On a rainy night, in a dark and narrow passage, passers-by see a black woven object on the ground. A superficial observer avoids it for its resemblance with a skinned cooked animal, but a critical spectator picks it up and after some scrutiny, announces, ‘it’s a cramped black bag that, for the lack of light, appears a mystifying shape’.
The above archetype tackles two styles of treating the texts; an emotional way, which makes the viewer think on a subjective level, and a close critical treatment that persuades the critic to contemplate objectively. In order to master the latter approach in film study, a critical reading of a particular film’s mise-en-scène is an intriguing task. In a simplified fashion, John Gibbs (2002, p.5) defines the mise-en-scène as “the contents of the frame and the way they are organized [by the director]”. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (2008, p.112) in a more detailed definition write: “mise-en-scène includes those aspects of film that overlap with the art of theatre: setting, lighting, costume, and the behaviour of the figures. In controlling the mise-en-scène, the director stages the event for the camera.” V.F. Perkins (1972, p.74) suggests the same latter idea for a director, “[the way of framing] is the most significant area of control.” It can be reasoned from Bordwell and Perkins’ notions that the more a director controls the mise-en-scène of his films, the more he explores his vision within the frame.
Perkins (1972, p.61) explains the two main components of mise-en-scène: “The fiction movie exploits the possibilities of synthesis between photographic realism and dramatic illusion.” It can be argued based on Perkins’ comments that mise-en-scène is not a static and unchangeable concept, but a fluid existence, which is constantly oscillating between the reality (photographic realism) and the filmmaker’s manipulative treatment of the reality (dramatic illusion).
This text aims initially to clarify the sophisticated reasons for studying mise-en-scène. In addition, it will present an interpretation of the mise-en-scène within the last sequence of There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007), in an attempt to elucidate concerns about the elements that exist in the frame, how they are organised by the director and what meanings and philosophy they convey.
Why Study mise-en-scène
A film, like the black object on the pavement, has more to it than first meets the eye. The amount of events and the tempo of editing distract the audiences’ awareness from the purpose of the image. Perkins (1972, p.85) pins down this point by arguing: “we [audiences] are so busy noticing that we respond rather to our awareness of the device than to the state of mind it sets to evoke.” There are two points that could be understood from his idea:
1. Directors consciously manipulate the image in order to prevent the viewers from ‘forming a state of mind’. As a result, audiences are not able to read films critically, and therefore will be deluded by film’s deception.
2. Perkin presents a proposal; that is, in order to objectively approach a cinematic text, spectators need to think about and glean meaning from images prior to their occurrence. Thus, a critical engagement with films’ images results in comprehending an analytical structure based on the triadic relation of director, device and mise-en-scène. That is, by engaging devices, the director creates the mise-en-scène.
The notion of a device does not entirely refer to the technical elements of filmmaking, but to the director’s decision in creating a film’s mise-en-scène based on some of these elements as well. As Robin Wood espouses in Gibbs (2002, pp.56-57), “a director is about to make a film. He has before him a script, camera, lights, décor and actors. What he does with them (his decision-his choice) is mise-en-scène, and it is precisely here that the artistic significance of the film, if any, lies.” This argument is not as absolute as it desires to be. The main issue is that directors are not always free from the pre-existing constraints that bind them to manifest their own vision within the image. The everlasting paragon is the notorious Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s and their perpetual interfering in every aspect of filmmaking.
It should be considered that although There Will be Blood is a Hollywood product, P.T. Anderson functions as producer and writer as well as the director; he steers thusly to exercise more power than usual for a Hollywood director.
In order to contextualise the mise-en-scène analysis of Anderson’s film, a series of introductory arguments and explanations are in order. The initial point is that There Will be Blood is dominated by classic mise-en-scène. This concept, in Adrian Martin words, is “an unobtrusive style, which is motivated by the film’s themes and dramatic developments.” In addition, he writes about ‘a balance (coherence) between showing and narrating’ as the result of building a film’s mise-en-scène in a classical manner (cited in Elsaesser and Buckland, 2002a, p.83). The idea of balance refers to the director’s decision in making an even synthesis between cinematic techniques and narrative progression of the film; that is the camera does not suddenly deviate from the film’s narrative, but rather aims to portray the progress of the narrative.
The section of Martin’s ideas that requires clarification is the discussion of coherence. This conception in Perkins’ writing (1972, p.116) “is the prerequisite of meaning. It is the means by which the film-maker creates significance.” Moreover, Gibbs explores this idea more (2002, p.42) by saying: “the film-maker’s aim is to organise the world to the point where it becomes most meaningful but to resist ordering it out of all resemblance to the real world which it attempts to evoke.” It can be reasoned from Perkins’ ideas that in order for a cinematic text to be coherent, it must manifest meaning within the context of the film’s world. Perkins defines this idea as credibility of the film; he (1972, p.121) says: “credibility depends on the inner consistency of the created world, as long as obeys its own logic.”
The next section will explain how Anderson demonstrates the dialectic connection between coherence and credibility of the mise-en-scène and encodes meanings which are logical in the context of the film.
One may wonder why choosing a Hollywood film as a case study is conducive to this text. Gibbs (2002, p.65) contributes to this enigma by suggesting, “Hollywood films may only reveal their qualities if one is thinking about them in terms of mise-en-scène.” There can be a critical understanding of his reasoning; i.e. Hollywood films are not confined to their images exclusively; they are multi-faceted and multi-layered. Nevertheless, this essay accepts Gibbs’ clarification and instead focuses on its main task.
Anderson, up to the chosen sequence, has depicted the characteristics and mentalities of the two main protagonists of the film: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The latter has been shown as a pseudo-prophet, a charlatan and an abject pimp of a false doctrine of Christianity, who makes his way through life by schemes and lies. The former is a hardworking but obnoxious brute oil tycoon, whose hatred towards humanity makes him a memorable character.
