Paul Thomas Anderson has an abiding interest in guilt. All of his films revolve in one way or another around its characters’ struggle with their consciences, but in his latest film he has surely expanded this theme into its ultimate iteration: There Will Be Blood wallows in guilt; bathes in it; dives, sinks and ultimately drowns in it. While There Will Be Blood perhaps lacks the range of emotion experienced in Magnolia and Boogie Nights, it more than makes up for it in depth. In oil man Daniel Plainview (played with a characteristic mix of caricature and subtlety by Daniel Day-Lewis), Anderson has created a figure of masculine weakness to rival Mr. Ramsay or Charles Foster Kane: a proud, stubborn egoist with a streak of vanity, and an impenetrable emotional distance that conflicts unattractively with a powerful hunger for affection. Scarcely off-screen for the film’s 158-minute duration, Daniel reveals his ugly secrets to us with a paradoxical mixture of intimacy and ambiguity.
The film sees Anderson return to a central theme of his earlier films, Sydney (or Hard Eight) and Magnolia: that of a flawed paternal figure, whose child acts both as witness to and victim of his failings. We recognise the moral territory we’re in when a rival oil man leans down to Daniel’s 12-year-old son, H.W., and warns him to sign a contract with his father: ‘Make sure you don’t get swindled, boy: get half of what your dad is making!’ In perhaps the fulcrum point of the film, Daniel is forced for commercial reasons to confess his sins and take baptism. Sheepishly approaching the altar, Daniel endures with obvious humiliation the exhortations of his nemesis (the erratic young preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), whom Daniel beat and humiliated some time previously) to confess his sins. But as the ritual continues (Sunday slapping his face with evident satisfaction), Daniel is swept up by it: ‘I abandoned my boy!’ he cries, and from the look on his face it appears suddenly to dawn on him that such is the case; by the end he is crying out for the sacrament. But has the experience changed him? Will it prompt a reformation? Nothing in this world is so simple. But for that moment of recognition, one can never be sure for how much of the scene Daniel’s confession is even sincere.
There Will Be Blood is a symphony of guilt, whose first movement appears to last an hour or more. Anderson, virtuoso of the three-hour film, proved his ability to draw the tension of a single act to breaking-point in Magnolia, which has a sequence around the third quarter that should earn the film a warning label for pregnant mothers and the elderly. But to place such a episode in the film’s first act shows considerable daring, and it is hard not to sigh with relief when he pulls it off. The arduous, unidirectional progress of the first hour mirrors the single-minded determination of the protagonist. As we cast about for possible directions for the story to go, it seems only logical that Daniel’s son (adopted after the death of his biological father in one of Daniel’s early wells) will end up dead, simply because he is the only thing that Daniel seems to care about except for the discovery and extraction of oil. What eventually happens, however, is both unexpected and perfect: at once less appalling and more challenging, it provides a glimpse into Daniel’s dark heart that prepares the ground for the film’s more emotionally complex second half. The front-heavy structure also creates the impression of a plot spiralling in ever-decreasing circles: instead of the traditional rise in action, Daniel Plainview’s fate rolls out, with only brief, promising feints, in a continuous downward slope.
Unusually for a film so centrally concerned with the theme of guilt, the viewer is constantly left wondering if Daniel himself actually feels guilty, or even if he feels anything at all. This question strikes the heart of the film’s most vexing ambiguity: one is never entirely certain that Daniel really possesses a shred of humanity at all. Anderson has named The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a reference, but whereas Bogart’s character in that film is unquestionably destroyed by his growing greed, Daniel Plainview appears to emerge fully formed in the film’s opening moments, the story’s major interest lying not in the development of his character, but in a constant fluctuation between revelation and obfuscation. By the film’s end, Daniel effectively denies that he was ever a complete human being with a conscience and a heart. Are we to believe him? I have no idea. The question is irresolvable, and it is this ambiguity that will, I believe, prove the source of this film’s enduring fascination.