The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
There Will Be Blood: A Sociopathic Film?

Written by James MacDowell.

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There Will Be Blood has become a darling for journalistic film critics (and, though passed over for the big awards at the Oscars, the Academy), topping many end-of-year ‘best of’ polls, and receiving the kind of blanket hyperbolic praise that rears its head for modern films very rarely. Not only have a number of critics deigned to compare it with the accepted cinematic canon (Citizen Kane [1941] has been a touchstone), but, unusually, references to literary masterworks (e.g.: The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick) have also abounded. Seldom, it seems to me, has such near-unanimous praise been heaped upon a stranger or more idiosyncratic Hollywood movie.

The critical mould that a great majority of the film’s admirers seem to want to place it in (and which likely motivates many of the literary comparisons) is that of the American ‘saga’, or ‘epic’. Tying it to such a self-consciously grand image certainly helps the kind of fawning that has taken place over it. It bespeaks great ambition, breadth, and bold artistic chutzpah - precisely the kinds of things that great American art is supposed to do so well. It also, I would say, suggests that the film is prominently engaging with large, capital-I, issues.

We can see why the shoe has been considered a good fit: Blood has a period setting, tying it overtly to historical cinematic and literary American traditions; it is also two and a half hours long, giving it a pleasingly bloated quality; it features a bullying, powerhouse central performance from an actor who seems currently above reproach; it contains references to serious (and timely) themes such as religion and capitalism, lending it an air of social importance; its narrative spans about thirty years, giving the story a sense of scope and historical import; finally, it is filled with expansive shots of a lost America, which again helps create an impression of the sort of scale - not to mention a kind of tainted nostalgia - that we associate with great American artists like Fitzgerald, Melville, Whitman, Twain, or Kerouac (not to mention Welles, Coppola, or Malick).

Yet something doesn’t feel quite right to me about this conception of the film. Yes: because of the elements I have mentioned, in many ways it feels like a large picture (one of my favourite responses to it was text message from a friend upon his leaving the cinema that read simply: “That film is huuuuge!”), and that largeness can easily leave us reaching for words like ‘epic’. But this way of thinking about it does not account for either why the film feels quite as strange as it certainly does, nor why, whilst watching it - rather than experiencing the sense of inclusive, democratic expansiveness I would associate with the ‘epic’ - I feel a terrifying claustrophobia: a world closing in rather than one reaching out.

My problem with calling the film ‘epic’ is not a pedantic one of terminology: I can’t claim to be an expert on what does or doesn’t technically constitute an ‘epic’ work of art, and neither do the reviewers who have been bandying the word around. Rather, my objection stems from the connotations that I think the word is usually meant to convey - connotations that I think suggest a misunderstanding of what the film is trying to achieve. It seems to me (I speak as someone who has seen the movie five times and still feels slightly perplexed by it), that Blood is not first and foremost a film about a time and place (California in the late 19th/early 20th century), nor an allegorical film about themes or ideas (oil, religion, capitalism, greed) - two things that I believe are often implied by ‘epic’ in this context. Rather, I think it is primarily about the way in which one lone man sees the world, and I feel that its particular power, as well as its sometimes tantalising oddness, stem from this central fact.

One of the main things that stops it from feeling like an ‘epic’ to me is how little interest the film seems to have in what we might broadly call society. Though the term is clearly multi-faceted, whether or not we refer to a work as ‘epic’ (particularly in relation to the concept of an American ‘saga’ that has also been attached to Blood) might, I think, have partly to do with whether it includes within its vision a good deal of the particulars that together constitute a picture of its world’s social make-up. Melville’s obsessive detailing of the minutiae of port-town life and whaling society in Moby Dick, Fitzgerald’s portraits of the oppressive social mores of 1930s Hollywood in The Last Tycoon, Kerouac’s briefly-glimpsed but multitudinous snapshots of all those back-alley towns and communities he visits in On the Road; all these narratives, whilst not intending primarily to be dissections of the societies they portray, are concerned with giving the reader enough information to form a palpable sense of the times, locations, and various social interactions that they depict. In short, we are allowed to know their social worlds to a reasonable extent, and understand how they work. To quote that great American democratic visionary Walt Whitman slightly out of context, they “contain multitudes”.