The length of the sequence I will analyze is 11 minutes and 50 seconds, which can be broken down into four sections: an introduction of 22 seconds, a first part of 8:52, a second part of 2 minutes and a brief conclusion of 38 seconds. Moreover, the scene is located 2 hours, seventeen minutes and ten seconds into the film; it is the concluding scene of the film.
The first scene starts by showing Eli bringing three glasses of whiskey for himself and Daniel (the significant meaning of the glasses will be explained further on). Anderson’s camera pans to follow Eli as he arrives next to Daniel, who is sitting next to black bowling balls. The seated position of Daniel, and the fact that Eli bends down slightly to serve him, portrays the former as an all powerful figure and the latter as the servant. Furthermore, throughout the entire film, Eli represents himself exclusively as the servant of God. However, by serving Daniel in this scene, he treats Daniel as if he is God.
The similarity of the bowling balls’ colour and Eli’s suit is a metaphor for their similar raison d’être. That is, the balls are used to chase and hit pins, and Eli in his black suit resembles the moving force of a bowling ball that chases people (pins) and affects them with his delusive teachings and dehumanising tendencies.
Eli offers the drinks to Daniel, but he declines the offer by a wave of his hand. The refusal of drinks is surprising, since the film has established Daniel as an excessive drinker and a lover of whisky. This rejection has two meanings:
1. Due to the fact that Daniel is about to have a conversation with his nemesis, his sobriety is essential.
2. He rejects the drink because it has been touched or blessed by the false prophet, as a form of unholy communion. Daniel, by saying no to Eli, refuses believing in his God as well as declining the offer of being served like a God.
B) This part of the sequence is of vital importance. Initially, for its valuable contribution to the film’s narrative: it foretells where the plot will conclude. In addition, Anderson depicts the downfall of Daniel in a Darwinian sense through the mise-en-scène (explained in a later section). The scene is comprised of 28 shots, yet only two of them display the two characters in the same frame. In the other 26 shots the characters are separated by editing, which of course is not part of the mise-en-scène (13 shots each), but helps to shape its meaning. Anderson, by devoting the same amount of shots to each character, gives the same space and emphasis to them; by doing so, he enables their personality to develop symmetrically to the extent that the authenticity of their ethos is transparent to the audience.
The first shared shot (eleventh shot) is where Eli proposes a new oil venture to Daniel. Both characters are seen together, signifying that they are in a similar psychological situation. Daniel is in low spirits, because H.W., his son, left him recently; on the other hand, Eli is tormented due to the financial crisis, which his father (God in the Biblical sense) caused by abandoning him. The chosen shot is also a manipulation of Darwinian Theory; according to Darwin (1998, p.26), “no two individuals of the same race are quite alike.” Nevertheless, the initial function of the chosen shot is to show the similar condition of the characters (distorted minds). Furthermore, this shot suggests a metaphorical reading of the characters’ first names (Daniel and Eli, both Biblical names- both with similar roots). It can be argued that Darwin tackles physical appearances and not psychological ones. However, Anderson utilises Darwin’s theory to demonstrate the psychology of his characters: their physical condition as a façade to their distorted souls.
The portrayal of the characters in separate shots individualises them based on the ordeals they are about to experience. Eli is about to be murdered and Daniel is about to go through the Darwinian devolution or ‘reversion’. The fifteenth shot shows Daniel eating a piece of cooked meat with his hand (images 5 and 6). This, in Darwin’s syntax, is the first stage of reversion; the man is no longer a man, but a stage lower, a sub-human or an ‘idiot’. Darwin (1998, p.37) writes, “An idiot is using his mouth in aid of his hands… [And] has no sense of decency.” The lack of decency in Daniel exhibits itself in his bullying of Eli and how he kills the preacher in cold blood, after having made him confess the falsity of his doctrine.
Moreover, the significance of their surnames presents its role in the separated shots. Daniel’s surname (Plainview) reflects the typical mentality of a money obsessed businessman, who is dominated by a shallow observation and acceptance of reality and never dares to consider a second reading of the concept. On the opposite side, Sunday (Eli’s surname) emphasises both church (Sunday, the day of mass and where Eli belongs) and the day God rests after creation. The latter means that Eli is the outcome of the time God is not working; Eli comes late to this world, as he comes late to realise that he needs Daniel’s help to survive.
The next shot in which the two characters are together (shot 27) has a different function from the eleventh shot. In this one, following immediately after Daniel announces that Eli’s proposed fields for drilling are already drained, Anderson defines the power relation between the latter and the former. The oil tycoon is in the dominating position and he practises his power by constantly bullying Eli. This point is demonstrated by dialogue and the way Eli is currently seated, i.e. his shoulders are drooped and his face is miserable. The well-known ‘milkshake’ monologue is the best example of Daniel’s superiority. Anderson, by usage of the camera’s movement (pan to the right), separates Daniel from Eli and his inferior position. Likewise, whilst pacing the frame and pointing his finger up, Daniel encodes three messages:
1. The index finger resembles the straw that Daniel speaks about. This is the denotative and obvious meaning.
2. The finger’s direction (pointing up) helps Anderson to represent Daniel as an old priest who by using a parable (milkshake) sends a message to his young and naïve parishioner, Eli.
3. The somehow radical meaning of the pointed finger, which exemplifies a phallus, is a demonstration of an allegorical and psychological rape. This means that by pointing and waving his raised finger around whilst informing Eli that he will have no money and touching him with the finger, Daniel rapes and destroys the preacher’s avarice.
The last shot of this exchange shows Daniel grabbing Eli’s collar and throwing him to the ground. The camera portrays both characters framed in the background through a second frame, while in foreground on the ledge of the actual second frame sit the three glasses. The point of the double framing is that the director emphasises that the audiences are watching a film.
