An Oil Man


THERE WILL BE BLOOD is so overwhelming on a visceral level that it’s kind of hard to talk about. I will have to see it again.

 Disorganised thoughts:

The opening, wordless twenty minutes have rightly commanded attention. I loved how the first dynamite explosion BLASTS blue sky into the frame, in what feels like the first intense colour apart from blood-red of the single opening title.

If Anderson’s previous work has often danced close to the shadow of Robert Altman, in terms of locations, themes, structure and casting, this one feels more like his Terence Malick movie, with its natural light, landscape cinematography, and indirect approach to plot.

The images of the burning oil well actually seered into my retinas — I’m not being poetic, I literally had an afterimage stuck there, and when I blinked there was a tiny silhouette of Daniel Day-Lewis dancing about under my eyelids. Bastard.

Ere I am JH

I wonder if Day-Lewis’ performance is not only a John Huston imitation (and a damn good one, though Clint Eastwood got quite close in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART without doing very much) but a John Huston PORTRAIT. It’s not just the accent and voice, but the bandy gait, the cigar, the mannerisms, and the whole WAY of speaking. If the dialogue hasn’t been drawn straight from the Upton Sinclair book (and those in the know seem to agree that the novel is a fairly distant ancestor to the movie) then it’s firstly a very fine piece of consistent and engaging and unintrusive faux-period writing, and secondly a very good encapsulation of the way Huston speaks in interviews.

This might make sense of P.T.A.’s constant screening of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE during the shoot. Because I’m not convinced the two films have so much to do with each other, but I do think Daniel Plainview has a lot to do with John Huston.

(Refresh your memories of Huston’s delivery with the above.)

He lacks Huston’s twinkle, of course. But both men share a devilish charm, which is seen when Plainview speaks to crowds and seduces them with carefully chosen words and an air of supreme confidence and paternal concern. And Huston’s cruelty is pretty well documented. Asked why he would be particularly mean to anybody who appeared vulnerable or unstable, he would reply, “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block.” Which almost makes bullying (the most indefensible activity) seem sort of quirky and whimsical.

While Paul Dano also gives a stunning performance (he should have got an Oscar nomination for his WALK alone), his character doesn’t have quite the mystery of the Day-Lewis monster. He is revealed as a false prophet, and we discover that he himself knows it too. We also discover Plainview’s anti-religious side, without having it actually EXPLAINED to us. We can only guess at its causes, while reflecting that it’s another trait in common with Huston (WISE BLOOD is one of J.H.’s few really heartfelt films).

One thing that’s unusual about the P.T.A. film is the extent to which it forces you to really think about the Plainview character. He has an attempt at explaining himself to Kevin J. O’Connor’s character, but enough of his motivation is left in shadow to make him an urgent discussion point as you leave the cinema. All he can say is that he’s angry, and hates most of humanity, and he seems to regard this anger as an inborn trait he can do nothing about.

Was Huston angry? It’s a theory, at least. Much of Huston’s behaviour seems to have been in defiance of his poor health in childhood. Did the drive and determnation that forced him to repeatedly throw himself into a rapidly-flowing river as a boy, to prove his need to live, bring with it a rage against all weakness — a projection outwards of the vulnerability he wished to destroy in himself?

In the Soup

This psychiatric stuff isn’t really my natural element, but the film seems to force one to it, which is part of its peculiar strength. I’m reminded of André Hodeir’s fine piece on the Marx Brothers (recommended by David Ehrenstein here on the blog), where he comments in passing on the scene in DUCK SOUP where Groucho psychs himself into a state of outrage at the thought of something which hasn’t even happened (“I hold out my hand to him and that hyena refuses to accept it!”). Hodeir observes, “the psychological mechanism of anger is displayed here with great comic subtlety,” and I think the same might be said of Day-Lewis’ whole performance here. As in real life, anger leads to more anger. When Plainview starts to finally unleash it, it can’t be stemmed and even after he’s fully revenged himslef it continues to flood out, with horrible consequences.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so chipper in the last shot — has he finally been freed of a monster that was gnawing his insides?

You can see the Groucho version here:

The moment is 3 minutes 50 seconds in, but the rest is all good too — you can see Charles “Emperor Ming” Middleton reprise his role of prosecutor from Von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (a film which seems to have obsessed Groucho, judging by his further reference to it in HORSE FEATHERS).

8 Responses to “An Oil Man”

  1. I think there’s a general familial relationship between There Will Be Blood and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Had Fred C. Dobbs succeeded he would have become Daniel Plainview.

    Far too much has been made of DDL’s Huston voice. Everybody does Huston. The best was Robert Mitchum, who was a superb freelance mimic (his George Cukor was uncanny) . What impresses about DDL in TWBB is the sheer size amd scope of the performance. You have to go back the Cherkassov in Ivan the Terrible to find anything remotely like it.

    Sinclair fans have complained the Anderson jettisoned all the political references, commentary, and much else from Oil! to make the film entirely about Plainview’s character. But in this he makes what I would call political cinema by other means. Had he been more faithful to Sinclair he would have ended up with a film that cou;d and WOULD have been dismissed as mere “Liberal” dogma in today’s American Neo-Fascist climate. Instead he paints a portrait of what it would be like to want all that money and property so much. Plainview is Nosferatu, this the horror film title is perfect.

    What’s most remarkable about the character is the absence of any sexuality.


