Reflection: ‘There Will Be Blood’

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

There Will Be Blood (2007), loosely based on Upton Sinclair‘s novel, Oil!,  paints a more devastating portrait of a man destroyed by the prospect of the American Dream than even The Great Gatsby. At the start of the film, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose name would seem to signify the way he sees the world, is a filthy silver miner who accidentally strikes oil. He quickly switches from silver prospecting to oil drilling, and in the process becomes an oil tycoon. Our national pride would tell us that this is the American Dream — finding wealth through a combination of your own ingenuity and hard work. But Plainview is first and foremost an outright liar: he delivers the same stump speech to every community he wants to buy (blindly ensuring that his oil drilling will bring money, education, and prosperity), and when he travels to the Sunday farm in the area of Little Boston, CA, to see if his tip about oil on the land is correct, he tells the family that he is hunting quail with his son, H.W. (who is, not surprisingly, not really his son). And though Plainview does do a great deal of hard work in the film, his nobility is overshadowed by his greed: take, for instance, the scene in which H.W. loses his hearing in a drilling explosion, in which Plainview, having set the injured boy down in a nearby cabin, watches the blaze and proclaims how lucky he is to be sitting on an ocean of oil.

H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Despite his hateful personality, Plainview is an absorbing character. He is mysterious in many ways — we never learn, for example, if he ever actually had a wife, and if so, what happened to her — and he is incredibly sensitive about his family. Indeed, when a businessman from Standard Oil proposes to buy Plainview’s oil fields so that the tycoon can retire and focus on raising his son, Plainview responds by saying that he will go to the businessman’s house at night and cut his throat, adding, “You don’t tell me how to raise my family!” When Henry, a man who claims to be Plainview’s half-brother, is revealed to be no relation after all, Plainview kills him and buries him in an unmarked grave. There are too many demons in this man’s psyche for him to be admired as a champion of the American Dream. By the end of the film, he is a 20th-Century King Lear: crazed, too powerful for his own good, and closed off from his loyal loved ones.

Plainview (right), grizzled and snarling like a 20th-Century King Lear

Day-Lewis, whose Plainview is at times more frightening than even his Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York, executes his role uncannily, as usual. He leaves us unsettled, which means that he draws us in and does not allow us to view him objectively. He changes his performance fluidly and believably as Plainview becomes older and more consumed by his oil-lust. There comes in the last scene a moment when the corrupt and broken preacher from Little Boston, Eli (Paul Dano), comes to broker a deal with Plainview for the last lot of land in that area. Plainview leads Eli on for a while, but ultimately pulls the rug from under him by explaining that his company has already taken the oil under that land by way of seepage, and using a childlike metaphor exclaims, “I drink your milkshake!” In the hands of any other actor, that line would come off shamefully risible; but in Day-Lewis’s masterful grip, the line is utterly debilitating. His delivery of those words is the film’s final — and fatal — shot at the American Dream, for it is at that point that we see how greedy and self-absorbed Plainview’s pursuit of wealth and happiness has left him. We see a man who has risen from a meager silver prospector to a power-mad oil tycoon, a man who lost his soul in pursuit of his wealth and happiness. Like Gatsby, Plainview at the end of the film is an American who at once has it all and has nothing; and like Lear, he fails to emerge from his madness and truly atone for his sins.  Thus, There Will Be Blood cautions us against pursuing any notion of “the American Dream,” for as Plainview demonstrates, such a pursuit only leads to isolation and loneliness.

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