The glasses, mentioned earlier, carry a great deal of significance due to the way they are arranged; two empty glasses together, and at a distance from them to the right, one full glass of whisky. The two empty ones symbolise the empty lives of Daniel and Eli, and how they treat each other like animals throughout the entire film. This means, it is because of their empty lives that Daniel and Eli do engage in any activity, even inhuman and cruel activities, to compensate for their love-less lives. This is similar to what Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane (1941), with the Kane character trying to fill his depressing empty life with valuable objects. In There Will be Blood, Daniel and Eli want to fill this gap with money. On the other hand the half-full glass is a representation of H.W. (Daniel’s son) life, which is filled with love (he is a newlywed) and optimism for the future (the empty half suggests he can end up like his father). It could be claimed that because Daniel keeps drinking whisky, and when in the last sequence of the film Eli drinks whisky, they are in fact drinking the essence of their lives, i.e. whisky resembles life substance in There Will be Blood.
C) The subject matter of the film’s last two scenes’ mise-en-scène is overwhelmed by Darwinian arguments; Darwin (1998, p.37) says, “the principle of reversion means a long-lost structure [primary man] is called back to existence.” The shot that illustrates Daniel in the foreground walking (and chasing) Eli in the background represents the ‘reversion’:
1. The fashion of his walking with the hunched back and open distant hands from body recalls the classic Darwinian model that shows sub-humans and their manner of walking.
2. The way that he tries to kill Eli is not a modern method of murdering, but more a hunting discipline. The pins that he throws are in fact spears, which primitive humans would use for hunting and killing animals.
Daniel devolves from being a seated authority figure on the bench to an ‘idiot’ who eats by using his hands, and now in this shot walks and hunts like a primate. In this shot Eli supplicates to Daniel as if he were begging God; Daniel’s age suggests he could be Eli’s father and thus in a Christian reading of the film, the aforementioned is God. Notwithstanding, he is not a merciful and loving God of the New Testament, but an angry God from the Old Testament (specifically Exodus, where he destroys everyone).
The last seconds of this scene (and final moments of the film), when Daniel kills Eli and sits next to him (Image 11), have two significant points:
1. Daniel is sitting next to Eli’s corpse while blood is pooling from Eli’s smashed skull and flowing on the ground. I suggest that the cinematographer (Robert Elswit), by choosing a bird’s eye angle, emphasises the point that in the Darwinian sense, everyone apart from these two characters are complete and evolved humans. However, Eli is now a dead man who will dissolve into the circle of life, and Daniel is an absolute devolved man.
2. The fashion of Daniel sitting with buttocks fully on the ground, outstretched legs and hunched back, is a tribute to the cinematic devolved apes in the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The way Eli’s blood is depicted carries a dual meaning:
1. The blood and the way it moves on the ground refer to oil, religion and death: all three concepts march slowly on the earth, and gradually cover everywhere and it is impossible not to be stained by them.
2. The blood is a metaphor for the two characters’ greedy treatment of one’s desires; greed for God, money or even love (the way Daniel is obsessed with the love for his son, and his devolution after his son’s departure).
D) The last shot of the film (seen as a point of view from the character Abel Sunday) illustrates Daniel in the same position as the shot above; however the audience is privileged with a long-shot and observe him in the full scale of the bowling room.
In addition, two closed doors (of a brown-grey color) at the background are located in front of Daniel, which have a strong link to his jacket colour, grey. This colour, as a synthesis of black and white, reflects the duality and ambiguity of Daniel’s character. He can be seen as a successful man (he is a wealthy businessman) or a miserable person (his hatred for humans). He has the opportunity to be a protective father (God) for Eli, but by bullying and killing him, abandons the son. He can be seen as a perfect Darwinian specimen, nevertheless reduced to a sub-human. The doors offer two different paths to him, heaven or hell; Eli’s black suit seals his eternal fate, but Daniel’s grey jacket displays the purgatory in which he lives his life. The confined structure of the room suggests the entrapment of Daniel in this ambiguity and how it is impossible for him to escape the dilemma.
The last line of the film, articulated in the shot when Daniel responds to Abel Sunday’s call, “Mr. Daniel,” with the words, “I am finished,” can be a matter of controversy. In the shooting script (scribd, 2008), Anderson demonstrates Daniel’s emotion while saying this line, ‘satisfied’. However, in the film Daniel articulates his line without any emotion or feeling. The reason may be due to the Darwinian approach to the film’s conclusion: there is no room for feelings and inner thoughts. Daniel is no longer a man, so his animalistic instincts have no aesthetic value for the mise-en-scène’s credibility. It should be depicted in the way Anderson masters it, so the credibility and thus the coherence of the film is untarnished. That is the reason why there is no use of diegetic or non-diegetic music in the last twelve minutes of the film; the Darwinian evolution or devolution happens with no score, and thus the same happens in its contextualised cinematic representation.
Perkins (1972), in order to display the meaning of film in a disciplined system, describes a critical attitude in reading films, which is a theory of mise-en-scène . The objective aim of the theory is to discover a specific film’s meaning that has been created by the director whilst engaging cinematic techniques. Furthermore, the theory informs film scholars and critics as to how a director builds a balanced relation between the coherence and the credibility of the film.
Paul Thomas Anderson, in the last scene of There Will be Blood, creates the balance by representing his vision whilst combining it with Biblical references in general and Darwinian notions in particular. The result is that the audience witnesses a rich cinematic text, woven from different ideas that work together cohesively within the world of the film.
Frame grabs taken from There Will be Blood (2007) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson [DVD] Los Angeles: Paramount Vantage and Miramax films.
Bordwell, David, Thompson Kristin. Film Art, 8th edition, Boston, Mcgraw –Hill publishers, 2006.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998, orig., 1874.
Elsaesser, Thomas. Buckland, Warren. Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis, London: Arnold Publishers, 2002.
Gibbs, John. Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation, London: Wallflower Press, 2002.
