The Bigger They Are
Adam Nayman on There Will Be Blood
Despite its daunting scale, George Stevens’s Texas-sized 1956 melodrama Giant doesn’t exactly loom large over American cinema. It earned Stevens an Academy Award for best director, but he’s better remembered for A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953); James Dean, meanwhile, will always be associated first and foremost with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Like so many massive monuments erected via the backbreaking labor of countless hired hands and artisans, Giant has endured mostly as a dusty relic. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), another oilfields epic, might better stand the test of time. It’s also filled with its share of big bodies and objects suffering from hard falls. The silhouette of wildcat prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) crashing down a dug-out mineshaft is echoed by the shot of a massive rig toppling down on another man as he stands neck-deep in crude.
What goes up must come down, but it’s just as true to say that There Will Be Blood illustrates the reverse. In its most purely beautiful passage, a shot of two children hopping off a church porch is cut seamlessly into a close-up of a woman raising her arm during her marriage vows: two leaps of faith collapsing fifteen years of screen time. And at its midpoint, an oil well erected by Plainview’s company in the middle of New Boston, California, erupts suddenly and violently and catches fire, billowing smoke into the night until the rigging collapses and burns away.
Anderson shoots this flaming column like it’s Jacob’s Ladder—the perfect symbol for a movie about ascent and descent. In There Will Be Blood, the two trajectories are interlaced like in a lemniscate. The deeper that Daniel Plainview digs into the Earth’s core, the larger his dominion grows on its surface; as his ambition (and profit margins) spiral ever higher, his soul sinks further into the muck. Another eloquent down-is-up tableaux: as preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) tentatively approaches Daniel to top up his fledgling congregation’s collection plate, he crosses a muddy pond turned resplendently blue by the reflection of an afternoon sky. Heaven, it seems, is indeed a place on Earth, but it’s also an illusion.
In addition to being the most visually striking of Anderson’s six movies to date, There Will Be Blood might be the most visually striking American feature of the last decade. Or two, or three: the money shots here are all big spenders, splashing across the widescreen frame like gushers or else slow-burning themselves into the viewer’s brain, as when Daniel reunites with his estranged adopted son H. W. (Dillion Freaiser) and cinematographer Robert Elswitt pushes their embrace to the back of a vanishing-point vista and draws our eye to a small break in papa’s pipeline. It’s a little fissure that anticipates a larger rift between the characters.
It’s a critical cliché to say that the landscape is a character in a movie, but the sun-baked exteriors in There Will Be Blood have a definite star quality. They have to, because Day-Lewis’s presence in the movie is as big as all outdoors; rather than being dwarfed by the canyons and badlands around them, he wrestles them to a draw.
When the film was released in 2007, reviewers reached—or grasped—for comparisons that could help to establish a sense of scale for both the movie and its lead performance. For the former, they came up with Citizen Kane and The Godfather (All-American tales of entrepreneurs rotting from the inside out) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (Thus Spoke Johnny Greenwood); for the latter, they went with John Huston (in Chinatown) and Charles Laughton (in any old thing), although one could just as easily have cited both men as directorial influences. Depending on the scene, There Will Be Blood evokes the magic-realist drift of The Night of the Hunter just as surely as the greedy fever of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The landscapes, however, are straight out of Giant. Never one to pass up a chance to show off his cinephile credentials, PTA chose to shoot his own oil-baron melodrama in Marfa, Texas, in effect turning Stevens’s old stomping grounds into his own Monument Valley. In outline and incident, There Will Be Blood is very different from Giant, which is first and foremost a movie-star romance between Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor: when the subject of female companionship is broached in Anderson’s film, Daniel Plainview bites his tongue and goes on talking about other things. Hudson’s deep-pocketed tyro Jordan “Bick” Benedict gladly shares his fortune and his spread with Taylor’s debutante Leslie Lynnton, whom he regards as his true life’s work and enterprise: in the famous final lines, the now-aged baron smiles affectionately and tells his wife, “If I live to be 90, I will never figure you out.” But as played by Taylor, Leslie isn’t all that much of an enigma: she’s so steadfast, in fact, that she can resist the thick-tongued charms of James Dean’s cattle-hand Jett Rink, whose designs on the ranch’s prim and proper mistress dovetail with his desire to coax forth some black gold from the ground beneath her feet.
