'There Will Be Blood' wishes you a very happy Father's Day

Twbb_lHappy Father’s Day from Paul Thomas Anderson! The Blu-Ray edition of There Will Be Blood has just arrived in stores, and I’d like to think that its perfect-for-dads-and-grads timing isn’t coincidental — that its release now really is intended to give the paterfamilias in your household a timely refresher course in how not to be a parent. Sure, that connection is a bit of a stretch on my part. (The delay between the standard DVD two months ago and this high-def edition really has to do with Paramount needing time to shift gears to Blu-Ray after the competing format they’d backed, HD-DVD, went kaput.) But the timing is fitting, since there’s no one who makes “family” films quite like P.T. Anderson. Yes, I’ll explain.

First, let’s correct one of the most common misperceptions about a movie that invites all kinds of misunderstandings. Think of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” for a moment and sing this refrain: The kid is not my son. Probably a majority of reviews and blogs about the film mistakenly referred to the boy in the story, H.W, as being the “son” of the drama’s central figure, Daniel Plainview.  He’s not, although you have to be paying attention during the movie’s mostly silent opening reel to realize that H.W.’s real father dies in an oil drilling accident about 13 minutes in, at which point the antihero, played by Daniel Day-Lewis,  takes over the orphan’s raising. (Warning: There will be spoilers.) H.W. is a fake son, just as it turns out later that Daniel’s would-be brother, Henry, is a phony sibling, too. Why is all this so significant? Because if Anderson’s disparate films — from Boogie Nights to this one — tend to all be about anything, it’s lonely people who have either no kin or horrible kin going to great lengths to create all-new, makeshift families for themselves. And if you view Daniel Plainview himself as a sort of overgrown orphan boy whose growing monstrousness masks a longing to have some “blood” of his own, then he becomes an almost sympathetic character, instead of just the ultimate Bad Dad.

There Will Be Blood was one of the most acclaimed films of2007, yet it’s remarkable how few of its admirers have grappled withwhat it’s really about, other than to make vague proclamations aboutAnderson illuminating the evils of greed. Is it oil, or some sort ofmetaphorical commentary on what modern progressives refer to as “bloodfor oil”? Perhaps, to some extent, although if that’s what reallyconcerned the writer-director, you’d think he wouldn’t have completelythrown out the second half of the agitprop novel on which it wasofficially based, Upton Sinclair’s epic Oil!, in favor of thecompletely original, weirdly intimate psychodrama that eventuallydominates the film. Did Anderson mean to use the conflict betweenPlainview and the phony-baloney local preacher to comment on therespective failings of commerce and religion? Maybe; the fact that thephrase “there will be blood” has its origins in the Old Testament (andhere you thought he ripped it off from the Saw ad campaign!)supports that view. But if you believe that successful auteurs tend tohave ongoing preoccupations, and you look at Anderson’s earlier movies,you’ve got to believe that Blood is about family, or the lack of it.

In Hard Eight, a.k.a. Sydney, the director’s firstmovie, John C. Reilly is all but adopted by Philip Baker Hall, who’seven better at being a father figure than he is a con man. In Boogie Nights,Mark Wahlberg deserts a dysfunctional family to take up with a morefunctional clan that just happens to be a porno repertory company.(Julianne Moore even offers to be Heather Graham’s mommy.) In Magnolia,Tom Cruise and Melora Walters both have some pretty serious daddyissues to deal with; one copes by becoming an obnoxiously extrovertedmotivational speaker, the other by completely withdrawing. Thesalvation from family via romantic love that Walters experiences inthat film is further explored in Punch-Drunk Love, the first Andersonfilm that really had more to do with coupling than family dynamics.While we didn’t learn too much about Adam Sandler’s parents in thatone, we get hints of how messed up things were from his damagedrelationship with his domineering sisters—and how the nurturing love ofa woman might heal what got screwed up at home.

There’s no such hope in the gleefully fatalistic There Will Be Blood,of course. But the same attention to family issues and emotionallongings is there, which is why it’s a little sad that so many of thefilm’s fans saw the protagonist as nothing but a supervillain in thetradition of Bill the Butcher, Day-Lewis’ Gangs of New York badguy. Call me crazy, but I continue to be touched by Daniel Plainviewevery time I see the film — murderous, retributive wretch that he is.The key to how you see his character will be how you react to thepenultimate sequence, and whether you think he means it when he tellshis “son” that he was a “bastard in a basket” whom he only used to getahead in business. I think some viewers are so relishing the idea ofDay-Lewis as a depraved sociopath at that point that they miss thetorture the character inflicting on himself. Anderson goes out of hisway to make sure we don’t miss his inner conflict by throwing in aflashback to happier times, with Daniel tousling the hair of hisadopted progeny — one of many affectionate moments that show his lovefor the boy was real, not something manufactured for the sake ofcapitalist gain. For whatever reason, Daniel is driven to alienateanyone who might ever love him. And though that probably wasn’t yourfather, chances are you know somebody who did have a dad like that,even if he never ended up knocking anybody off with a bowling pin.