Perkins, V.F. Film as Film, New York: Penguin Books, 1972.
There Will Be Blood shooting-script (2008). (Accessed 2 November 2008).
Alireza Vahdani lives in Oxford, UK. He holds a M.A in Popular Cinema and, a B.A in Film Studies/ Communication, Media, and Culture from Oxford Brookes University. He is an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at Oxford Brookes University. His research interests are Japanese period drama films, Italian popular cinema, classic American Westerns, and English linguistic.
Volume 15, Issue 8 / August 2011Essaysfilm style
The following review contains spoilers and touches on topics and themes from the film, There Will Be Blood, which may prove unsettling for some readers. This review is long as hell because TWBB is long as hell, but it is also one of the best films ever made andthe best film this decade.
The fact that Paul Thomas Anderson‘s American epic, There Will Be Blood, did not win an Oscar for Best Picture or Best Director says nothing about the film’s quality and inarguable stature as a masterpiece, but much about how we deal with an artist who swims out to the mark of greatness and madness, leaving the rest of us behind.
When an artist, rarely a director, does this it overwhelms and scares us. We practically expect the Jaws theme to begin its maniacal cue and watch the unknown devour him. Anderson, who previously directed the cool but slightly manipulative and hyperactive Boogie Nights and Magnolia, does nothing to alleviate our concern for the unhinged artist; his ever-focused stare dances more and more with an alarming expanse and he brandishes a smirk that sort of says “Oh really? Fuck off.” Luckily, from afar, these traits make him that much more interesting after viewing his first masterpiece.
You have to wonder if Anderson, like the famous quarter featured in 2007’s lesser Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, has been traveling our way, your way, my way with There Will Be Blood since birth. With this film, he shed his large Altman-esque ensemble cast, much of his former cineaste style, peeled his setting back a century or so. It’s said that Anderson shaves his head before directing a film, but with TWBB the cathartic journey of filmmaking is the means and the movie; he’s matured and transformed, shedding himself to attack God, religion, capitalism, man, men, women, fathers, sons and America with a steady, deliberate, assured hand. He’s literally gone for broke. I don’t think we’ve yet realized as moviegoers how far he’s gone, but it explains that fucked-up feeling when you walk out of this film.
It is my belief that Daniel Plainview serves as a sort of avatar for PTA’s deepest, bleakest thoughts on the aforementioned subjects, and when Plainview mutters “I’m finished,” the last line of the movie, this is really PTA speaking. He may not be done with the paternal subject matter, but PTA is friggin’ done with God and religion; and while PTA didn’t kill them in many eyes, he beat them to a bloody pulp and then had himself a loud laugh before the film’s ending cuts to black and the title ominously appears.
The Academy can have a pass for robbing Anderson. Do you reward a unique act of violence before you can thoroughly analyze what it means? Ostensibly, PTA’s new hook caught one scary-looking fucking fish. After three viewings, I still cannot decide whether his film is that rare break in the artistic sky signifying a New Dawn for cinematic ballisiness, or more akin to perfection teetering on a nervous breakdown.
To me, watching and rewatching TWBB has much in common with the strange, unsettling awe of coming home from school, quickly turning the TV to MTV and watching the ubiquitous video for “Heart Shaped Box,” in which Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain played guitar, confronting everyone and daring all that is life and death, as a Jesus Christ doppelganger hung from a cross behind him wearing a Santa Claus hat. “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,” screamed Cobain from murky, dissonant depths right in front of us, right at us. In hindsight, that was heavy shit for repetitive afternoons before homework and phone calls. “Heart Shaped Box” was so personal that its imagery and meaning weren’t blasphemous, but it made you wonder how the video bypassed certain censor-types, and what in the hell could ever come after it. It defined the time, and sort of broke through it, broke through the fourth wall with its tremendously angry existential (not “teenage”) angst.
There Will Be Blood is like Nirvana’sIn Uteroalbum for intellectuals; its paternal themes recall some of Ernest Hemingway’s best and darkest work about fathers, sons and being a man; and TWBB has an ambitious, though far nastier, scope on life’s absurdity, one filled with memorably eccentric characters, that is comparable to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Sans PTA, the men behind these works all share an unfortunate common bond that I hesitate to point out. They killed themselves. You see, there is no real parallel to TWBB in film. Its territory is fresh, vast and remarkable; that is not to say that There Will Be Blood is the best film ever made, but it is definitely one of them, and with time, we’ll have the debate.
There Will Be Blood: The Early Chapters
For all of its opening minutes, There Will Be Blood has no dialogue. We are shown men working the Earth for silver and then oil. We see Daniel Plainview, not so much played as owned by Daniel-Day Lewis, at work and there is no time for words, just hellish manual labor. Like the ape-men that symbolically kick-off 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see these men, these brute figures, moving silently against epic skies, and we see them literally bathed in a primordial ooze of darkness and sludge. This is the grueling, foreign foundation of modern life.
The juxtaposition of light and darkness here is profound with its eerie loneliness and cold machinations and underlying fear; comparable to riding a New York subway train for the first time late at night with a dude muttering craziness and another guy across from you who looks like he’ll stab you when you walk out, then get up and do it again tomorrow. Paul Thomas Anderson makes it so these scenes are imprinted on your mind like frozen flashlight trails. When Plainview crudely draws an oil derrick on graph paper, it’s no less than an illustration that will forever change America and mankind. And even though we get it, we’re not morons after all, Anderson is like you don’t get it, you fucking bastards!
Many have compared the film’s start to silent films, as they should, but Anderson uses them to blatantly rev up the intensity that will come to characterize his entire film long after dialogue is instated. He’s also leashing us to his new, fiery craft. So heavy-handed and quiet is the symbolism here that the scenes seem crafted while incredibly stoned; they are like a sinister moon walk. Such scenes shouldn’t work because this is the type of blatant tripe that desperately screams to the Academy, but Anderson knows this, and he is proving a point. When a hand aggressively marks the fresh face of an infant with oil above his eyes, the comparisons to the Catholic tradition of Ash Wednesday are grotesquely clear. Anderson is setting up the world in TWBB as a place where humans merely survive, a No Country for Old Gods: just men, the Earth and nothingness.
