Monday, January 18, 2010
Great Last Scenes: There Will Be Blood
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Great Because...: Four words: I. Drink. Your. Milkshake. Need I say more?
Daniel Plainview is not a good man. With his ruthless determination and the tunnel vision that allows him to run over anything and anyone in his path (including his son), he represents an ugly, distorted version of the American dream, a dream diminished here to simple, unadulterated greed. The money he makes does not even make him happy; he is arguably at his most miserable at the film's end, when entombed in his cavernous mansion. After definitively cutting ties with his now grown son by revealing to him, in the most brutal way possible, that he was informally adopted, Plainview is perfectly set for that last great fall, the comeuppance that he so surely deserves. And yet...
There Will Be Blood isn't that kind of movie. Usually when the protagonist emerges triumphant, a story can end on a hopeful note; here the triumph of the protagonist is just more evidence of the film's inherent cynicism. The victory of a man like Plainview, so gluttonously selfish, is an omen of destruction in a larger context, a warning against laissez faire capitalism (a prescient warning, given the state of things just over two years later). With his vast wealth to back him up, Plainview, now as twisted physically as he is mentally and more animal than human, no longer has to pretend to play nice with his rivals. Indeed, realistically, he no longer has rivals, just minor annoyances, one of whom is Eli Sunday.
Eli comes to Plainview believing that he has the upper hand - the ability to sell him land that hasn't yet been drilled on. Plainview lets him make his pitch, forces him to renounce God and then, in what is perhaps the only moment of genuine happiness Plainview experiences in the film, informs him that in fact he has nothing to sell. Because Plainview owns all the land around the plot Eli is offering, the drilling has already occured. Not content simply to crush Eli's desperate plan, Plainview then literally crushes Eli, bludgeoning him to death with a bowling pin. The brilliance of the scene, however, is not in this incredible act of violence but in the way that Plainview's butler casually enters the scene followed by Plainview's declaration: "I'm finished." There's an underlying sense of entitlement to all this, from the way that Plainview took it upon himself to take the oil to the casual way that the murder is acknowledged. He's so rich that no one can touch him; he's priced himself out of the boundaries that dictate the lives of others. What he's done is essentially a metaphor for the corrupt side of capitalism which allows the rich to continue getting richer while the poor simply bleed out.
The final minutes of There Will Be Blood are some of the finest in Daniel Day-Lewis' career. His interpretation of Plainview's particular madness, from the way that he knaws at his meat and literally salivates over figuratively chewing Eli up, the little jig he dances as he demonstrates his triumph, and finally the way he chases Eli through the bowling alley, is exhilarating to watch. It's a brilliant performance in an absolutely brilliant film.