Little could be further from the truth for There Will Be Blood. This isn’t to say that Jack Fisk’s astonishing production design, for instance, doesn’t feel entirely authentic and accurate to its socially-specific period (for a contrast, look at the overly artfully bleached-out and sparse mise-en-scene of The Assassination of Jesse James… [2007): this isn’t a question of anachronisms or a lack of feeling for the setting, neither of which could ever be said to be problems for Blood. Instead, it is the way that the tightness of the film’s focus means it constantly leaves gaps in our potential for understanding the world it depicts - elisions, ambiguities, and silences, where we might expect an ‘epic’ to provide details, contexts, and clarifications. These gaps range from basic ambiguities in the narrative itself to relationships between characters, to silence on broader questions of how the society of Little Boston operates, and all reflect how uninterested the film is with understanding its world and its society more generally.

One of the most wilfully opaque narrative decisions is Anderson’s technique of casting Paul Dano as both Sunday twins, Paul and Eli, and then waiting till virtually the final scene to clarify that the brothers are definitely different people. At least upon first viewing, the film offers us the possibility of drawing the conclusion that Paul may be some kind of alter ego for Eli, and that Eli is thus either schizophrenic or in some other sense delusional. Paul’s characterization in his only scene is certainly not differentiated significantly from Eli’s: both are softly spoken, both share that strange, vacant smile, both display a strong, stubborn, calmness. The first major piece of evidence against the dual-personality hypothesis comes in the scene in which Eli launches himself ferociously upon his father, shouting, “It was Paul, Abel… You’re a stupid father to a stupid son!” However, the fact that Eli is in a state of frenzy at the time, having just been beaten and humiliated by Plainview, only contributes to the possibility of seeing him as mentally unstable, and thus possibly the kind of person who is capable of constructing a dual personality (this is also helped by the fact that we have already seen him act in a diametrically opposed manner to his usual placid self in his first church scene, at which point he seemingly becomes ‘possessed’ in some sense by the Holy Spirit). It is not until Plainview explicitly brings up Paul to Eli in the final scene that we can be absolutely positive that the two are in fact different people.

The possible confusion surrounding this aspect of the story could have been very easily cleared up in a number of ways (the most obvious of which would be either to show the two in a scene together, or to have another character mention Paul), but the film intentionally decides against this. It is important, however, that this ambiguity is not overtly stressed as an epistemic gap by the narration, in the manner of ‘dual personality’ movies (a classic example would be Psycho [1960], a more recent one would be Fight Club [1999]): we do not feel that the film is trying to ‘fool’ us into one hypothesis before eventually turning the tables, and the final scene’s confirmation of their existence as twins does not feel to us like a twist. The fact that for most of the movie we simply lack the necessary knowledge to definitively resolve the ambiguity is instead merely indicative of the strangely narrow point of view that the film as a whole establishes.

There are many other noticeable, but similarly unstressed, silences in the film’s narrative that mean we lack as full an understanding of its world as we are used to receiving. The largest of these is the huge jump forward in time to 1928 that sets us up for the film’s last section. Clearly a great deal has happened during this elided period, but we are left unsure of the specifics: what has Plainview’s relationship with H.W. been like during these years? Seemingly they have grown further apart than ever, and Plainview’s command for H.W. to “tell me where you’ve been” suggests that he has been away from his father for some time (getting married?), but we know little more than this. Similarly, Eli’s movements in the intervening years are an intriguing mystery: we learn he has been working in radio, and that he now drinks, but what are we to make of his confession that “the Devil has taken hold of me in ways I never imagined”? There is the definite suggestion here that he has fallen some way from the pedestal he preached from in Little Boston, but the specifics of this fall are left very unclear. Again, these absences are not necessarily flagged up as such - as mysteries that need solving - rather they simply make us notice again how little of the film’s world we truly have access to.

Moments at which we lack much sense of character psychology and motivation are also numerous. The moment when Bandy hands Plainview back his gun after speaking of the “sins” that he must repent is one obvious case of this. The assumption here is that Bandy knows that Plainview killed Henry the previous night, but we are given no confirmation of this, or of how Bandy could know of the murder (we don’t see the grave displayed ostentatiously near Plainview, for example). We also don’t know why Bandy should be so accepting of the killing, content merely for Plainview to cleanse himself through baptism rather than be brought to justice: is Plainview considered above the law? Does Bandy put the good of the town’s flourishing economy above the need to condemn a murderer? Is he so lost to his faith that he believes baptism absolves crime?