Plainview suffers a leg injury during his work in the field, and like a wounded animal, this only pushes his insatiable drive and instincts against the world. From here on, he memorably cuts a stark figure across the mountainous hard-scrabble California landscapes with a bum leg. He’s like the peculiar missing link between the Tall Man from Poltergeist 2 and Beavis or Butthead. Plainview seemingly came from nothing and is completely detached from his early life and family-we find out he’s, uh, from Wisconsin later-and the only thing that alleviates his pain and existential torment is success. In this time, his time, it is successâ€¦or salvation, which Plainview despises as a cover for defeat and a degrading means to watch lesser men ascend the lucrative ranks of a new, indifferent world. To him, salvation and religion are like the neutered dog that half-heartedly attempts to jump on a couch but cannot unless someone tells it to.
When an oil men dies a grisly death below ground, Plainview adopts his son, who comes to be known as H.W. Plainview. We see him and H.W. at rest one afternoon, and Plainview spikes his bottle with a little whisky. Charming. His worldview and lifestyle is shared with this new baby: for what it is and what it could become, companionship with limits.
Anderson places the two Plainviews on a train, and the movie already feels like it’s from a bygone era, as we bleed into a speech made later, in 1911, by Plainview to a group of meager townspeople. “Ladies and Gentlemenâ€¦” he says, now infamously in lieu of Day Lewis’s Best Actor Oscar.
From his tight-fitting suit, to his reddish workman skin, to the serious 9-year-old H.W. at his side, this man is economical like a steak knife. But the voice is what draws us, and the townspeople, inward, so maddeningly sober, strange and precise is his “plain speak.” Like a magician who deals only in reality, Plainview has perfected his powerfully eccentric language of verbal coattails and he’s not negotiating to drill these peoples’ land so much as informing them that he shall. There are criticisms from moviegoers and critics that no one spoke this like back then, but that is not Day Lewis’s nor Paul Thomas Anderson’s reasoning. This voice, however Day Lewis conjured it, from the late John Huston or otherwise, is the sound and temperament, and pentameter of unbridled, foreboding ambition and a masterplan; Plainview is not so much a character as a force that Anderson sics at God’s jugular.
And then religion rears its face like a faux-humble hyena after Plainview’s scraps. A young man not so subtly named Paul Sunday, played with mysterious innocence by Paul Dano, introduces himself to Plainview and offers to sell him a lead to land in Little Boston, California where the oil seeps up through the dirt. The land belongs to Sunday’s family and Paul is essentially selling them out and short. Off go Daniel and H.W. under the guise of quail hunters to Little Boston, where Daniel will face a showdown with religion and God that he spends the remainder of his life waging, and Anderson, only the remainder of the film.
In some of the film’s more endearing scenes, the father and adopted son, now hunting on the Sundays’ property, bond in sun-latticed woods, shooting down a fair number of fowl, before H.W. discovers oil on his shoe and runs, nearly gallops, after his dad in reserved joy. H.W. is a lil’ oil man. Dillon Freasier, a kid with no acting experience discovered in Texas, where the film was partially shot, really shines as H.W. in the scene that follows. His dad explains to him that “they” will pay the Sunday family “quail prices” instead of oil prices for the “find.” There is a quizzical, believable grace and precocious moral profundity about Freasier’s performance here that should not go unnoticed.
Daniel soon meets Eli Sunday, also played by Paul Dano, who is the unforeseen identical twin brother of Paul, and Daniel’s first encounter with Eli is one of bafflement, mirroring the audience’s. Is this a trick? Are Paul and Eli the same person? Paul Thomas Anderson never tells us, and there’s a bit of real unknown that cruises past the film’s and our reality that no doubt infuriates Plainview, like it does us. Eli’s ambiguity comes to represent God to Plainview (and Anderson) and, of course, he completely distrusts and loathes it, and is willing to play long, if applicable, so that he can beat it once and for all and obtain mass wealth and control.
Eli and Paul’s father is named Abel, their younger sister is named Mary, and after we meet the Sundays the film pummels into an anti-religious statement, so as to be the definitive one for the ages. This battle is the source of Jonny Greenwood‘s neo-classical Kubrickian horror score, and his music serves to compose the paranoiac, epic striving of Plainview’s psyche and forever mesh it with Anderson’s similar, singular vision. What better way to taunt the heavens than with a cacophony of violins and needling dementia?
There is a telling lack of animals in the film (quail, a few horses, a Great Dane shown near the end like a piece of furniture), but these creatures still outnumber the women. When Daniel sits down with Eli and Abel and the rest of the Sundays, the women are coldly told to leave the room at once and do so. The scene almost plays like dark comedy. There is no room for females in Anderson’s tale, and the director has been criticized for this, but the flick’s tagline of “When Ambition Meets Faith” says it all. The empires of religion and greed were built by men seeking purpose, and women have as much purpose in this film as in a boxing ring in the early 20th Century.
Eli and Daniel cut a deal for the land and oil rights of Little Boston, with Plainview agreeing to give half the money to Eli’s church. Daniel stresses to the church people that “we’ll all share in the wealth together” and promises “education” with a humorous slyness befitting a politician: “These children are the future that we strive for and so they should have the very best of things,” he spouts. But Eli wants more and corners Daniel into an agreement to let him bless the oil derrick in the name of the church. At the last minute, Daniel chooses not to allow Eli the opportunity, and the plot’s feud to end all feuds is finally lit aflame. The central derrick in the film is turned into a work of art by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, who envisions it as a secular steeple that punctures the sky. It is always shown as far more grandiose compared to Eli’s church, while built from the same wood and with many of the same hands.
