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Jean Bethke Elshtain

There Will Be Brilliance

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson surpasses himself.

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is to generic movies as Mt. Everest is to an anthill: it towers over what we ordinarily regard as an entertainment. One of our most quirky, ingenious, and religiously steeped filmmakers, Anderson has crafted a dark work of enduring power that features one of the great defining performances in the history of film, Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview. Nothing in Anderson's previous work quite prepares us for this. Certainly there are hints in Magnolia, with its themes of redemption, revenge, and forgiveness—notable, in part, for Tom Cruise's brilliant performance in a supporting role. But all the players are superb, especially the inimitable John C. Reilly, whose performance is steeped in a pathos that never turns banal. The interlocking stories of Magnolia conclude with a torrential downpour of … frogs! When I saw the film in a theater in Chicago, there were murmurs of perplexity from exiting filmgoers. "Like, what the hell was the frog thing about?", I overheard one fellow say, a statement objectionable for two reasons: first, the ubiquitous, distracting, and slightly demented repetition of "like"; second, the illustration of complete biblical ignorance. Ever hear of the plagues Moses called down on the Pharoah and Egypt?

As brilliant as Magnolia was, it seems a confection next to There Will Be Blood. Martin Luther told us that a "lonely man always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst," a quote that Hannah Arendt favored; for her, it illustrated the mindset of totalitarian ideologues as well as psychopaths. Daniel Plainview is one of Luther's lonely men, a brilliant, driven, stricken person who rivets us in his prime, then enthralls and repels us as we witness his descent into bitter, despairing, alcohol-driven isolation.

I suspect that filmgoers will either be put off or irresistibly drawn into the film from its opening moments. We see Daniel Plainview alone in the bowels of the earth pickaxing an unforgiving wall of rock. We hear jarring, discordant music. We notice at one point that the music has stopped. We hear only the sound of Plainview's ax and his labored breathing. (Note should be made here of the extraordinary soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood, blessedly free from the lugubrious, over-produced "wall of sound" annoyance so typical of most films. Greenwood's score deserves every possible accolade as one of the most inventive and scalp-tingling ever composed.) The year is 1898. Daniel labors, suffers a broken-leg, patches himself up, works despite the pain. We do not hear the sound of a human voice for the film's first 17 minutes by my estimate. The next scenes take place in 1902, then 1911. Plainview presents himself with his young son, H.W. The remainder of the film is a tale of Plainview's success and his horrific descent—but, oh my, how Anderson, who also wrote the script, and Day-Lewis tell it!

In Plainview's story we see illustrated what Alexis de Tocqueville identified as the dark side of the coin of American freedom and equality, namely, isolation: we are apart from one another, all the insinuating strands that once linked us having unraveled. In large part, Plainview's tragedy is that he needs other people the way an addict needs a fix: to triumph over, to kick in the balls (sorry, crude but necessary), to bury, all too literally at one turning point. "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking," Plainview opines. He also avers that "I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed," words proffered to Henry Plainview, whom Daniel believes to be a long-lost half-brother. Even the mere existence of others in the oil business tears him up. He would be an Emperor who reigns over a desert denuded of life, for he must drive out all others in order to be assured of his own triumph.

The sole exception to Plainview's remorseless utilitarianism in his "son," H.W. We first see the child as a baby boy around eight months old, sniffling, miserable, stuck in a ramshackle basket, the child of one of Plainview's workers whose wife has died in childbirth. (Or so we surmise.) The child's father is then felled in an accident, sinking into oily muck at the bottom of a well. Plainview adopts the child as his own. He tutors, nurtures, loves the boy, schooling him in the mysterious intricacies of risk-taking: is there oil or is there not on this land? He also uses the boy to good advantage given the resonance of the words, "I'm a family man. This is my son, H.W.," to which one must add the child's winsome wholesomeness as another possible attraction for those Plainview hopes to gull with his schemes. (Anderson draws an astonishing performance from newcomer Dillon Freasier.) When H.W. is around ten or eleven, he is deafened in an oil-derrick accident, leaving him unable to hear or to speak. (The score helps us to "hear" the horrors of the ruin of H.W.'s ears with a dissonant roaring after the accident, cuing us in on the condition of the child's hearing, or lack thereof.) Plainview is devastated. Over time, however, he grows impatient with H.W.: surely the child's muteness has become willful, surely he could speak if he really tried.

Because Plainview comes to interpret his son's inability to communicate through speech as opposition to his entreaties, he becomes shorter, more abrupt. But love the boy, he does. It is only after the child mysteriously (maliciously?) sets fire to the house, little more than a shack at that point, that Plainview sends H.W. away to a special school for the deaf, tricking him into believing his father is taking a trip with him. Plainview exits the train at the last moment, leaving H.W. to his factotum to deliver to the institution. As the train pulls away, we see Plainview doubled over in anguish. When the boy returns several years later in the company of a sign-language interpreter, Plainview runs to his son and embraces him, murmuring as he does so, "That does me good, that does me good."

In the interim, Plainview has been approached by Standard Oil executives, members of a cabal seeking monopoly who would buy Plainview out. One hapless member of this unattractive group attempts to persuade Plainview to sell by insisting that, if Plainview accepted the offer, he could spend more time with his son. Plainview's response is to promise the man he will sneak into his home one night and slit his throat. "Don't tell me how to raise my family," he shouts menacingly, as Day-Lewis uncannily channels the speech of the late, great John Huston, whose stentorian tones could lull and caress you and scare the bejesus out of you, too. (Day-Lewis' threats are more menacing than anything I have heard on film—save, perhaps, for Anthony Hopkins' dulcet murmurings to Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. "People will say we're in love, Clarisse," all velvet, drawn out, and deadly.)