The business between Plainview and the young Mary Sunday is another intriguing story element that we are given little character motivation for. Their relationship as we see it consists of three main events: Plainview names his first derrick after her, then in the next scene takes it upon himself to warn her father not to beat her anymore, and then later, after Plainview’s forced baptism, Mary hugs him warmly from behind and he responds by gently patting her hand. What exactly is the nature of their relationship? What motivates Plainview to act the way he does towards her: is it for H.W., who previously told Plainview of Mary’s treatment at the hands of her father? Is it out of a desire for power - here over Abel Sunday? Is it because of his hatred of religion (we are told Mary’s father beats her “when she doesn’t pray”)?

One further noticeable narrative absence relates to Plainview’s right-hand-man, Fletcher Hamilton. He appears in a number of scenes, usually on the periphery, and is clearly an important person for Plainview and his business (particularly in the 1911 portion of the film), yet we are allowed to glean very little about him, and indeed only hear his name once (in the Paul Sunday scene). There are moments when it seems that he has the potential to be a voice of conscience or sensitivity for the story that could contrast with Plainview’s (e.g.: in the oil-fire scene he enquires about H.W.’s wellbeing and seems momentarily shocked by Plainview’s apparent flippancy towards him; in the scene in which H.W. is being forcibly manhandled by a doctor he receives a close-up that shows him looking uncomfortable with what is going on; later, he is the one who makes sure H.W.’s living conditions in the deaf-school are acceptable), but these suggestions are allowed to exist merely as small hints, and are never developed.

This is in fact representative of the entire film, since - especially for such a large work - it invites us to get to know comparatively few of its characters, and does not take time to make Little Boston feel understandable as a place or a community. We find ourselves in different locations (the derrick, the church, Plainview’s shack, a restaurant, a dusty plain) with little sense of how they relate to one another geographically, or of how their inhabitants exist with one another socially. The congregation at Eli’s church, for example, are given so scant attention as to potentially appear like little more than a group of mindless drones. Were the film more concerned with making us understand its world - the relationships between its community, and its society more broadly - we might reasonably expect it to give us more insight into, not just Fletcher or Mary or Paul, but all of the aspects of the story that I have been highlighting as conspicuous silences, which finally add up to simply the social make-up of Little Boston itself.

I could go on, but by now it should be clear what I mean by the film’s lack of interest in making us understand its world in social terms. The next question, then, is what we make of this. It could be argued (and, indeed, has been in a trio of thoughtful blog posts on the film that I have read, by Zach Campbell, Dan Sallit, and Darren Hughes) that the film’s eschewing of such things can be seen as a limitation. Viewed negatively, we could see it either as simply incompetent storytelling (which I certainly don’t think it is), or as evidence of a short-sighted or blindly insensitive attitude on Anderson’s part towards the society he is depicting. The latter argument has the potential to be persuasive: I certainly don’t think that the film is first and foremost trying to be ‘political’ (i.e.: about the effects of capitalism and religion on society), and the attempts to understand it as such - as primarily a vague allegory of sorts - by critics, though seductive to a degree, have not been fully convincing. However, that the film consciously limits our view and understanding of its social world can be seen more positively if we view it as an entirely appropriate way of telling a story about its central character.

Before it is concerned with anything else, There Will Be Blood is concerned with the strange, terrifying character of Daniel Plainview. Yet the film also feels oddly unlike a character study in the traditional sense, since we are seldom ever allowed any access to Plainview’s inner life - his past, his motivations, his desires, and so on. In this sense, the comparisons with Citizen Kane are actually more meaningful than they might at first appear. Like Kane, this is a film that is absolutely obsessed with its central character but which also provides barely any actual insight into that character, keeping him locked at its centre whilst allowing him to remain in many ways impenetrable. I would argue, however, that there is one very important sense in which the film does allow us to get to know Plainview, and that is through its narration: the way its story is told. I believe that the film is constructed in such a way as to make us view and feel its world in a comparable way to Plainview himself: in short, I would suggest that the film itself is borderline sociopathic.

