There Will Be Blood

X-posted to culturemonkey

Finally got around to writing about this, this messy, occasionally brilliant, reckless like it doesn’t matter anymore (it doesn’t) mythography of capital. I mean this quite literally. Most discussion of this film assumes that it is about a fictional oil baron named Daniel Plainview, loosely based on the life of Edward Doheny and overplayed (either self-consciously and well or sloppily and poorly) by Daniel Day-Lewis. This is not accurate in any meaningful sense. Plainview is not really a character, not a psychological or biographical portrait of a human being, but a mask. There is more than a void behind it (no existentialism here) but far less than a man. ‘He’ is simply capital embodied in the shape of a familiar archetype, the criminally ambitious Citizen Kane-style tycoon, perhaps more familiar to us as one of Coppola’s or Scorsese’s gangsters, Hollywood’s favorite way (because it still involves a masculine hero) to critique the American Dream. Also misleading is that the film looks and is structured a lot like those ’70s-era epics that have become our new classical canon. But while we may get their de rigueur rags-to-riches-to-hubristic-decline narrative arc, Plainview undergoes no fall from innocence. He does not change or develop, except maybe to get a little meaner, a little more desperate, as the film drags on and the archetype wears thin. His reaction to developments in the plot have the form of epiphany but not the content. The only glimpse we ever get beneath his skin is when he’s covered in oil.

And yet the camera never leaves him. For a film with such epic ambitions, it has a remarkably narrow focus, rarely leaving Plainview’s face even when others are conversing in his presence. This is not so we can witness the reveal, Method-actor style, of an entire history bound up in a momentary grimace or facial tic, it is for us to stare long enough at a human-like visage that we are no longer fooled by the illusion it presents. One might expect his relationship with his son is meant to ‘humanize’ him, but it does no more than prove the opposite. He relates to his child like an alien he was only briefly instructed how to interact with, when not simply using the boy as a tool to convince investors he runs a “family business.” While the emotions and interests of others can be temporarily forced into him — witness the forced baptism scene where Plainview is made to suffer something that appears to be guilt by the craven preacher Eli — he can only relate to those who share his blood. And if his declaration in the penultimate scene is true, no such person exists in the film.

We are constantly teased with the notion that Plainview has a past. And maybe — maybe the archetype does, some string of banalities that would explain nothing. But every one we see turns out to have been a lie, and he is driven to murder any relationship that might accumulate the necessary substance to become true. Anyway we are watching him for other reasons, for the myth-history of capitalism, the occult specter whose logic ‘speaks’ his every action, subverts or destroys his every companion, dominates his environment by draining it dry (Anderson claims he was thinking of Dracula when writing the screenplay), destroys a community by turning it into a city, and eventually leaves his body a withered husk, to flake and die like a leaf in wintertime. “I don’t like to explain myself.” The film’s trappings often resemble the Gothic, the genre of secret histories, but it’s all appearance; there is nothing to explain.

As many have said, There Will Be Blood belongs above all to horror.

This is what truly makes it comparable to No Country For Old Men, more so than a certain nostalgic ’70s-era aesthetic and level of ambition. It’s the fact that the monster at the heart of both is supernatural, though not in the usual sense. Chigurh too is just a generic mask, the relentless , invincible psychopath stalking countless horror thrillers, this iteration something like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Michael Myers. But he hides a secret ethical and perhaps metaphysical function, the entire narrative of the film structured around working out its derivation, victim by victim. Its rule, however, Chigurh’s ‘motive,’ is impervious to unveiling by any mere story, which ultimately reduces us, literally, to guessing at the outcome of a coin toss.

Though their secrets are different, the real horror is that there are no secrets on the cause and effect level of narrative, that it is mystery and not truth which is constructed through the films’ artfully cut withholdings of information; that the ‘brute facts’ and the logic connecting those facts is artificially, even demiurgically, rendered unclear — mystified. It’s a role traditionally reserved for female characters, but unless they are the victim/protagonist there is no place for them in horror. Chigurh and Plainview, the hollow monsters, as both engine and devourer of narrative, instead take its ‘structural’ lacuna inside themselves, and in so doing irresistibly draw the camera’s gaze. Here the affect of horror, created subtly with lighting, soundtrack, the whole range of cinematic technique (for there are no Special Effects allowed) is the only thing capable of concealing the more fundamental absence of mystery. Diegetically nothing happens which could not conceivably be explained, and yet somehow we emerge certain that a really adequate explanation is impossible. A certain invisible force (TWBB) or axiom (NCFOM) is evoked, secretly guiding events. That its repression is also made palpable to us, that it isn’t merely a function of plot (Plainview and Chigurh’s ‘sins’ ‘acknowledged,’ through redemption or punishment) but tied instead to the conventions of 1970s Hollywood realism, is at once the artistic achievement of the two films and, I suspect, their ideological core.

