“Can everything around here be got?” oil man Daniel Plainview asks. “Sure” is the reply. And so There Will Be Blood, roughly adapted from Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), begins to gushrage and sweat and blood.
There certainly have been accolades for this film. Several critics have called it a masterpiece and compared it to Citizen Kane, probably because it focuses on a wealthy man who wants to buy everyone and everything around him, and critics generally are too quick to make anything but the most superficial comparisons when up against a deadline and desperate for a decent pull quote. But, in this case, are they right? Is Blood that good?
The film begins in 1898, with Daniel Plainview, played with a rough-hewn tenacity by Daniel Day-Lewis, looking for gold in Texas. He finds oil instead, and wants more. He wants, as he says, to be so rich he can get away from everyone. A people person he is not.
He soon finds what may be his ticket to perpetual solitude when a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) offers him directions to some oil-rich property in return for $500. The property is that of his own family. Plainview is at the very least intrigued and is soon sitting at the Sunday dinner table, talking turkey with the father and his other son, Eli Sunday, who is also played by Paul Dano. (Whether Eli and Paul are twins, or one and the same, is not immediately clear.) Eli is a preacher, and wants to start his own church: The Church of the Third Revelation. (What that revelation is, is also unclear; something to do with a healing ministry and the value of wise real estate investments.)
A deal is finally struck, with the father playing the hayseed and the preacher boy the hard-bargainer. As Plainview goes about digging for oil on the Sunday property, Eli begins to dig too: for souls. He culls future members for his church from the men working the oil rig, something that Plainview sees as a distraction from the business at hand. Plainview, after all, hates competition (the monopolist thrust of early American enterprise rears its head early and often).
Plainview tries to clip Sunday’s wings, when, after agreeing to allow the preacher to bless the derrick on opening day, he instead introduces to the gathered crowd Sunday’s little sister. Plainview had previously been informed by his young son, H.W., that the little girl is beaten by her father when she doesn’t pray, so the oil man decides to single her out for special attention, to humiliate both the father and the son.
So we are led to believe that the mean, lean Plainview has a soft spot for children, certainly for his own little boy, H.W. In fact, it is when H.W. loses his hearing permanently owing to an accident at the derrick that Plainview begins to unravel. What was a desire to con and profit turns into a need to bleed: bleed others, literally as well as figuratively. He becomes personally violent and eager to avenge his son's disability on anyone who dares question his competence as a family man. (Anderson implies that the unchurched Plainview is more true to the family values talk he uses to beguile plain folk than the preacher and his emotionally inert clan.)
The idea of blood works through the film on several levels. The preacher’s demand that his congregantseven Plainview himselfwash in the blood of the Lamb; the idea of one’s obsessions and propensities being transmitted by blood, the genes of the father visited upon the sons and shared between brothers; and the literal blood that is spilled as vengeance becomes Plainview’s overriding raison d’etre.
I dare say the image of both the independent businessman and the big business tycoon as cut from the same reckless prehensile acquisitiveness is hardly subtle; the director has admitted to at least this much. But the characterization of religion as nothing more than a manipulative fraud is mitigated somewhat by a benign, even sweet (albeit brief), alternative depiction. One could unpack a lot from that little church scene, but I fear doing so would give away a key plot point. And frankly, it is never really clear whether Sunday is merely an Elmer Gantry orworsesincere in his belief that God has imbued him with a pipeline that, like Plainview's oil variety, keeps the anointing of new revelation flowing directly through him, a spiritual power that tempts the preacher into pursuing earthly power (read: money) as a means to an end. (Nevertheless, Sunday remains throughout a smug little creep, whose contempt for the "stupid" rivals only Plainview's.)
Overall, though, Blood is smaller than the sum of its parts. Day-Lewis will most probably walk away with the Best Actor Oscar, and deservedly so. And there are some stunningly powerful softer moments, particularly between Plainview and his young son, that give the film a depth that moves it beyond mere anti-business cant. But the comparison with Citizen Kane is ludicrous. Anderson does nothing visually that can begin to compare with Welles’ master compositions, his revelatory use of mise en scene, and his employment of the set as a virtually divine presenceobserving, judging, and bearing down on his characters.
Yet there is a mystery at the heart of both films. In Kane, Rosebud is really the least of it. That’s the gimmick that the amateur magician Welles uses to pull you through his narrative. The mystery is Kane himself. Even Rosebud doesn’t explain the man; it merely complicates him. As for Plainview, yes, you can say, as you can with many of the characters in Anderson’s films, that there is a lot of unresolved rage rooted in a lousy relationship with his father, a dis-ease that he burns like the fuel he’s unearthing, giving him some backstory and some depth. And there is the apparently genuine tenderness he shows his son, even the guilt he seems to experience when he must push the boy away. When a long-lost brother makes an appearance, Plainview finds genuine satisfaction in having a blood partner to work alongside. These traits would seem to snarl the oil man in competing character threads, complicating him to the point where he transcends caricature: Plainview isn't just greedy, he's also lonely.
But not quite. Welles deliberately tells the story of Charles Foster Kane over and over and over again, beginning with the opening newsreel that audaciously narrates the newspaper tycoon's tale in the first few minutes. Welles is daring you to figure out what makes Kane tick. And you can’t. And you won’t. Not on the first viewing, not on the hundredth. Because the mystery of the human personality, especially a personality as big as Kane’s, will not be reduced to clicheseven to what Rosebud supposedly represents. Anderson tells Plainview’s story but once. And what we have is not a mystery, a paradox, a complicated screen character, but a confused one, one that will never offer up an explanation upon multiple viewingsnot because, like Kane, the character has been thickened to the point where he is impenetrable, but because he is incompetently drawn, and contradictions are confused with paradoxes. Anderson throws you one curveball after another regarding Plainview's motivations, but after a while he's no longer playing fair. If you can say anything about a person, you're really saying nothing; it's portraiture as potluck. Plainview’s final decay and descent into solipsistic madness is intended to be tragic but is nothing more than comical. His only driving purpose is reduced to revenge, to spite, making him little more than a buffoonish sociopath. Charles Foster Kane may be many things, but he is never a buffoon. And so comparing Welles’ creation to Anderson’s is liketo borrow a phrase from Mark Twaincomparing lightning to a lightning bug.
In the end, what does Blood have to say about American business, American religion, and American success stories? Nothing you wouldn’t already expect from Hollywood. It says that American itinerant fundamentalist religion and zero-sum entrepreneurs are opposite sides of the same coin, conning the gullible and the desperate into thinking they can be more than they are if only they’ll be washed: whether in the waters of baptism or the oil of Union and Standard; it makes no never mind. It’s the American Dream as frontier nightmare. Yes, there may be a decent-hearted exception or two. But exceptions don't define nations.
This isn’t a moral or even much of a message. It’s just spite.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things.