Considering we spend two-and-a-half hours in his company, we know comparatively very little about Plainview. One thing that we do know is that he doesn’t like to discuss himself - this we gather through his evasions of questions about his personal life from various people (the wife of a man he is buying land from at the start of the film; the head of Standard Oil; Henry, etc.); as he says to Henry at one point: “I don’t want to talk about those things”. Another thing we know about him is his animosity towards people in general. In the extraordinary speech when he briefly lets his guard down to Henry during their campfire drinking session, he says: “I see the worst in people… There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by little... I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone. I can't keep doing this on my own with these... people.” This could hardly give a clearer picture of a man with only the loosest possible sense of personal involvement with the social world around him. This is of course one of the film’s central ironies: while Plainview preaches community values and social development in his sales-pitches, he himself wants nothing more than to escape society entirely (and he eventually seemingly achieves this goal). These two things that we come to know about Plainview - his lack of desire for self-knowledge and his lack of interest in other people - are two things that the film emphatically and powerfully conveys through its own construction.

All the elisions, absences, and silences that I have been identifying can be seen as operating within the same essentially anti-social impulses as Plainview’s character, as well as his hatred of depth - of sharing anything about himself. All are areas of the narrative that we might reasonably expect to be able to know and understand better than we are permitted to, and all relate to Daniel’s relationships with others, or to the lives of those around him (i.e.: the society he inhabits) - neither of which he has any desire to gain connection with or insight into. This is not exactly a question of our knowledge of and access to the film’s world being limited to the access and knowledge granted our main character in the manner of, say, Fight Club, whose narrative only works as it does because we are experiencing it almost exclusively through our protagonists’ consciousness. Rather, the narration instead simply reflects in some respects the psychology or personality of its main character.

We can see a precedent for this in Anderson’s previous film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), a simultaneously sweet- and violent-natured film about a simultaneously sweet- and violent-natured man, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). Two of the strangest narrational strategies of that film - the breaks into moments of beautiful, amorphous colour, and the occasionally cacophonous and strung-out percussion on its soundtrack - spoke of two aspects of Barry’s personality that he was having to continually repress: a romantic desire for escape, and a vexed and violent unhappiness. These elements of his personality were only allowed to occasionally erupt unfettered in Barry himself, but they were continually being communicated in the film’s own construction. So it is in Blood for Plainview, who has to repress his intense misanthropy and sociopathic tendencies in his daily dealings, and so, instead, we are made to experience them formally through the way the story is told.

The constant, insidious oddness of the film’s relationship to its narrative and characters is probably the most important way in which this happens, but another - as in Punch-Drunk Love - is through the film’s score. Johnny Greenwood’s discordant strings and sometimes unpredictable percussion and time-signatures do a wonderful job of making us feel an uneasy sense of dread, even when played over seemingly innocuous shots of landscapes, or of prospectors arriving at a train station. The uncomfortable tone that the score (sometimes single-handedly) creates often can’t be immediately understood as being aligned with the emotional state of any particular character, or with any generally appropriate-seeming mood for a specific situation or action (as is usually the case in film music). Later, however, when the full extent of Plainview’s disassociation from the world around him has become apparent, it is possible to see this music as having been entirely appropriate to the ocean of loathing and isolation that lurks beneath his surface, and which only erupts - like the oil he drills for - in brief, violent, bursts.

The film’s much-commented-upon predominant lack of female characters can also be understood in terms of the film’s sociopathically narrow point of view. It is certainly possible to understand Plainview psychologically as impotent, or in some way asexual: indeed, what clearer symbolic image of the hysterical compensation for fears about one’s manhood could be thought of than a man who builds giant phallic objects that drill rhythmically into the ground, occasionally eliciting gushes of liquid…? (Sirk’s Written on the Wind [1956] comes to mind as an obvious parallel in this respect.) Whether this is true or not though, we can certainly say that he seems to have very little interest in women whatsoever, either sexually or otherwise (one brief line about remembering taking women to “the Peach Tree Dance”, and an unverified accusation from Eli about “lusting after women” notwithstanding). While one plausible reaction is to judge the lack of women in the film negatively, another is to see it as one more way in which the film communicates economically and powerfully the terrifying worldview of a mind so cut off from everything that a healthy and appropriate response to living in the real world demands: in this case, engaging with the ‘other’ fifty percent of the world’s population.

Another reason why I can’t agree with those who see the film’s lack of overt interest in the social world, or in women, as a short-sighted failing on Anderson’s part is because, though these elements of the film’s world are certainly not foregrounded, we are nevertheless subtly encouraged to notice the way in which they are pushed into the background.

