Always somewhat terrified of Daniel Plainview, I find myself resistant to revisit his seething insecurities that bubble up like oil leakage around the Sunday ranch. It's a discipline to climb back down into the darkness with him. Once there, it seems impossible to turn back, impossible not to look. Adding to the anxiety, my recent shift towards objective film criticism makes me wonder if there's anything actually Sacred about There Will Be Blood or is it just more political nihilism from the post 9-11 Bush years.
I was privileged to witness TWBB in 35mm. The textures (scratches, dust speckles) and grain embedded in the actual film stock suggest a living form (almost like bacteria) that adds it's own layer to the experience of watching. It allows for the grace of imperfections; more like a mirror that acknowledges flaws, less like a selfie with digital filters. After ten years of existence, this print felt distinguished, adding a masterpiece quality in projection alone. I was also fortunate to see The Shining in 35mm a month previous. It's a necessary companion piece to TWBB, which is built upon Kubrick's horror classic. Everything from Jonny Greenwood's score to the (alcoholic) father/son relationship to the final act of insanity bleeds Shining. This draws a spirituality into the overall construct, but to what purpose is the question.
|Mary, Daniel, and HW|
TWBB is ultimately less a horror film and more of a Biblical Epic, particularly when seen through the film's visual subtext. 'There Will Be Blood' is a phrase Moses says to Aaron in Exodus 7 (not far from the 'Magnolia' plague of frogs in Exodus 8). When we first meet Plainview, he climbs out of a dark hell-hole in the ground, slithering like a snake into the nearest town to cash in on his silver. He rescues HW, an orphaned infant (in an anti-Moses kind of way) to create the illusion of a 'family business'. The Sunday brothers, Paul & Eli and their father Abel have a Jacob, Esau, Isaac dynamic. "My stupid, weak father will give away his lots. Go and take him.", says Eli. Many false, manipulative promises are made between the Sundays and the Plainviews. With Paul Dano acting as both brothers, it allows for more mysterious possibilities, especially at first encounter. Did Eli murder Paul, then pretend to be him during the land proposal with Plainview? Mysteries like this always suggest something beyond our understanding.
With grand elucidation, Hell erupts from the initial derrick spewing oil & fire into the sky, casting darkness (and deafness) over everything. Like Aronofsky's 'Mother!' or George Miller's 'Fury Road', this religious outpouring only works because it is primarily, insatiably visual. We cannot look away. It's all consuming. This is a profound composition that expands upon itself with each watch. It's an apocalypse. A kind of warning from the book of Revelation. All the way to the final strike. And if that were the whole of the narrative, it would be brilliant, yes, but still mostly an indulgent, profane work exploiting theology and casting nihilism as an American curse. It would just be Hell on Earth. A cheap, castrated narrative, immature & powerless.
Thank God there is yet a glowing luminosity found in Miss Mary Sunday. Even Plainview seems to see it in her, buying for her a new clean white dress that stands in stark contrast to the dark, earthy colored garments around her. She is the one and only symbol of new life, New Hope. Learning sign language, she cultivates silence with HW. She gently hugs Plainview after he admits "I've abandoned my child". This being the only affection he clearly embraces. She is again seen wearing white for her wedding, married by a Priest of true Faith, instead of her brother Eli. Her innocence and their love are the only things not tainted by the surrounding darkness of oil, greed, and false prophesy. These aforementioned sequences are brief, too easily dismissed. Most critics don't even mention Mary, though they frequently comment on the lack of females in the story.
It seems easy to remember "I drink your milkshake", not the subtle symbolism of Mary Sunday. But like any good wisdom, she doesn't need to beg for attention. She just needs to be. It's her compassion that calibrates the narrative, reminding us there is something larger than distrust & damnation.
|Mary & HW|
The final act of courage & vulnerability comes as HW reveals to his father their plan to move to Mexico and have their own business. Plainview responds with resentment, "This makes you my competitor." He goes on to explain to HW, "You're an orphan from a basket in the middle of the desert...You have none of me in you. You're just a bastard from a basket." HW aptly replies in sign language, "I thank God I have none of you in me." With that, he lovingly detaches from this symbiotic, venomous relationship to join with Mary to begin a new life. Daniel Plainview remains, of course, in his homemade Overlook Hotel, sure to be visited by old ghosts.