In commenting on the complexity, if not the tragic nobility, of Orson Welles' title character in Citizen Kane, Joseph Cotten says, 'It's no big thing to make a lot of money if all you want to do is make a lot of money." Charles Foster Kane makes a fortune in newspapers and radio stations. But he wants to be more than merely rich. He wants to be a governor and eventually president. Instead he is brought low because he cannot control himself, because he has a hollow center that cannot support his loftier ambitions. Kane's character is distinctly different from, and a lot more interesting than, that of Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. All Plainview wants is to make a lot of money. And that's the film's critical limitation. We aren't surprised that Plainview's monetary successes fail to satisfy him. But since his character never evolves, we are not much stimulated by his unhappiness. Written and directed by the gifted Paul Thomas Anderson and based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood is the story of Plainview's humorless obsession to enrich himself at whatever human cost. He is the ultimate loner. We meet him in the opening scenes while he's working alone in a silver mine. What silver he finds provides the capital for his move into oil prospecting. He's his own pyramid scheme. One wet well leads to two more drilling derricks. Eventually, he's got lease lands for an entire rural community and enough boiling contempt to threaten the life of a representative from Standard Oil for the sin of offering a million-dollar buyout.
Early on, Plainview adopts the orphan son of a partner who dies in a drilling accident. But he later tells the boy, H.W. (Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard), that the adoption was enacted purely for the purpose of acquiring a humanizing prop, the air of a family man. We don't entirely believe this, but there's no question that Plainview has a frightfully low need for human connection. He seems to have no interest in female companionship, and he makes no friends. Ciaran Hinds appears in some scenes as a drilling foreman and second-in-command but then just disappears from the movie without a trace.
All of these offstage narrative moves are by design, I am sure, and the blank spots they leave in the on-camera action are meant to convey Plainview's emotional isolation. But they don't explain it. A viewer yearns for the information to understand a character, but Anderson stubbornly refuses to provide it. And I make this complaint as a staunch Anderson admirer. His Boogie Nights is a daringly excellent film, and his searching Magnolia is absolutely brilliant. But this picture has a coldness that never resolves itself into a philosophical statement the way, for instance, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men does.
Emotionally dissatisfying as it ultimately is, There Will Be Blood is nonetheless a defensible work of art. It is long (two hours and 38 minutes), but it's not tedious. Anderson keeps us watching, our hope, perhaps, sustaining us through the hopelessness on screen. The picture is also a fascinating primer on the early years of the oil business. The film spans the first three decades of the 20th century and charts the technological progress of the drilling process from men digging holes in the ground to ever more sophisticated and mechanized methods to drill deeper and faster and more extensively. So perhaps we are to see this as a first fix for a world that will quickly become addicted to oil and in its exploitation foul the air into our current state of global thermal peril. Certainly, we are to see Plainview's cruel manipulation of the landowners on whose land he operates as an indictment of unbridled capitalism. I assume we are to discover some religious theme in Plainview's enduring power struggle with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the self-anointed pastor in the rural town where most of the action is set. But I confess I was not able to unravel the meaning of this last, save to observe that the filmmaker has as little use for the man of the cloth as for the man of cash. In the end, I fear, Anderson asks us to go too far for too little.
- 2007 Paramount Vantage
- Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) pursues oil wealth obsessively in There Will Be Blood.