Take the first scene in which we hear Plainview’s voice clearly, for example: when he is giving his sales pitch to the townspeople of Coyote Hills. The scene begins with a close-up of Plainview, delivering his prepared monologue. We can’t see at this point who he is addressing, but can only guess from his repeated phrase “Ladies and gentlemen,” that it is a large group of people. During a pause in his speech, we get a ripple of indistinct, discontented voices from offscreen, demanding answers (the main line we pick out is, “What is your offer, sir?”). We still though, at this point, don’t cut out to see the people he is sharing the room with. He responds to the crowd by continuing with his promise of what he can give the townspeople, asserting why he is the best man for the job, while we continue to see only him and, now, H.W., who is standing behind him, fulfilling his important economic function of representing “bond of family”. The first view we get of the community is a sudden cut to a long shot that allows us to see predominantly only their backs, as they erupt into an indistinguishable cacophony of bellowed recriminations, a mass of messy, complicated, unknowable humanity, with Plainview as its removed, silent centre. As the shouting continues, we cut in close to Plainview again, this time from a side view that allows us to see a few of the townspeople behind him, yelling their various indecipherable questions and accusations, noticeably out-of-focus, beyond Plainview’s understanding, and ours. This shot is held for a moment, the screen made up half by our protagonist’s giant face, and half by the blurred rest of the world (i.e.: other people). Plainview assesses this situation, before getting up and leaving, disgusted by the appalling spectacle of human demands and complications represented by this town’s society; “too much confusion,” he announces.

This motif - members of a society that Plainview is unconcerned with in a particular instance being held pointedly out-of-focus in the frame behind him - in fact recurs throughout the film. It happens for children in the following scene, in which Daniel sits with a married couple at a table in the bottom-right foreground (he is convincing them to let him drill their land), while their blurred children play on the floor in the top-left background. Slightly later it happens for women, when he arrives at the Sunday Ranch for the first time and conducts a conversation with Abel (essentially a precursor to another business meeting), the two of them standing on either side of the foreground while the Sunday women (Abel’s wife and two daughters) look on, out of focus in the very centre of the frame in the background. (We might also think, in this respect, of the moment when the Sunday family’s women are forced to skulk away after dinner so that the men can talk business that will dictate their futures privately.) Women and sexuality are very noticeably reduced again to background blur and sound in the brothel scene. This pointed marginalizing happens again, for Plainview's co-workers, in the scene in which he beats Eli in the oily mud: as he slaps and forces mud into Eli’s mouth on the bottom-left foreground, two of his colleagues stand by, blurred in the top-right background, watching; we can only imagine what they must be thinking about this display. All these moments not only continue to communicate the pathologically narrow point of view of the film, but also allow us to notice what is being excluded from this view. Anderson’s favoured technique of tracking the camera in slowly on his scenes as they progress - which he does a great many times in this film - also speaks of this: constantly closing in, constantly narrowing the focus, continually excluding the outside world. I would argue that this is something that the film as a whole achieves: a constricting, claustrophobic view of its world that simultaneously lets us recognise it as being a constricting, claustrophobic, and - ultimately - hugely harmful view of the world, and of social relations.

There is a great deal more to be said about the subject, but I hope that I have made it clear both why I think that some of the connotations of a word like ‘epic’ are not quite applicable to There Will Be Blood, and why the film might strike us as being as strange and idiosyncratic as it does (or, at least, does this viewer). I also hope, though, to have proposed a persuasive case for why the strangeness of the film is not merely strange, but in fact represents a method of storytelling that is entirely appropriate to its subject matter. Whether you want to call the film as a whole ‘sociopathic’, I think it is undeniable that much of what makes the film feel odd and challenging has to do with the point of view that it sets up, and that - if we were forced to anthropomorphise this point of view - sociopathic is as good a word as any for its tendencies.

This is nevertheless a complex and impressive movie that I am positive will be the subject of a great deal more critical debate in the months and years to come. It is a debate that I very much look forward to, since I suspect (even if perhaps for slightly different reasons than others of its supporters) that Anderson and co. may have made a film that deserves as much attention and discussion as some of the most fascinating works in the cinematic canon.

This article was published on April 04, 2008.