A family motif haunts the film and Plainview himself. We join Plainview in our initial skepticism, followed by acceptance, of a man who presents himself as Plainview's half-brother. (Warning: spoiler material follows!) Plainview figures out that the Henry who has presented himself as his blood relative isn't such at all but, instead, a drifter who fell in with the half-brother, taking the real Henry's story as his own following Henry's death from tuberculosis. The imposter is a harmless soul looking for a place to lay his head and some decent, regular work. Plainview's vengeance at this deception is swift and horrifying to behold.

Surely, however, H.W. remains family. Now grown up, H.W. marries Margaret, youngest daughter of a family Plainview has in large part bought out. It's a family that includes the (likely) charlatan preacher Eli Sunday (Upton Sinclair's caustic representation of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday in his novel Oil, on which the film is very loosely based). Plainview has always been kind and partial to Margaret, chastising (and threatening subtly) her strict father for beating the girl when Margaret refuses to say her prayers on time.

When we arrive at the last forty minutes of this nearly three-hour film, Plainview is a portrait of a giant crumbling. All his virtues—indefatigability, intelligence, eagerness, capacity to dream and to act—have been put at the service of his own ambition, to be sure, and yet at his best, Plainview reminds us of the pagan virtues Augustine grudgingly extols in The City of God. Now, in his descent, those virtues have morphed into the vices of a rabid roaring lion stuck in a cage of his own devising.

Roar! Roar! Plainview drives the married H.W. away with ugly words when H.W. tells his father he wants to go with his wife to Mexico, to get outdoors, go to work, do what his father taught him to do, drill for oil. "You'll be my competitor," Plainview roars, and, despite H.W.'s profession of love for his father and his demurrals, Plainview cannot resist. He has to wound the young man: "You're no blood of mine, you're not really my son," for his sole criterion has become blood; "You're nothing but a bastard in a basket," stormy, bitter words, pronounced in the rhythm of a driving sledgehammer, Plainview in a drunken range, spittle flying. Thus he guarantees the isolation he both craves and fears: the stunned H.W., with his hapless interpreter by his side, walks away forever.

And then the preacher Eli Sunday reappears, presenting himself to Plainview as a supplicant. After a ritualized danse macabre between the two protagonists, Eli admits that he is broke, he has lost everything in the crash, he needs and wants money and will offer Plainview access, at long last, to land Plainview has long coveted. Plainview strings Eli along, compelling him to confess repeatedly and loudly—"I am a false prophet" and "God is a superstition"—as the price he must pay to secure Plainview's acceptance of a deal.

Is Sunday a fraud all the way down? This is not absolutely clear to me, perhaps because God can surely use a flawed vehicle to holy ends. I say this because we also witness a scene, through Plainview's jaundiced eyes, as Sunday "heals" an arthritic woman. Her gnarled hands open up slowly as the congregation gathers round singing "Take it to the Lord in Prayer" ("Are you weak and heavy laden / Burdened with a load of care? / We should never be discouraged / Take it to the Lord in prayer"). Whatever Sunday's sincerity, this is an authentic moment as a community surrounds and blesses a stricken woman. Plainview betrays a subtle hint of being touched by this moment—it's all in Day-Lewis' eyes—but recovers quickly and comments to Sunday as they leave the church, "That was one god damned hell of a show." In other words, we are brothers under the skin, you and I, we are both in it for ourselves, showmen, a pair. Religious and entrepreneurial excess are twins, a clear message of the film as the two strands intertwine throughout.

And now the end of this line for the pair. "Hah!" Plainview exults, you—Sunday—did all this groveling for nothing. I already have everything I want from that property. I went under it and I drained it, I drained it. At this juncture, when you think Day-Lewis cannot dig any deeper into Plainview's character—cannot, surely, torment himself further (for Day-Lewis is legendary for staying in character throughout filming, even off camera, making life squirmy for his co-stars)—he does. It is breathtaking to behold.

I will spare the reader a detailed depiction of the film's next moments. When the deed is done, a tottering, elderly male housekeeper, having heard the clamor, stumbles onto the scene of carnage in the bowling alley Plainview has installed in his palatial, isolated home. The old man compasses the horror wordlessly, and Plainview—who, throughout much of his contretemps with Sunday has nibbled on a cold breakfast prepared by the housekeeper, who could not awaken him from a drunken stupor to consume the meal when the food was hot—declaims, "I'm finished." The reference is to his breakfast, not the supine body that lies next to him, oozing blood from a crushed skull. "I'm finished."

This cannot help but remind us of, in contrast to, Christ's final words on the cross following his suffering, pain, and humiliation: "It is finished." This after Christ has beseeched his Father to forgive his tormenters and welcome the contrite thief into paradise: the prophecy is now fulfilled. "It is finished." But that "finished" is prelude to oh so much more: "Today you shall be with me in Paradise," an end and a beginning. With Plainview's "I'm finished," we know this is the end full stop, that the fate that awaits him is jail, the asylum, or suicide.

There Will Be Blood is an epic morality play that exalts the craft of filmmaking and honors not only its director but all those who contributed to every aspect of the film. Above all, filmgoers are offered the gift of Daniel Day-Lewis' acting genius at its zenith. His portrayal of Plainview terrifies us as a bitter commentary on a distinctive and identifiable strand of American culture. One does not react with "Ah, yes, we are all like that," as Plainview storms across the screen, with Day-Lewis in nearly every scene. The overwhelming majority of Americans are not Plainviews. Yet we cannot help but recognize in Plainview's excesses and successes something over-the-top, something tumultuous, something desperately and sadly human, something very American.

Jean Bethke Elshtain's Gifford Lectures will be published in June as Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Basic Books).

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