Tuesday, February 12, 2008


There Will Be Blood

Starting as early as the title, chosen by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, this film's events reek of Biblical metaphor of Flannery O'Connor proportion. But this film is about more than a mere battle between greed and god. It depicts, however subtley, one man's struggle to maintain, perhaps to create, a sense of self. Garnering an identical eight nominations from the Academy, "There will Be Blood" is, in my opinion, only a close second to "No Country for Old Men."

I agree with Roger Ebert that Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview gives an Oscar-worthy performance, but disagree with 's Ebert's view of Plainview as a man who regrets nothing and misses nothing. Other reviewers have described Plainview as the devil, evil incarnate, and a consummate antisocial, but Plainview managed to sustain a loyal employee, Fletcher (Ciaran Hinds), and I saw Plainview as genuinely connected to his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier). (Does the H. stand for some family attachment from the past, such as father, or brother Henry he longed to know, but never knew?) While it is true, Plainview uses his son as a "prop" to pose as a family business in order to acquire more wealth, the denouement with his son, now grown, shows that Plainview had every hope that it be, in fact, a family business. When Plainview repeats, "I am a family man," it is not so much a lie as, like a child, a wish that it be true.

Plainview, at first, only takes the toddler silently on his lap, but with affectinate touches. As H.W. grows, Plainview has learned to share verbally with the boy his knowledge, plans, etc., and continues affectionate touch and play. Even when sending the boy away to a special school, Plainview does, though crudely and without the contemporary understanding of the meaning of attachment (ala John Bowlby), what he thinks is best to help his son, and he does so with evident pain and guilt. (Any of us in the 1920's might have done the same to help our child accomplish as much as possible given H.W.'s acquired deafness.) When Daniel must, for land and oil, humiliate himself before a congregation which he finds false and superstitious, I couldn't help thinking of Jerry Maquire shouting 'Show me the money!' ---except this is more dramatic, and is another hint of Plainview's sincere guilt about his son. Only a man, consumed by the bitterness that can compound the loss of early attachments, and brain damaged by years of alcohol consumption, could disown his son with such viciousness, the penultimate pummeling, this time verbal, of the film. When Plainview shouts at his son, "You've been building your hate for me piece by piece. I don't know who you are!," we recognize that Plainview, without awareness, is describing himself. (I liked the movie enough to forgive the medical error of having the grown son speak as if he had been born deaf instead of had acquired deafness.)

It is interesting that the two murders Plainview perpetrates are both against men who falsely claim to be his brothers/brethren, thereby stirring up an anguish deeply imbedded in Plainview's psyche. These imposters remind him of what he has longed for and lost, perhaps never had: a past which held filial and familial attachments. The narcissistic rage with which he kills his second victim at first is comic, particularly the victim's behavior, as if in Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety," but we are left unsettled by Plainview's utter despair in this most desperate attempt to restore himself by annihilating the other. (Think E. Wolfe, Chapter 6, "Narcissistic Rage," p. 79, in the text, The Psychology of the Self: ..."when the self feels absolutely helpless, vexed, and mortified, that is, paralyzed while agitated to the extreme and in deathly danger of losing its integrity...the offending selfobject...must be made to disappear, violently if necessary, even if the whole world will go up in flames." )

At the start of the movie (with its soundtrack, a nod to "2001, A Space Odyssey"), as I watched Plainview fall down a mining shaft, break his leg, pull himself out and go about his business as usual, I was reminded of Anton Chigurh ("No Country for Old Men") who binds his broken arm, bone protruding and bloody, in a sling made from a boy's shirt, picks himself up and walks down the sidewalk, business as usual. I wondered, was Plainview going to turn out to be a ruthless automaton like Chigurh? He would not. Psychoanalytic training allows for a fuller picture of a man (and I say "man" because women are all but absent in this film), his greed and his goodness, his loss and his longing. I applaud Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) for having the courage to write we "see ourselves in Plainview." (Ironically, this double entendre is seldom true, for most of us do not see ourselves in plain view).

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