When we first see Eli preaching to his flock, it makes for one of the film’s more disturbing scenes. He is ridding a lady named Mrs. Hunter of her arthritis by repeatedly screaming, “Get OUT of here Ghost.” He marches towards the sun-infused door and throws out the specter. The absurdity and on-the-fly nature of this moment recalls some of the bizarre, primitive white trash voyeurism on display in Harmony Korine’s Gummo, and this is the scene where Anderson most clearly sides with Plainview. After Eli ridicules himself to moviegoers with this bogus act, Anderson cuts to Plainview’s face. This cutaway immediately received a big, uncomfortable laugh and applause from two of the three audiences I saw the film with. With the other audience, I was stoned, and I don’t recall. I was not laughing.
Plainview responds to Eli’s act by quipping, “That was one goddamn helluva show.” This is the first time that we see religion through Plainview’s eyes, and it is somewhat revelatory because no film has portrayed an atheist so clearly on film during this time period, or any time period. Plainview’s anger at this malarkey is outmatched by the group-think madness of Christianity, up until the third act where he conquers it.
For all of the critics who have referred to Daniel Plainview as a psychopath, the Blood in the film’s title is not sought out by him until the fitting end. There is a quote by Franz Kafka about life that is fitting to his situation: “Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for the unmasking. It can do no other. In extasy [sic] it will writhe at your feet.”
When another man dies working on the derrick, Plainview is passed out, asleep, on a nearby floor and awoken by his men with the tragic news. This is the first of two times that we see Plainview sleeping, and the blood is not on his hands, but on the hands of progress. He deals with the body hastily, but it is not a cover-up. When the dead man’s possessions are packed up, a Christian cross made of limp cloth is placed into a leather bound Bible and thrown without care into a large trunk of books. This man’s Bible looks exactly like all of the other books and is presented as such. From here on, the movie’s cross imagery is increased and wholeheartedly incensed.
Paul Thomas Anderson vs. God
Daniel Plainview as Psychopath, Pure Evil, Homosexual, Sterile Male, Bad Father
Many reviewers have proclaimed TWBB a masterpiece but just as many are surprisingly hands off when it comes to dissecting the direct anti-religious aspects of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. When said aspects are this detailed, obvious, central to the plot and numerous, from the characters’ names to the film’s title to the bold marketing, which quietly placed the film’s title on The Bible for one of the main posters, it is a disservice to overlook the meanings behind them, or to simply refer to what is presented in the film as “bad religion” or “evangelical religion.” To me, this is like pitching a tent on Anderson’s balls-sorry, cojones, thanks Helen Mirren-and yelling “masterpiece” between them to hear an echo, like so many cowardly sand fleas.
While the timing is certainly right, this is not a film about oil as much as a man, and “Man” in general, surviving in a world plagued by the inexistent, mythic supernatural. The issues of religion and God slowly seep (“seepage!”) into this film and fully consume it by its end, and perhaps that explains why the ending is so off putting to many viewers (the film still has an 8.7 rating on IMDB, so maybe not that many). It’s a purposeful change in trajectory, and if you were paying attention, you’ll see it as the film’s ultimate, if not only, objective.
If you are wondering about my religious beliefs and how they play into this interpretation and review, that is fair, and somehow Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA best sums them up with “purely philosophical, but you call him on your death bed when you layin’ in the hospital.”
In succession, H.W. goes deaf after a large explosion on the oil derrick, and then Plainview soon discovers that his brother, who turned up unannounced, is a fake and a con man. The scenes involving H.W. being injured on the derrick, which has run amok and burns to the ground, are among the most powerful, conflicted and emotional in film history.
We see Daniel’s humanity here as the derrick burns down, with H.W. layed out nearby; we see the glorious knot inside him, as he wrestles with a felled adopted son and his magnificent structure burning against the God-less night sky, drenched in this new black liquid money and at wit’s end.
“There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me!”
Plainview yells this to everyone and no one with empowered exhilaration; he is turned inside out and it is the pinnacle, the literal phallic climax, to what life is depicted as in the film: a reciprocal dragon of hard-won prosperity and tragedy. He wins the lottery of life and yet his child is injured as the result, except it’s not his child but an act of goodwill. Plainview is not surprised that this has happened, and he can not blame nor pray to any “spirit.” In the end, these events drive him to kill that which proclaims what happened, trivially and maddeningly so, was an act of God. This is the test and Anderson swirls in it. Anderson is in love with man’s ambition winning against all odds and against God. Daniel passes his test, and Anderson rewards him in the end, but not before testing him even further and much harder. We cringe, and some of us vilify.
For those who say that Daniel Plainview exploits H.W.: seriously, what would have happened to this infant if Daniel didn’t take him under his wing? And does H.W. end up in such bad shape in the end? Naysayers seemingly wanted to hear Black Sabbath’s “Changes” pumped onto the screen like lard as Plainview rocks his baby to sleep, and that would entirely betray the character. The adoption of H.W. is Plainview’s one real streak of optimism in his quest for success, and it explodes in his face like a nightmare; and later, it explodes once again with an overdose of Christianity and paternal betrayal.
H.W.’s accident is not Plainview’s fault, and I am surprised at how much blame is placed on him in reviews thus far. H.W. was always more of a partner to Daniel than a son, sure, but can you blame Daniel for that?
As a man who believes in only what he sees, Plainview sees this tragedy occur to his son, on an oil derrick that helped finance a holy church. It is the last straw.