In TWBB one gets the impression from Eli, a grotesque parody of Christianity as both the paradigmatic model for non-capitalist politics and a type of show business, that stories can no longer be seriously invested in. Instead we learn to see Plainview the same way he sees others: “I see the worst in people. I don’t have to look past seeing them to get all I need.” In the much-criticized final showdown in the bowling alley, this impression of God and his earthly salesmen is rendered painfully concrete. It’s the scene where the film’s facade of realism, though always unsettled, is strained to the point of absurdity: the priest recants, he is made to suffer for his sins, and behold, his milkshake, it hath been drunk! But not even the grand narrative of entrepreneurial capitalism can survive past the last shot. The realization that has been building over the course of the film, in the form of Plainview’s increasingly strained encounters with Standard Oil and the unstoppable expansion of monopoly power it represents — that the individual capitalist is no longer a suitable vessel for the daemon of capital — comes at last to fruition, and so with the resignation “I’m finished,” the lights go out. The camera apparently hasn’t the right to follow. But is it irrational hope to wonder if nostalgia for the end of a distant era can reflect any light back on the end of one still present? Or has Plainview eaten that as well?


15 Responses to “There Will Be Blood”

  1. […] quote Shaviro provides from American Stranger’s blog seems particularly perceptive, especially in the light of Deleuze & Guattari’s thoughts […]

  2. I refuse to see this film on principle because it’s about a rich guy who ended up alone and vacuous because he’s rich, and it’s simultaneously professing to be MARXIST.

  3. Patrick J. Mullins Says:

    I just see the ‘i’m finished’ as the end of Day Lewis’s execrable onscreen jerking-off. I’m glad to have read nothing at all anywhere before watching this. (but your post makes me dread watching ‘Old Men’ now, which I have in my possession as well right now.) And I find since last night from both the ballet board and ktismatics that it was perfectly OBVIOUS to many people that John Huston was being invoked. I also did not know that Anderson of the excellent Boogie Nights and the filthy Magnolia was the director: It turns out that the only non-pornographic film of the 3 of his I’ve seen was ABOUT porno. The plague of plastic toads is total porno, and ruins everything retroactively in the film, although you can remember details other people did well in that movie (esp, Tom Cruise is great here). But Plainview is always Daniel Day Lewis processing himself into history in so obvious a way that one finds a new ‘synthetic history’ to have evolved during the very viewing of the film. The ‘I’m finished’ is the end of Day Lewis’s febrile and embarassing performance art, because there’s nothing else. What a fucking con this performance is. The Huston he’s imitating in Chinatown was never separated from his character’s corruption. Day Lewis is ALWAYS separated, never once becomes the character.

    It does remind me in its beautiful photography of Texas not only of ‘Dillinger’ from 1973 but also of ‘Paris, Texas’, which, however, is a great film. TWBB simply doesn’t exist. It is easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, along with ‘Magnolia’, ‘Carrie’, ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’ and ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’,. And his NYTimes Sunday Mag spread should make him the New Rita Hayworth or something.

  4. Tim Morrison Says:

    Wow…I stumbled upon this website to read the analogies of bumbling idiots. TWBB is about capitalism as much as Boogie nights was about porn. Your insight needs a 101 lesson.

  5. […] in Hostel torture is just a business. The Dark Knight’s Joker,There Will Be Blood’s Plainview, and No Country For Old Men’s Chigurh all borrow the trope: the ’00s were the age of […]

  6. […] Hideo Nakata (Ringu), and David Lynch (everything from Lost Highway on), but also American formalist doomsday films No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Road. But the distinctive thing […]

  7. lol several of the opinions folks submit are so silly, more often than not i wonder whether they in reality read the subject matter and items before leaving a comment or whether they merely skim the title of the blog post and jot down the first thought that drifts into their heads. anyway, it is pleasant to read through clever commentary occasionally in contrast to the same exact, classic blog vomit that i commonly see on the web i’m off to play a couple of rounds of facebook poker adios

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