Western Wednesday with Blake Howard: There Will Be Blood

September 20, 2017
Grab yourself a milkshake and pick-axe and dig into the oil soaked Western masterpiece There Will Be Blood.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s (PTA) There Will Be Blood is a dizzying cinematic embodiment of American hypocrisy. Emboldened by brash aesthetic composition, a grinding instantly vintage soundscape from Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) and a central performance from Daniel Day-Lewis that stands apart even from his already intimidating body of work. There Will Be Blood blends the pursuits of industry, the burden of conscience, the sleight-of hand religious manipulation and the savage truth of western frontier life to create a film that garners the same feeling as a renaissance fresco, gracing the walls of a holy place.

The final film in the western quartet of 2007 is perhaps the one reckoning with America’s soul. 3:10 to Yuma puts a war veteran at its centre, facing a life changing physical loss and overcoming that challenge in the pursuit of justice, despite the fact that it’s in vain. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford reappraises American outlaw heroics with all the shades of madness, paranoia and egomania on its sleeve. No Country for Old Men immerses the audience in a domestic drug war to witness the mercenary players who’ve put a price on their morality. There Will Be Blood arrives on the crest of a wave of the public’s shame that the U.S had been falsely drawn into another conflict for the life blood of industry, oil. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton became a magnet for controversy from 2003 surrounding contracts given to the company during the second Iraq War.

Prior to There Will Be Blood, David Milch brought the series Deadwood to screens on HBO. This series charted the birth of modern civilisation from wilderness, lawlessness and how a resource like gold drastically expedites the structures of the world that we recognise (more on Deadwood in future columns). For There Will Be Blood we focus obsessively with Daniel Plainview, a gold man turned oil man.

I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.

From the opening of the film, in the sparse wordless moments there’s an atmosphere of madness. While Plainview hasn’t spoken a word, we’ve watched him light the fuse on a stick of dynamite, try to pull a bucket of raw materials and equipment out of a shaft and take a horrific dive down a mine shaft that alters his gait for the rest of his days. The hysteria is present as he catches his breath when instead of thinking of his own health he instinctively checks the success of his explosive, spitting on dislodged rocks for signs of ‘colour.’ Within four years Plainview has shifted to the American lifeblood – oil bubbling beneath the surface. In a mere decade of evolution from limping loner to a commander of a legion of ‘oil men’, Plainview has adopted a ferocious yet effective method. He begins with assured and respectful confidence. Providing a reassuring, if slightly condescending pitch, softened by the plain and warm face of his adopted son H.W. He then stresses that this continued pursuit of fortune is one for his family. If there’s resistance, he’ll quickly play hardball and leave a bickering bunch of frontier folk to look past their greed to another ‘service provider.’ The deception is effortlessly natural. Even in his quiet confessional moments looking from a beautiful hill-top, down the arid vista of a yet to be unblemished land, Plainview says to his son H.W that he’ll be negotiating with his targets, the Sundays, using ‘quail prices’ and not ‘oil prices.’ In the very next moment and perhaps the next line of dialogue, he’s claiming that he “believe[s] in plain speaking.”

Day-Lewis is an immersive force as Plainview. When he’s in control he’s an affable, if strange sort. PTA charges the audience with glimpses, if ever so rare, of a potentially sympathetic human underneath. However, when he’s being challenged or opposed he swells like his blood’s boiling, yearning for physical violence that’s signalled by his prominent vein bulging on his forehead. He’s repressing an inner, simian golem for those who would dare disrespect him.

I work side by side with my wonderful son, H.W.

The original savage truth of western life and of finding fortune is that you are in mortal peril. In a moment of strange predestination H.W’s biological father baptises his son with oil, only to be crushed by malfunctioning equipment in the following scene.

PTA accommodated Day-Lewis’ extreme and all-consuming method acting approach, and as a result, H.W. had to be recast early in the film’s production. The recast young actor Dillon Freasier is a formidable young performer, clearly able to navigate when to be inquisitive with his father and when to adjust to the more totemic symbol of family to cut through to susceptible marks. Plainview’s competitors openly charge him with the accusation of exploiting H.W.

Whether Plainview actually has the ability to care for H.W. or for his “brother from another mother” Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) is another matter entirely. There are flashes of tenderness. In the early stages of the film as the pair travel on a train together across the countryside; as he’s nursing and coddling him as they are still soaked in oil after the accident that took his ability to hear. However, I remain profoundly ambivalent about their relationship after numerous viewings of the film.

I’ve abandoned my child! I’ve abandoned my child! I’ve abandoned my boy!

In my review of PTA’s subsequent film The Master, I wrote that the film “is less the ‘Scientology Exposed’ film that it’s being billed as and instead an illumination that the collective wounded populace of a war torn country are more susceptible to exploitation by opportunistic and morally devoid jackals.” There Will Be Blood poses that difficult chicken/egg origin question about the blooming branches of the Christian faith.

Paul Dano is delicious and delirious as identical twins Paul Sunday and Eli Sunday. Firstly, Paul plants the seed of what will eventually be the Plainview large scale operation. With a $600 finder’s fee, he unleashes this force upon this family. His identical twin brother Eli won’t allow the family patriarch, his father, to be hoodwinked by Plainview, seeing straight through the cordiality and courtesy to a motive. The equally opportunistic Eli knows that the community surrounding this industry provides for him a chance to ascend to a position of power. He’s as enamoured with the opiate like effects of religious practice as Plainview is with oil. The oil is all consuming – drowning men in greed and opportunism; but the slick is difficult to remove. Eli manipulates Plainview into a Baptismal confession to swell his reputation and to figuratively and literally make him bend the knee to religion. Much like H.W.’s oil baptism earlier in the film, PTA is foreshadowing an inevitable reprisal for making Plainview endure this concentrated dose of humanity. When Eli returns clamouring into the presence of Plainview, he doesn’t realise he’s walking into the jaws of a man recently shed of any ties to the connections to the world.

“I… drink… your… milkshake!”

The devastatingly quotable final scene of There Will Be Blood often inspires laughter. It’s not a pleasurable chuckle, there’s no mirthful satisfaction. It’s a reaction of sheer discomfort, of shock and tension; your body contorts and busts out something to defuse the realisation. In the final moments in the opulent mansion as Plainview descends upon the defenceless, weak and callow Eli, the devastating realisation is that there’ll be no consequence for his actions. What’s more, his greed, manifesting in a slovenly life eating off of the ground in his bowling alley and bludgeoning this parasitic snake-oil religious man to a bloody death is as inconsequential as spilling food on the polished hardwood flooring. As we see Plainview’s Butler descend into this monster’s lair muttering; one can’t help but hear a muted but deafening irony in 2007. Oil men like Plainview who industrialised the frontier heralded the end of the old west and perhaps its men of morality and values as we know it. PTA and Day-Lewis don’t appear to reset compasses with this vision of the west, but instead to show the audience that the point was spinning like a tornado.

A Michael Mann fanatic all the time, Blake Howard is an Aussie film writer, editor and member of the Online Film Critics Society. Co-founder of the acclaimed Australian film website Graffiti with Punctuation, he offers articulate analysis across the gamut of cinema from blockbusters to indies galore.

A former co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, he’s also behind the top-rating film podcasts such as Pod Save Our Screen and The Debrief, a freelance contributor to outlets from Penthouse to ABC News 24, and a co-host of the weekly ‘Gaggle of Geeks’ on 2SER radio.

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