Slow and stolid in the moments that Dean is off-screen, Giant locates all of its urgency in his performance. In dramatic terms, the conflict is between Jordan’s stolid Lone Star aristocrat act and Jett’s hardscrabble ambition—Bick wants to keep dealing cows and Jett has a yen to go looking for oil on Reatta’s 500,000 acres—but it plays out more powerfully in the contrasts between the actors. Hudson’s broad-shouldered, lightly milquetoasted star persona is precisely the sort of old-Hollywood monolith that Dean’s Method-ology was threatening to topple by the mid-1950s. Giant mines this old-money/new-guard dynamic for all it’s worth. A poor kid who only gets partial ownership of some land because of his affair with the boss’ sister—an end run around the patriarchal ideas of inheritance that Bick holds so dear—Jett is a geyser of mixed emotions and competitive impulses. He’s willing to get his hands dirty in a way that Bick never would, but only so he can have the same things as his rival.
Viewed from the right angle, There Will Be Blood plays out as a sort of West Coast remake of Giant, with an established titan pitted against a usurping upstart, and the oil fields themselves as the fertile leading lady lying between them. Except that Daniel Plainview actually has more in common with Jett Rink than he does with Jordan Benedict, whom we never see earning his vast wealth and exalted status: he was born into his own looming shadow. Daniel, though, is a self-made man, building an empire from the ground up (from under the ground actually; the first time we see him, he’s tinkering in a cave like an infernal troll) and then refusing to rest on his laurels for even a moment. (There is a running motif of startled awakening in There Will Be Blood, as if the watchful Daniel is always surprised to find that he’s allowed himself to fall asleep in the first place). If Jordan Benedict is defined by his commitment to his stately status quo—and finally redeemed in the eyes of his wife and the audience by one small, progressive gesture in protest of his native state’s history of racism—Daniel Plainview is an agent of change, forever trying to reshape the world in his own image.
The portrait that emerges from his efforts is plenty ugly, of course: Anderson’s literary source is Upton Sinclair’s 1927 wild-catter novel Oil!, but his climax is redolent of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as Daniel is revealed to us in his dotage as a prematurely ruined husk who wears his sins like a Halloween mask. Day-Lewis’s slouched posture, simian gait, and marrow-sucking line-readings in these closing moments are either the apex or the nadir of his all-stops out performance—the middle ground crumbles when you’re dealing with scorched earth—and there’s no way in Hell (or Heaven) that Paul Dano is going to be able to match him. “I told you Eli! I told you that I would eat you up!” bellows Daniel, and he’s surely speaking for his actorly namesake, who, not content to simply chew the scenery, is happy to snack on the other actors too. It’s the exact opposite of what happens in Giant, where Dean’s unique form of actorly jiu-jitsu reclaims the character’s weaknesses as strengths and draws us into the very same emerald-eyed passions that Day-Lewis’s turn makes so strangely enigmatic.
We thus feel something when Giant contrives to shrink Jett Rink down to almost nothing in the home stretch: even after striking it rich, he’s reduced to a shambling alcoholic, succinctly disparaged and then nobly smacked down by Bick en route to the latter’s happy ending. (That Dean died before the film was released renders his character’s fate in even more melancholy tones). If Anderson did take anything from Giant beyond the location, it’s the way that Daniel, like Jett Rink before him, is diminished and destroyed by his success. Where Giant lumbers on past this sad state of affairs to consolidate Bick’s genteel victory on the field of political correctness, There Will Be Blood doubles down on the topsy-turvy contradiction of a man brought low by his own climb up a very tall ladder.
There Will Be Blood showed at Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, July 27, 2013, at 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, July 28, 2013, at 1:00 p.m., as part of the series See It Big! The American Epic.