BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 17, 2008
If you are reading this, you hopefully have already seen There Will Be Blood and perhaps read my review as well. Those who haven’t seen the film will a) have very little idea what I’m talking about; and b) encounter numerous spoilers. So get thee to the multiplex and come back when you’ve gotten religion.
Ready? In the review, I described There Will Be Blood as a flawed masterpiece, and cited the closing scenes, and the last in particular, as its crucial flaws. First, what I see as the broader--though less debilitating--misstep: Before the film’s final temporal jump, it seems to be at a point of moral and psychological ambiguity. Daniel Plainview has just gotten his pipeline, but has done so, uncharacteristically, by submitting to the authority of Eli (and by extension his God) and the elder Bandy. His baptism by Eli seems to be fraudulent on all parts, but there is at least a hint that this fraudulent baptism may nonetheless have released him from some of his demons. He has won the imagined dispute with Standard Oil that had gnawed at him, and brought H.W. back home--a reunion that, though coerced, does not seem to be without love. When the boy first comes to him and begins punching wildly, Daniel responds with what appears to be genuine tenderness, accepting the blows and afterward soothing the boy gently.
It’s worth noting that throughout the film, Daniel has always needed a “family member,” however artificial, to act as his mirror and companion. First it was H.W., whom he treated as confidant and partner despite his youth (and despite the presence of more plausible candidates such as Fletcher Hamilton), and then Henry, the false brother. In both cases, he treated them with clear (if limited) affection. Indeed, his lines in the penultimate scene with a fully grown H.W. make clear his genetic narcissism: If he imagines another to share his blood (even knowing it’s not true) he can “see himself” in them; take that away and they become another of the faceless rabble of “people” Daniel has no use for.
So at this juncture, while Daniel’s redemption is far from assured, the possibility at least exists. He is reconciled with his boy; the primary competition driving him (with Standard Oil, over the pipeline) has been resolved in his favor; he has something resembling a truce with Eli Sunday; and the baptism, though forced upon him by Bandy, has washed away his murder of Henry (or at least any likelihood he’ll ever be charged with it).
But we shortly speed forward in time to a scene--his confrontation with a fully grown H.W.--in which any hope for Daniel’s redemption is treated as a dead letter. At some point in the intervening years, he has given himself over entirely to the monstrosity that had always lurked but had never fully possessed him. How? Why? It’s not hard to imagine answers, but the film has elided them. As Ross Douthat said (I think) in our bloggingheads discussion, it’s like a Shakespeare play that’s missing the fourth act and the first half of the fifth.
Now, I don’t think this elision is a disastrous one, just disappointing in a film that has taken its time up until this point and been very careful about setting the stage for each subsequent development. Had the film ended with some variant of the scene between Daniel and H.W.--or in its immediate aftermath, with Daniel alone and doomed in his immense mansion--it might have seemed rushed, but the overall shape would still have made perfect sense. Daniel’s decision to tell H.W. that he was an orphan would even give a certain ironic resonance to the movie’s title: For Daniel, there will be no blood.
Alas, the final scene offers an all-too-literal reading of the title and does far more to undermine the film than the earlier elisions. There are so many things I find wrong with Daniel’s violent confrontation with Eli that I have trouble keeping them all in mind. It is loud, silly, unpersuasive, out of control, simultaneously obvious and ridiculous, and, to my mind, utterly unworthy of such a thoughtful, well-crafted film.
It also feels highly artificial, as if Anderson knew he wanted to have a confrontation between Daniel and Eli, realized there were no real dramatic grounds for one, and awkwardly threw together a rationale. Specifically, Eli approaches Daniel about drilling rights to the Bandy tract as if this is some grail for which Daniel has long lusted. In fact, Daniel has never shown any interest at all in the Bandy tract, except for the pipeline, which he’s long since completed. He didn’t bother to meet Bandy when he was first buying land; later treated the tract as an afterthought when he noticed it on the map; and, when he finally discussed the pipeline with Bandy, gave no suggestion that he wanted drilling rights. Eli may not be an oilman, but given his proximity to this last negotiation, you’d think he would have noticed Daniel’s profound lack of interest in the property. Instead, he puffs and struts and demands $100,000 to broker an agreement on this land Daniel has never expressed the slightest enthusiasm for.
There are other inconsistencies, too. Daniel tells Eli that he paid his brother, Paul, $5,000 (if I recall correctly), and that Paul is now a successful businessman himself. But, as far as we know, Daniel only paid Paul a small fraction of that, when he first pointed the way to Little Boston. Has Daniel had subsequent contact with him? Is he making this all up to further humiliate Eli? We have no way of knowing; it’s just tossed out there to dangle awkwardly.
One argument in favor of the scene, I suppose, is its symbolic rationale as the final smackdown between capitalism and religion. But of all the readings of the film, the God vs. Mammon one strikes me as perhaps the most inert. Does it really matter whether Eli is a true believer or a fraud? (I found the ambiguity more compelling.) Is the idea that capitalism will eventually co-opt and destroy religion that interesting--and even if so, is there no more sophisticated way to convey it than by having the businessman bash in the believer’s skull with a bowling pin?
To my mind, the film’s moral and psychological currents are vastly more compelling than its socio-historical ones. After all, this is not a film about two men--as the final encounter between Daniel and Eli suggests--but about one man. Yes, Daniel is a stand-in for capitalism, but he’s so particular, so unique and fascinating, that he breaks the frame. He’s not merely a metaphor, but a man wrestling with his own humanity, a man whose soul, long in peril, is ultimately lost. His fate is one of emptiness and isolation, and he deserves an ending that conveys this, a la The Godfather or Citizen Kane. Instead we get “I drink your milkshake,” which is drawing comparisons not with such classics but rather with Scarface’s “Say hello to my little friend.” There Will Be Blood deserves better.
And so, of course, does Daniel Day-Lewis, whose supremely evocative performance descends into inevitable caricature here, Daniel Plainview by way of Bill the Butcher (or worse, Hannibal Lecter, the pantomimed milkshake-slurping recalling the good doctor’s post-fava-beans-and-Chianti sucking sounds). The lame, concluding joke, as the butler arrives and Daniel, sitting on the floor next to his bloodied victim, announces “I’m finished,” seems almost an admission of cinematic sabotage on Anderson’s part.
I can’t help but feel we’ve been here before. Anderson’s last ambitious project (I don’t count Punch Drunk Love as such), Magnolia, is another film I consider magnificent but flawed. And while its flaws are spread more liberally throughout, the largest is likewise its frogs-from-the-sky conclusion, which doesn’t line up at all with the impossible-coincidences frame established at the beginning of the film. In both films, it seems to me, Anderson is trying to chronicle a spiritual state of being (redemption in Magnolia, the lack thereof in Blood) and can't figure out how to do it without physicalizing it, without inventing some cinematic "event" that can serve as a metaphor for what he's trying to say. He seems to think that showing us a bitter old man alone in his mansion, or two people making an unexpected human connection, is somehow insufficient to convey the enormity of the sentiment he intends, that something rowdier and more visceral is needed to make us pay attention. He should give his viewers—and himself—a little more credit.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.