Though H.W. is now a liability to him, it’s not as if he ditches the kid immediately; he shows a rightful amount of concern in his own way, while realistically feeling a human/father’s amount of shame. When H.W. tries to murder Daniel’s brother by setting his bed afire while he’s asleep, Plainview puts H.W. on a train and sends him to a school for the hearing impaired. The scene is heartbreaking because we now realize how alone Daniel is once again, and we also literally bear witness to H.W.’s muffled fear of abandonment. Greenwood’s score only magnifies these feelings like a sonic telescope, like a doctor putting a light in your ear. But Daniel chooses logic over emotion for H.W., and this decision bothers many, but not Anderson, who only rackets up the intensity of Daniel’s trials of non-belief. It’s admittedly hard to swallow. It is the main reason why so many moviegoers incorrectly see Plainview as a villain from here on, but it is not a fault of the film.
We next turn towards the relationship of Daniel and his adult brother, Henry Plainview, and their familial bond is a step beyond what Daniel had with H.W. And yet, Daniel still quietly doubts this new blood-relation, because life, of all things, presented the guy to him.
In one of the film’s classic scenes, Daniel admits to Henry around a campfire that he “sees nothing worth liking” in people and wants “no one else to succeed.” Henry doesn’t share these sentiments and it bothers Daniel. When the brothers take a swim off a California beach, even in the water we see noticeable differences between these men. Unlike in Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, Plainview observes no loving relation to his kin while in the ocean. In light of what has happened with H.W., Daniel wants to, and needs to, but his gut intuition calls. He must smoke him out.
Back on the beach, Plainview verbally expresses a heterosexual attraction to women for the first time in the film. He tells Henry that they should take some girls down to “The Peachtree Dance,” which is a festive event back in their Wisconsin hometown of Fond du Lac. When Henry responds with dull disinterest, Plainview is crushed. His brother is clearly a con artist who is out for his riches. Daniel immediately heads back into the ocean to cleanse himself of what, he feels, he must do that evening. This baptism of sorts is shown off-screen, foreshadowing the on-screen religious baptism of Daniel Plainview that is about to follow.
Later that night when Henry and Daniel pay a visit to whores, Daniel sits quietly while Henry borrows his money, gets drunk and enjoys the whores’ company. While it’s improbable that Daniel would have sex with a whore with murder on his mind, several viewers have shared the theory that Daniel Plainview is a closeted homosexual. This thought occurred to me during my second viewing (and stoned viewing) of the film and I thought it true, but on the third viewing it seemed far less likely.
On page 80 of the script, which is very loosely adapted by Anderson from Upton Sinclair‘s Oil!, Daniel tells Henry that H.W. is not his son and the script goes:
[Daniel breaks down and holds his crotch]
“He’s not my son, my cock doesn’t even work. How am I gonna make a kid? Does yours work Henry?”
However, this part of the script is omitted from the film. Anderson clearly wished to leave it ambiguous as to whether Plainview is sterile, gay or asexual.
Based on what’s on screen, these are all valid explanations and all make Plainview a more sympathetic character while further shading in his hatred of religion and God. However, the “explanation” that Daniel is “evil personified” is simply fucking wrong. There is no devil in this film because the devil doesn’t even exist therein.
With a gun pointed at his head, Henry confesses that he is a fake and tells Daniel that his real brother died of tuberculosis; whether Daniel’s brother really died of this is unknown, and coming from this semi-slick liar’s mouth, it’s doubtful. Perhaps Henry killed Daniel’s brother, who knows? Daniel kills Henry, buries him and passes out in a depressed state of drunkenness. He’s awoken in the morning by a man named Bandy, and they make a deal: Daniel can peruse his land for oil if he agrees to be baptized at The Church of the Third Revelation. Bandy uses blackmail here because he is aware of Henry’s fresh grave and its location on his property. Daniel reluctantly agrees to be baptized, after his several monetary offers to Bandy are, somewhat humorously, turned down.
Daniel’s baptism in the church is the most important part of the film. Plainview simply cannot escape religion no matter what he does or how successful he becomes, and Anderson presents these amazing scenes with a psychotic, paranoid verve.
Plainview is the only sane person inside the church at the time of his baptism, and the churchgoers are presented here like the devilish characters that surround Rosemary near the end of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. This is the superlative conspiracy in Plainview’s eyes and he’s become a part of it, and so have we.
The pronounced cross in the church in these scenes is truly horrific. Large and cut into the rear wall, it burns with eerie white light as Plainview is called upon to get on his knees in front of it. The preacher, Eli Sunday, presides over the baptism and lurks over Daniel, forcing him to confess that he is a sinner over and over and over. We see Plainview wither away as he’s humiliated and vilified. As a man, Daniel is being raped in front of our eyes and the ceremony is everything he stands against and has fought so tirelessly in provocation of. Sunday then forces Daniel to vocalize that he has abandoned H.W. and Daniel says so repeatedly, before his mind breaks and he finally screams:
“I’ve abandoned my child!”
“I’ve abandoned my child!”
“I’ve abandoned my boy!”
Humiliated, he walks back to his seat. The Christians swarm Plainview as he does so like a cipher of zombies. He sits down and one lady touches him; never before have I seen a man so devastated from being touched on his shoulder in a film, absolutely shattered. These scenes recall how we march our presidential candidates up to the podium and force them to say that they believe in God and believe in The Bible “word for word.” If these candidates said they didn’t believe in the supernatural, they wouldn’t get elected. And Daniel would not get his contract to solidify his power in the world. Like Plainview, these candidates (sans Mike Huckabee) do not believe in any God. It is truly a travesty to make them say they do, but unlike Daniel Plainview, they go along with it for the reward instead of resisting and breaking.
Ambition vs. Faith: Faith is Killed with a Bowling Pin (the End)
H.W. soon returns from the school for the hearing impaired. He reunites with his father, and soon we see H.W. as an adult getting married in the year 1927. He exchanges vows in sign language with Mary Sunday, and Anderson closes in on the shining cross around Mary’s neck like it is a “666” medallion. Plainview is not shown in attendance, because he is not there.
We next see Plainview’s mansion, the actual Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills formerly owned by oil maven Edward L. Doheny, and Anderson lingers on Plainview’s residence, framed with its lush, green foliage, with deliberate calm.
