In the realm of art, no interpretation of a work can be final, but intriguing hints from no less than writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson suggest that the stunning movie There Will Be Blood is actually a story not about the rise and fall of a man so much as the rise and fall of a commodity: oil.
Of course, even the intentions of the creators — and in the case of There Will Be Blood, that means principally writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, star Daniel Day-Lewis, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and composer Jonny Greenwood — don’t necessarily prove anything. (After all, Anderson revealed in one interview that he “had no idea what we were doing” until he heard Greenwood’s revelatory score.)
But consider what Anderson said in an interview bout the movie with Terry Gross:
We all know what has happened with oil, don’t we? We all know the end of the story. It’s a bit like Titanic, we all know the boat sinks. The fun of the story is watching how we get there.
Or what he said in an interview with Charlie Rose, in reference to the oil industry’s recent fortunes:
I haven’t been living in a bubble for the last six years.
Or what the great music critic Alex Ross said of the score in The New Yorker:
Greenwood, too, writes the music of an injured Earth; if the smeared string glissandos on the soundtrack suggest liquid welling up from underground, the accompanying dissonances communicate a kind of interior, inanimate pain. The cellos cry out most wrenchingly when Plainview scratches his name on a claim, preparing to bleed the land.
Too literal an interpretation of what Anderson described to Charlie Rose as “a great boxing match” between the two of the most powerful forces in recent American history — evangelical religion and the oil industry — would be pointless.
But when it comes to the controversial ending, we have to consider the possibility that this story is not about an individual, or even an industry. We have no choice, really, because it’s only in this context that the finale makes sense.
***SPOILER ALERT*** For those who have seen the movie, or who have no intention seeing the movie but still want to consider the idea, please read on.
The movie began with a book called Oil! by Upton Sinclair, which, as in the movie, featured a conflict between an oil man and an evangelical. In the novel that conflict was secondary to a conflict between an oil man (based on real life Edward Doheny) and his son, who grows up to become a socialist, and, from all accounts, a megaphone for Sinclair’s Utopian vision of American politics.
Given that socialism has been more of a bogeyman than a reality in American politics, Anderson wisely cut out the idealism and went with the “boxing match” between oil and evangelical religion.
Numerous reviewers have described this conflict as capitalist in nature; in the words of the Village Voice, as a struggle between “profits and prophets.”
But if this is a story about amassing capital, then why does oil man Daniel Plainview have so little interest in money? Standard Oil offers him a million dollars for the rights to land he buys from a weak-minded family man for $5,000: he turns them down flat.
Plainview goes on to become super-rich, but — unlike the real life Edward Doheny, who had a good relationship with his son, became a philanthropist, and found success beyond his interest in oil — money does nothing for him except accelerate his self-destruction.
Nor does this interpretation fit with what Plainview actually says about himself. In a confession to a man he thinks is his brother, he bluntly admits: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people … I want to earn enough money so I can get away from everyone.”
To leftist historian Ernest Freeberg, this is a sign of the book’s superiority to a movie. As he put it in an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times: “Even the orneriest robber baron didn’t talk this way.”
Exactly. What if this was intentional — because this character is not exactly a man?
As reviewer Lisa Schwartzbaum put it in an all-out rave for Entertainment Weekly:
The first words Daniel Plainview utters, in exquisitely enunciated, stentorian tones brilliantly constructed by Day-Lewis from the cadences of John Huston, are “Ladies and gentlemen, I am an oilman.”
It’s not unusual for writers to imagine characters as a living shell for spirits within; for example, John Updike admitted that his series of “Rabbit” novels are, in fact, about a man who embodies a rabbit.
What if Anderson’s oil man was not so much a man as the spirit of oil? Would not this chthonic essence be raw, brutal, ruthless, endlessly competitive, and utterly without heart? Much like Daniel Plainview?
Though many reviewers consider the ending of the story “over the top,” some see the rightness — even the inevitability — of the conclusion. As much-admired Richard Schickel put it for Time:
What Anderson is saying is that we have travestied this nation’s incalculable natural wealth, in the process surrendering its potential to finance a paradise on earth in favor of a purely selfish materialism, feebly justified by desperate religious fantasies. Or to put that point in purely movie terms, Daniel Plainview becomes Gordon Gekko’s grandfather. And becomes purely insane. It is the genius (and I use that word advisedly) of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance to slowly, patiently, show the madness replacing his former rationalism, to prepare us for the film’s astonishing ending, an ending one dare not reveal, but that contains what I — resistant as I am to superlatives — consider to be the most explosive and unforgettable 10 or 15 minutes of screen acting I have ever witnessed.
Although considered too much by purists, the fact is that the final scene has already entered the pantheon: not only has Plainview’s mocking “I drink your milkshake … I drink it up!” become the year’s most memorable line, but his final words — “I’m finished” — make complete sense in this context.
Or to put it a little more simply, as Anderson said to Charlie Rose:
You can take the man out of the mineshaft, but you can’t take the mineshaft out of the man.
The visual journey too tells much the same story: Plainview goes from squatting on the bare ground in a howling wind, to self-inflicted ruination in a vast mansion.
Countless reviewers have compared There Will Be Blood to Citizen Kane, and the parallels are indeed striking, but Kane was trying to fill an emptiness inside; Plainview, by contrast, has no psychological core — only pure drive. Like the energy of the substance he lusts for. He is an oil man, but more oil than man.