19/04/2018

There Will Be Blood - The Fickle Family Man

Thoughts On: There Will Be Blood (2007)


A self-made oil man comes upon a small settlement headed by a hysterical cleric.


Almost anyone can tell you this, but There Will Be Blood is truly one of the greatest films to have come out of America in the past decade or two. Each and every time I watch this film, I can't help but be reminded of this fact. The first time you see it, the performances reach out of the screen and throttle you. With a re-watch or two, however, the themes start to resonate all the better, the incredible pacing rings out, the absolutely fantastic direction, as patient as it is subtle, gleams, the film crystallises, and it continues to crystallise further with each and every watch after. Having seen this more than half a dozen times since it has come out, I don't hesitate at all in saying that this is a masterpiece.

As you come to terms with There Will Be Blood, its ideas around capitalism and religion come to the fore. However, I personally think that these themes are white noise that form the context of the story and give it a spine, but are subservient to Anderson's character study, which is far too deep, far too intricate and far too complex to be mapped onto broad ideas of the world. And this is really what Anderson does so well: he creates insular places that are populated by characters alone. There are grand themes and topics hanging over his PTA's characters' heads - in The Master, there is Scientology, Boogie Nights, the porn industry, Magnolia, show-business, etc. - however, like Bergman does, Anderson focuses his lens on faces and, behind the eyes of his tremendous actors, you see theme, you see meaning. Whilst many films have us see the world through the eyes of a character, see them project grand themes, Anderson has us peer into his characters to find theme - and you're not going to pull them out too easily. It is because Anderson is so precise and efficient with this technique of centring his characters that he is arguably one of the greatest filmmakers ever to get us to think as characters do, to ask what is going on their head.

There is a silence about There Will Be Blood that so often facilitates just this. And as I look into Daniel Plainview I can't help but see, somewhat ironically, sensitivity. As much as Daniel hates and lashes out at those around him, he has very soft insides. When characters break his armour and know where to poke him, so much is then exposed. The key moments in which Daniel is exposed are all focused on his child and his future. There is then his business competitors who tells him to quit the oil business and look after his son and Eli who has him admit that he has abandoned his boy. He reacts to both of these men with an anger and disgust so pure and genuine that it is almost child-like. And such is his soft inside.

Plainview, on one level, is a man of simple principals who ultimately only wants a nice house and a family. The sight of this house, the house he dreamed of as a child, however, would make him sick as a man - or so he says. This dichotomy between dream and sickness, this disavowal, reveals the heart of Daniel. Watching him closely over the course of this film, you will see a man who worked for everything he got, who crawls for miles across a desert to cash a small fortune, who adopts an orphan of a man who worked for him, who tries to uplift a small town. When you watch him go through these ordeals, in his silent moments, you see genuine care - and I don't believe this is an illusion. When he first feeds the orphan he adopts, when he enters the town of seemingly good people, there is always the defence that he is just making money at hand; he can tell his son that he was just an orphan, he can take all his money and leave, if he feels threatened. And such seems to be Daniel's complex. It is not that he is a selfish, evil pig, rather, he is scared to not have that persona at hand. There is then always a question mark over every good deed he does; he has to be making money to support others, he has to be spiting one person so he can help another. Daniel can do nothing if he does not have his finger on either an escape button or deep in one of your wounds. And this, it seems, is because he, himself, is so fickle and soft inside.

What There Will Be Blood then transforms into, in my view, is really a film about family. It seems that Daniel makes his money with his dream house and a family in mind. In making the money, however, he transforms. From good intentions emerge, above all else, aggression; Daniel is an angry man. This drives him forward whilst simultaneously steering him away from his initial goal. And thus, it seems, Daniel splits into two. There is his one half who just wants to look after an orphan boy - out of guilt, out of the goodness in himself. However, to look after this boy, he will have to make more money. And so then there opens up another persona; the boy becomes his partner: he is going to give him his company and the skills to have all that he never did - or maybe just duty and burden. Difficulties pull the loving persona and the exploitative Daniel apart. When his boy grows estranged, when he is injured and deafened and Daniel makes a mistake in sending him off - which may have been the better option, but who knows? - his future plans deteriorate. He becomes more fickle. This paradigm plays out with the small town, too. He just wants to help the people and help himself, but, he has to fight for control. And unable to concede to Eli and to a set of ideals (religion) that aren't necessarily his, he stops wanting to help and starts using the excuse of exploitation before only exploiting. In the end, sat in his empty dream house, Daniel has all he wanted apart from a friend, a partner, someone who is not there for money. It is here that his son throws all that was given to him at his father to start off on his own business ventures. However respectfully this is done, the fickle man cannot accept it. He does, however, get his revenge on Eli. He has abandoned his boy, but has no one around to poke at his wounds now.

In the end, There Will Be Blood becomes a tragedy about a man who cannot open himself up to people or risk anything; it shows strength poison a man against himself and a perfect storm around him tear at his personas. Daniel is then much like Day-Lewis' character from The Phantom Thread, incredibly particular and ultimately in search of someone who may destroy him. However, there is a subtlety and a sense of hope and strength embedded into There Will Be Blood that slowly deteriorates. It leaves the picture quietly after never really being there, but, once it is recognised as missing, There Will Be Blood only seems to ask questions: Where does a fickle man find salvation? Is it even possible? Does he deserve it?


That's another one for the Kaleidoscope series, and it sees us move past the halfway mark. If you're interested in finding out why I've written about this film, please check out The Red Kaleidoscope Rainbow.

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