Two strands in the American character brought a successful conclusion to the building of a nation in the wilderness: the American entrepreneurial spirit that made the United States the richest, most powerful nation in history, and a spiritual heritage that makes it to this day the most religious in the industrialized world. Both strands hold the power to loose demons. Anderson sees these traits of the American character as locked in a symbiotic but mutually destructive relationship. The dark side of the Protestant work ethic spurred the energetic and the saved to seize upon the opportunities gushing from a new country. It created a generation of robber barons, whose greed created both misery for the working classes and ecological catastrophe. At the same time these men also created unprecedented wealth for their nation. The churches too echoed the economic drive of their secular counterparts. In many instances, godliness became a splendid business opportunity that led religious charlatans and heavenly empire builders to victimize the ignorant and impoverished no less than had the captains of industry. Their energy, dedication and inventiveness stir admiration; their ruthlessness stirs loathing.
As an analysis of the American experience, the film invites a comparison with the massive body of Western films created by John Ford. Both filmmakers use their work to tell a story of the nation, but Anderson begins where Ford ended. As a son of immigrants to Maine, John Ford embraced a romantic vision of the frontier and invented the West as we popularly understand it. In film after film, John Wayne embodied the American spirit: energetic, physically imposing, self-reliant, resourceful, courageous and invariably moral. As time passed, Ford’s vision grew darker. In “The Searchers” (1956), Wayne’s driven character keeps a faltering grip on his own sanity, and in the end is excluded from civilization. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), Wayne is a respected anachronism, and in “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), a revisionist, remorseful view of the Indian wars, he does not appear at all. Near the end of his career, Ford recognized the Western myth as flawed at best, but at worst as fraudulent.
Anderson begins with this revisionist view of America and offers few glimmers of light in his unrelievedly dark meditation. The film begins deep underground, with Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) striking sparks in the dark as his pickaxe smashes into rock. The work is brutal, and the stone grudgingly yields only tiny amounts of gravel that can be filtered for silver. After a mine accident that shatters his leg, Plainview pulls himself to safety, rung by agonizing rung, and makes his way to the assay office. He will become rich, but he will remain physically and spiritually maimed. Who can fail to admire his resolve and courage? Toil like this deserves its suitable reward. He is an American, risking everything to carve a nation out of the continent with his own hands, even if he destroys himself doing it.
In a few short years, Plainview has used his earnings from silver to acquire properties that promise to deliver oil. The soil in the California desert is as unyielding as stone, but Plainview is fired with determination to suck wealth out of the rock. At first he stands knee deep in the muck and raises the oil from the well by hand, bucket by bucket, and spills it into hideous pools that suppurate on the surface of the land. The stench and slime of crude never leave him. Even years later, after he has made his fortune, his face, fingernails and clothes seem perpetually grease-stained. He calls himself “an oil man,” and so he is. It oozes from his skin.
As Plainview’s wealth grows, his humanity diminishes. He adopts the orphaned son of a worker, who is killed working one of his rigs. Neither altruism nor guilt motivates him. The boy functions as a useful stage prop to illustrate Plainview’s family values in meetings with those whose land he wants to lease. How could he possibly swindle desperate farm families out of their oil fields if he has such devotion to his “son”? Back at the camp, he puts whisky in the boy’s milk to keep him quiet. After an explosion that causes permanent hearing loss, the boy becomes a burden and is sent away. Some time later, a stranger introduces himself as Plainview’s brother, but the truth of their kinship is unknown. Their relationship ends badly. Plainview has no family, no roots, no home. He has no life other than his wealth.
Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a creepy boy evangelist, uses his spiritual fervor to challenge Plainview’s corrosive materialism. (The name Sunday suggests not only the Sabbath, but Billy Sunday, the popular evangelist of the same time period.) He quotes a few apocalyptic verses from the Bible, preaches with enthusiasm and casts devils out of the gullible. He also wants his share of the oil money to build a new, elaborate church building to replace the tiny cabin he uses for his revival meetings. He and Plainview circle each other like boxers testing each other without throwing a punch. To gain his cooperation in bilking the people of the area, Plainview makes promises he never intends to keep. Sunday keeps his flock in line, for a price. When Sunday insists on blessing a new wellhead, Plainview humiliates him by blessing it himself. Both men publicly scorn each other for their values, but in their cynicism they are mirror images of each other. They walk a path toward mutual destruction.
The American frontier myth consists of an irresistible march across the continent that ends at the edge of the Pacific. Plainview consolidates the independent oil companies of California and constructs his pipeline to bring their product to market without the help of the big oil companies, railroads or the banks from the East. As his empire inches westward, he arrives at the ocean and bathes in its cleansing waters. But nothing is cleansed. He needs the violence of the frontier, the stench and danger of the gusher. By 1927 he has built his mansion near the ocean. The glitter of a bowling alley in the basement of his mansion provides the setting for a climactic meeting with Sunday, who demands money to begin a radio ministry. Plainview is alone and drunk when Sunday comes with his proposition, but he will have no part of Sunday or of radio.
The final scene can be faulted for its melodramatic confrontation. I’m more forgiving. The film deals with the disintegration and exposure of two hypocritical, self-centered men. It focuses on character rather than action or narrative plausibility. At the end, both men simply explode, and their carefully constructed facades crumble at their feet. Sunday’s God and Plainview’s mammon, each lethal in its own way, can no longer sustain in them any pretense of humanity.
Daniel Day-Lewis drags us deep into the mine shaft of Daniel Plainview. His hat and mustache make his face rounder, coarser and more sinister than it is. I for one found his vocal mannerisms a bit distracting. He seems to be doing a self-conscious imitation of the deep-mouthed, drawling tones of John Huston. Perhaps he and Paul Thomas Anderson were trying to suggest that Plainview is merely an earlier incarnation of Noah Cross, the corrupt California land speculator Huston played in “Chinatown” (Polanski, 1974). If so, the allusion is a bit strained.
In the classic westerns, the tragic hero would ride off into the sunset, farther to the west. At the end of “There Will Be Blood,” Daniel Plainview has nowhere to go. It leaves a haunting question about the future: Will there be still more blood in the building of the American nation?