there will be blood

In a scene that ranks as perhaps one of the greatest emotional outbursts ever captured on film, the guilty Plainview reluctantly undergoes a baptism at the hands of phony pastor Eli Sunday, who is perhaps not so much intended to be an evenly matched “rival” as he is intended to be a supercilious foil to Plainview. Here we get a rare glimpse of Plainview undergoing a humbling experience, being forced to confront having sent H.W. away alone on a train to a school for the deaf. “I’ve abandoned my child!” he wails. “I’ve abandoned my boy!”

It is not hyperbole to say that the baptism scene in There Will Be Blood is on par with Marlon Brando palming his face, shouting, “Hey, Stella!” in A Streetcar Named Desire. The only lead male performance of the ’00s that might come anywhere close to Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood is Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

Coming Full Circle: Boogie Nights vs. There Will Be Blood

Back in October, while revisiting Boogie Nights on its 20th anniversary, our own Josh Spiegel made the astute observation that the core theme of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work is “the necessity of family.” Like Tarantino, some cinephiles might still prefer Anderson’s 1997 disco-frenzy breakthrough to There Will Be Blood. At the very least, Boogie Nights exists as an important touchstone for Anderson’s later work in both quality and theme.

In the film, Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler becomes ostracized from his surrogate family, who just so happened to inhabit a kind of blissful porn commune in California’s San Fernando Valley during the late 1970s. The late, great Roger Ebert listed Boogie Nights as one of his Top 10 Films of 1997. On an episode of “Siskel & Ebert,” he said:

The film isn’t about sex so much as people who live in a sort of low-rent parallel universe to the mainstream movie industry.

The key word here is “people.” Not porn industry lowlives, or however else a less charitable heart might characterize them. But rather, just people.

When the 1980s come crashing in with cocaine and cheap video, Dirk undergoes a crash-and-burn arc similar to that of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas. In the end, however, he is reconciled to his surrogate family. This is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so the obligatory father figure is there — skin flick auteur Jack Horner, played by Burt Reynolds in an Oscar-nominated role that marked a short-lived comeback for the legendary actor.

More importantly, however, Julianne Moore’s character, Amber Waves, is there. “She’s a wonderful mother,” Horner says. “She’s a mother to all those who need love.”

By contrast, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood inhabits a film that is almost entirely without women. At times, they lurk on the edge of the frame. You can hear them laughing, but you cannot see them, and neither can he. It seems trite to reduce it all down to this, but Plainview — the ambitious American individualist turned greedy capitalist and isolationist — is a character who needs love, plain and simple. Yet he is unwilling to give love or receive it. He forsakes his family in favor of fortune.

By the end of There Will Be Blood, he has fulfilled his twisted dream of “getting away from everyone.” Now he lives as a hermit in a mansion. His last act of defiance is to disown his son, now a full-grown adult played by Russell Harvard (the deaf hitman in FX’s Fargo series).

When his old character foil, Eli Sunday, comes calling again, their final confrontation leads to one last monstrous moment, whereby Plainview beats the “sniveling ass” to death with a bowling pin, his deranged, cock-eyed face staring down at his victim in a mask of pure inhuman hate. Here, at last, the monster stands self-defeated, a tragic figure, who can only sink to the floor, and say “I’m finished.”

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