When Daniel sends his son away for good, it’s clear — from thatwell-placed flashback — that he is casting himself into the fieryfurnace of hell, wherein he really lands in the final scene thatfollows. I think Anderson’s message is this: If we can’t find a way tobond with our own blood — be it real family or the kind of people weadopt into our lives as family — then our wounds fester, and there willbe blood, the other kind, violence, finally bubbling up like oil.

So on that light note, please: Fire up the PlayStation3, pick up There Will Be Bloodon Blu-Ray (the format that might well have been invented for just thisgorgeous a movie), and watch it this Sunday with someone you love,preferably a father or father figure. And for God’s sake, go out andshare a milkshake afterward, will you?


Comments (13 total) Add your comment
  • Aaron

    Thank you, Chris, for this great examination of the movie. I was a little confused when I saw Daniel Plainview on EW’s List of Great Villians because, like you, I never really thought of him that way (especially since he doesn’t have a monopoly on shifty morals in the film). He’s the architect of his own undoing and violet unhappiness, not some hero figure.
    Methinks I need to start setting aside $ for a Blu-Ray player now…

  • Stacy

    FINALLY! I have been wanting to talk about this movie with someone. Your article has helped me so much. I thought about this movie for days after watching it. During the movie I kept wondering if Daniel loved his “son”. In the resturant scene after his son comes back from school. Daniel leans over and kisses the side of his son’s head like I kiss my son. Then I knew he loved him. I could see that the character was tormented but he really loved his boy. I just couldn’t figure out the ending, I know he, Daniel was hurting but couldn’t understand the way-out-there preacher.

  • bonnylass

    Great commentary on the subtle ways Anderson deals with love and morality. His movies tend to stick in my mind longer than most. However, I really don’t think it was that difficult to pick up on the fact that the boy was not Plainview’s real son, and I don’t think that many other reviews missed it either. I totally agree that many misunderstand Plainview himself, though. I still don’t know quite what to think of him, but agree that he is not a clear-cut villain.

  • Nix

    You’ve made me want to see this movie.

  • elena

    YES!
    I came home after watching this movie, and wanted to discuss with my dad how beautiful (and therefore, extremely depressing but well, well acted) the whole Daniel-Day Lewis portrayal of fatherhood through Daniel Plainview was. His relationship with his not-son was such a focal point of the movie…I started to all but bawl when he left his deaf not-son on the train, his son just sitting alone, on a train to wherever…not being able to know what was going on…and that last scene where he tells his dad through his translator that he’s going to open a buisness in Mexico…wow. When Plainview drops the bomb (which I paid attention to. this guy is pretty messed up. he stole someone’s freakin’ baby in the first half-hour!) about HW’s origin, whoever played old HW gets my vote. He acted it so well, up until the last scream and walk out. And then begins Daniel Plainview’s descent into further madness, where his not-son half kept him in check…you know, for the kids.

  • Julia

    Although that was some very thoughtful and well-written commentary, I absolutely loathed this film. I was so incredibly disappointed, after reading the rapturous reviews, particularly in Day-Lewis, who I just didn’t think deserved the “performance of the decade” hosannas he got.

  • texmex

    Excellent article. I still haven’t seen the movie but I’ve wanted to for awhile. I’m just fearful of the darkness & violence it contains.

  • Ceballos

    Terrific article, Chris.
    I’ve seen the movie twice, but I haven’t seen it in quite the way you described it either time. Next time I do, I’ll keep what you wrote in mind because it makes perfect sense given PTA’s filmography (I actually can’t believe I didn’t see it earlier).

  • Snarf

    Great article. Now I really must get around to watching this film.

  • Rogertick

    Thank you. Great observations and well written. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to wrap my head around this film. Such a rich piece of work allows for more than one path to understanding. I thank you for contributing yet another layer to my understanding of There Will be Blood.

  • nay-lo

    Just saw “Blood” this weekend and I can’t stop thinking about it. I thought it was fantastic and DDL was brilliant, as always. He played Plainview perfectly and I thought he was, despite his psychosis, the most sympathetic character in the film. His life was consumed by his greed, yet he truly longed for family. His pain at discovering that his “brother” wasn’t really his brother was so palpable. And his true love for HW was evident throughout the film. I thought it was obvious that he really did love HW and his casting him away at the end was only to hide his own pain that his “son” was “betraying” him. I’m shocked that people didn’t pick up on that.

  • Mel

    Just read this post but I did watch There Will Be Blood with my dad on Sunday. Very creepy thinking alike on this movie…

  • G

    This was the worst movie I have ever seen. Utterly deplorable. What a horribly deceptive title! Curse you Hollywood and your clever marketing.

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