This home is the product of Plainview’s hard work, of no God, and of the blood of so many men who worked and died to see through America’s oil vision and his. This home is Plainview’s sanctuary. He wanted to get away from everyone, as Daniel so plainly told Henry, and he has, and quite luxuriously so. In a time where so many mens’ houses are built from ambiguity, Plainview’s mansion recalls the house of a modern day drug dealer or, more accurately, a pornographer. His business is a necessity. And, unlike, say, Tony Soprano, whose morals were tied to Mafia tropes, Plainview is a real deal self-made guy, but so many reviewers call him a sickening example of a man. Being your own boss is not easy.
Inside his mansion, Plainview’s lifestyle is shown in a hilarious state of disarray. Like Hunter S. Thompson in his “fortified compound” in Aspen or a more nihilistic Ty Webb in Caddyshack, we observe Plainview drunkenly shooting at objects for fun inside his almost vacant lair. Man as filthy legend. In the wicked light of a fireplace, we see messy stacks of books rammed inside cabinets on either side, as Daniel sits at a wide desk in the center.
He looks typically ornery here, smoking diligently from a cigarette holder, his eyes glazed over with strong drink. He’s sort of like a Western version of Esteban Vihaio in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. H.W. promptly comes in to tell his father that he’s going to Mexico to start his own oil company, and all of the father issues established during the last two hours boil up inside Plainview. At this point, we already comprehend that Plainview blames H.W.’s unfortunate turn to Christianity on personal inner weakness sustained from his injury, so the venom that is spewed forth is utterly depressing for the both of them.
Like all sons, H.W. is competing with his father here, so Daniel cuts him loose and calls him a “bastard in a basket,” a basket he randomly found and took in like so much charity. He aggressively signs the word for “drilling” with three massive stabs of his finger onto his desk and these stabs are comparable to three exclamation points made from lines of cocaine and periods of Adderall. Aha! This is the Paul Thomas Anderson we’ve come to know and love, and it’s intriguing how quickly the director pushes H.W. aside like foam in a carwash to get to the bigger questions and answers of TWBB. H.W.’s vocals make him sound emasculated and bring a glimmer to Plainview’s face, and possibly to ours. H.W.’s handicap and religious conversion is truly humorous in its tragedy. This is a fucked up movie, okay?
Literally sleeping in the gutter of his bowling alley, surrounded by bottles of alcohol and a plate of half-eaten steak, Plainview is shaken awake by Eli Sunday, who has suddenly appeared inside Daniel’s sanctuary to make a deal. It is here that we see Sunday as a mortal no longer. Eli Sunday is nothing except the alleged God himself.
Sunday’s face literally glows like a moon rock, and while Daniel has grown visibly older, stressed and frail, Sunday has purposely never aged. He’s inexplicably aged far less than H.W. who was but a boy when his father arrived in Little Boston. A huge silver cross hangs from his neck like a cheesy rapper’s and he speaks with humble, divine desperation. The world has done Eli wrong, so now he needs Daniel to right it. We see why Anderson wanted to originally cast a 13-year-old boy in the role of Eli. This virginal glow-child represents so many saints praying in front of so many real men of the world.
In the end, Anderson holds a possessed mirror up to the scenes of Daniel’s baptism. Plainview tells Eli to declare that he is a false prophet and that God is a superstition, and not only does Eli do it, but Anderson has Eli confront the audience with his confessions, with one foot over the fourth wall. Anderson forces his thoughts on God down our throat like Plainview forcing H.W. to drink a glass of alcohol. And yet, so many critics and moviegoers are quick to decide otherwise! Simply ridiculous, how much power religion has over us. This scene is like Ferris Bueller doing atheism, folks:
“I am a false prophet! God is a superstition!”
“I am a false prophet! God is a superstition!”
“I am a false prophet! God is a superstition!”
Anderson and Plainview have Eli say these lines three times apiece, as if proving that if the proclamations were untrue, God would strike Plainview down then and there, and perhaps the filmmakers themselves, as well the audience. If you don’t buy this explanation, you try saying those lines that many times in front of someone, and then try doing it in front of a couple thousand people.
Long driven mad by the madness that is religion and God, Daniel Plainview has finally won the showdown, and he is finally reassured that there is no God. God is only in the brain of the diseased, lonely and weak. So, he kills “God,” after throwing bowling balls at him and boasting about his victorious traits. He bludgeons God with a bowling pin like early man would do with a club, and this scene harkens back to the film’s beginning, where American men roamed the fields for silver and oil like a new, primitive species.
The last lines in the film come from Plainview, with his back tellingly turned to the screen, utterly faceless, and thus the lines come from Paul Thomas Anderson as well: “I’m finished.”
For both of these men, the madness of religion, past, present and future, is completely over, and when you walk out of the theater, you wish it was over in the real world as well. Daniel Plainview ventured, perhaps all the way, to where all men must go sooner or later, and if they don’t they simply aren’t men.
When I walked out of the theater, I remember throwing away my ticket later that night in mild irritation. When I returned to the home of a friend and checked my bank account, the last three numbers were 6.66. I am not a superstitious person, but fuck. I had already received a double-sided poster for the film, and yet I didn’t even want to frame and display it. But after my third viewing, I realized the undeniable greatness of this film and Anderson. It’s still not up.
Citizen Kane has met his/its match: There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece of near impossible quality and magnitude. Paul Thomas Anderson has gone where few dare (No Country For Old Men, ahem), and when a director attacks that which is more than human, perfection is the only option. Here’s to the brilliance.
A special thanks to: Peter Sciretta, Andrew Unterman, Shawn Wines, Brittany Banta, Clay Irwin, Zach Stephenson, Sam Cowherd and Chris Daniel for many a TWBB discourse and email.Cool Posts From Around the Web:
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