a cold, heartless man by now, but he is still fiercely intelligent and a great reader of people. He knows exactly what Eli’s largest insecurity is, and takes full advantage of it. "It was Paul who told me about you. He's the prophet. He's the smart one. He knew what was there and he found me to take it out of the ground!" Daniel taunts mercilessly, his crouching, defensive stance ominous against the fluorescent lights of the bowling alley. Eli is crying and sniffling now, clearly upset by the turn the conversation has taken. He cries that they were friends, old friend, why would Daniel do this to him? This whole sequence of events, from the mockery of Eli’s importance, to the forced admission that "[Eli] is a false prophet, God is a superstition", to Daniel’s eventual pummeling of Eli’s skull with a bowling pin, drives in fast-motion through every message leaked out in this film. We see Daniel’s greed, we see Eli’s hypocrisy and insanity, we see Daniel’s hate for himself, and we see all of these characteristics kill, metaphorically and literally, these two characters. This is a film about the dangers of being human and submitting to the overwhelming desire for power and money. This is a film about the necessity of human relationships, and this is a film warning against blind worship. Paul Thomas Anderson has succeeded in creating one of the most glaring allegories of the human condition ever captured on film, whether he meant to or not.

1 comment:

Marc said...

Very well-written, and your point clearly shines through. I'm sure you got a good grade!

I had a slightly different take on the baptism scene. The way I remember it, Daniel grins in a way that makes it seem like one big act in the end. I didn't believe for a second that he really felt badly about having abandoned H.W.

Of course, it's been a while since I've seen the movie so I might have things mixed up a little in my mind. But if his baptismal confession really was insincere, I think that speaks even more to Daniel's depravity and to Anderson's message that we are all lost without real human relationships.