    In Hollywood that’s against the law.

    Is Plainview impotent? Queer? Anderson deftly refuses to say, thus forcing us to take stock of him outside of the sexual matrix that ALL other film characters proceed from.

    And it’s the best film score since Psycho

  2. It should be fitting that I fell in love with Plainview as but a mirror reflection of one’s self and whilst you say, David C, that the film has taken on Malick dimensions (agreed), despite Anderson’s prior rape of Altman’s masterpiece SHORT CUTS for his own dreadful mistake, MAGNOLIA, here, I feel Anderson has abandoned his collection of American clichés portrayed in a pseudo-PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC “close-up=depth” manner (complete with one of the worst scenes in history, namely “wise up” – strangely rectified by a recent British TV show called Skins) and wholly embraced Altman’s misanthropic qualities as but his own (tying in with his personal disillusionment of late). This isn’t Anderson DOING Altman, this is Anderson BECOMING an heir to the throne, and a worthy one at that (if he continues along these lines anyway).

    >What’s most remarkable about the character is the absence of any sexuality.

    If I recall correctly, even point blank rejecting the offer of female companionship at one point (when his false brother arrives)?

  3. Yes, Plainview shows no interest in the prostitutes.

    It does seem like you have to either throw in a woman to “prove” the character’s straight, or make a big song-and-dance about him not being straight, and PTA avoids both courses. That, along with his refusal to tell us much of anything about Plainview’s upbringing closes off areas of psychology that the film otherwise seems to urge us to care about (It’s a “character study”, is it not?, which makes it all the more fascinating.

    Glad you’re coming round to PTA, Chris! Even if you hate Magnolia, it showed ambition, and it looks like he’s become capable of fulfilling some of that.

    The Huston thing is so noticable (they could have used somebody less famous as a model) that I like to think it has some REASON, unless it’s meant to distract us from something else. I only know that one of the things the film made me think about was Huston himself.

    Can’t think too much about “if Dobbs succeeded” because it always seemed inevitable to me that he wouldn’t — Walter H predicts failure right at the start. Dobbs seemed pretty healthy until gold got into his system — Plainview strikes me as damaged goods long before he becomes truly rich.

    I’m reminded a tiny bit of Roeg’s Eureka.

    Agree that the scale and energy of D-Day’s performance is astounding, and happy for him to win his golden homunculus. Paul Dano and Jonny Greenwood should have been up there too and it should have won best film and director, but I expect the Academy to get these things wrong.

  4. Flayle Payne Says:

    I felt like I had been asleep for years before I saw TWWB; truly a reminder of how good movies can be when it all comes together — story, characters, cinematography and musical score. (Speaking of which, was anyone else reminded of The Shining’s score when watching this film?). My real regret is that I waited too long and had to watch it on DVD.

    Regarding Plainview’s interest/lack thereof in women, I think you may be analyzing this a bit too much. He is so self-obsessed, so narcissistic, I don’t think he has room in his heart (or loins) for anyone else but himself. Certainly no real love for his son as we find out in the end. After he sends the “basket bastard” H.W. away, it was painful to watch the silent flashbacks of he and his son at the Little Boston gusher. As for the prostitutes…well, he obviously had another obsession working on his brain at that point, a perceived betrayal of trust. Immediately prior to the incident on the beach where his suspicions were aroused, Plainfield was the one who suggested to Paul, “We’ll get liquored up, get some girls and take them to the Peachtree dance.”

    But my favorite part of the story has to be the ending. After his “Milkshake” speech to Eli and his subsequent (I would argue, deserved) bludgeoning of the preacher-boy, he simply says to his dull manservant, “I’m finished” in the same polite but patronizing tone that suggests, “come clean my mess now. Thank you so much.”

  5. Oh I *live* to analyse films “too much”. And the better the film, the more it responds to this treatment. Of course, some of what is uncovered may not have been deliberately placed there by the makers — but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting and of potential value.

    First, although the film certainly doesn’t declare this in an unambiguous way, I don’t see Plainview as having no love for his adopted son. Just because he says so, during a moment when he feels betrayed, doesn’t mean we have to accept it. The fact that he’s truthful about H.W.’s origins doesn’t mean he’s truthful about his feelings — in fact, I’m not sure Plainview has much access to his own emotions. They explode out of them, and he would be at a loss to explain them. His moment of greatest insight is in talking to his “brother”, but even there, although he diagnoses his hatred and competitiveness, he regards them simply as natural phenomena, beyond his control and beyond investigation. So when he’s angry at H.W. it probably seems perfectly clear to him that he never loved the boy.

    As to sexuality, the suggestion of going to the dance feels like Plainview is playing a part, making a “normal” suggestion about the kind of entertainment “most men” enjoy. One can’t really picture Plainview the misanthropist getting a kick out of the gathering. The film is careful to render Plainview’s sexuality as a big “?”, like much else about him.

    What makes Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview good opposite numbers is the lack of access they have to their own inner workings. Eli seems to really believe himself honest and virtuous and godly, Plainview sees himself as rational and driven by simple goals. They are both quite, quite mistaken.

  6. Hello. Here’s another sketch of mine that was on last night. I think it goes here. Apologies:

  7. Heh!

    I love the way Webb/Tooting answers a question emphatically, then pauses and pretends to have just understood the question, and then repeats THE SAME ANSWER. Beautiful disingenuousness.

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