Entertainment

How 'There Will Be Blood' Anticipated Trump's America

Ten years on, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic take on ambition, wealth, and power is as profound as it is prophetic.
March 17, 2017, 1:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Let's face it: Really rich white guys have a whole range of options for how to spend their time and money when they can literally do and buy anything. They can hole up in a Vegas penthouse, hire an entirely Mormon staff because they're the only people worth trusting, grow ridiculously long fingernails and buy out the last remaining supply of banana nut ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Or they can run for public office, pretend to give a shit about the dwindling opportunities faced by the Joe and Jill Lunchbuckets of the lower classes, and get elected the leader of the free world. What with these options on the table, retiring to play golf seems like a terrible failure of imagination.

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For Daniel Plainview—the oil-tycoon hero played so imperiously by Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth and still greatest cinematic achievement—nothing says "I'm king of the world!" like staying good and smashed inside your own mansion that's full of cool stuff to shoot with a gun. And it has a bowling alley. Sure, Plainview's bristly face could use a shave, and he probably could've used one or two of those Mormons around to discourage him from bludgeoning guests to death with bowling pins, but not even Anthony Robbins could deny that the man has realized his full potential when he cries, "I'm finished!"

Plainview's final line is the film's second-most iconic piece of dialogue after our hero's earlier boast about drinking up any and every milkshake you bring to his yard. But even now, ten years after the movie's original release, it doesn't feel like There Will Be Blood is done with us. Instead, Anderson's caustic parable about ambition, wealth, power, and the raw, ruthless ways of American capitalism may have more to say about our historical moment (and the imperatives that produced it) than any movie that doesn't have The Purge in its title.

Anderson partially based his saga on the life of Edward Doheny, a genuine oil tycoon who bought up vast chunks of California and Mexico and got stinking rich thanks to what he found underneath. Writer Upton Sinclair had previously included a fictionalized version of Doheny in Oil!, the 1927 novel on which There Will Be Blood is officially, if loosely, based. (Anderson is likely to repeat this strategy of melding historical and fictional elements now that he's reunited with Day-Lewis to shoot a thus-far-untitled drama about a dressmaker for royals and other wealthy swells, a character purportedly based on pioneering fashion designer Charles James.)

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But don't let the early-20th-century setting delude you into believing There Will Be Blood can be viewed from a safe historical remove—what we see in the movie's sun-scorched Californian landscapes should be familiar, since it's really our world being born. After all, it's about a man who understands the art of the deal and who anticipates our limitless thirst for the black stuff seeping up through the dirt. Plainview's story serves as an unusually frank exposé of what it really takes to get to the top of our heap in a system that routinely turns a blind eye to the misdeeds and malfeasance of the people who get rich enough to rig it. After all, the only person strong enough to destroy Plainview is Plainview himself—no one else even gets close.

From the very first moment we see him deep in a mine (which makes his rise a literal one),
Plainview's progress seems both inexorable and inevitable. He begins in humble and mucky conditions, but thanks to his determination, he soon masters his surroundings just as surely as he commandeers the people around him. In due course, he fills the film's landscapes and vistas with his derricks, pipelines, and other signs of his dominance. Nearly everyone he encounters submits to his will. Those who don't are subject to outpourings of rage that leave them stunned, humiliated, or dead.

Already packed with plenty of force thanks to Day-Lewis's customary degree of intensity, There Will Be Blood may have actually gained power over the last decade. That's largely because Plainview's ambition and attitudes—which inevitably read very differently as the Bush era petered out and Democrats peddled messages of hope—now seem writ large in Trump's equally cutthroat vision of American enterprise and society. Despite its sometimes more cautionary aspects, Plainview's narrative arc now doubles as a motivational training session, a testament to what you too can achieve with a combination of rugged individualism, a relentlessly competitive nature, and an internal reservoir of skillfully concealed misanthropy. His can-do spirit seems uniquely attuned to our times. "I want no one else to succeed," he explains in a rare moment of candor that now feels appropriately Trumpian.

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One reason Plainview's such a compelling figure is that he is capable of recognizing the energies that drive him and prevent him from ever being satisfied. Actually, Plainview's problems are probably worse than that. "I hate most people," he confesses in the same conversation. As the story enters its final stages, he's lost his ability to conceal it. As befits such a dark, corrosive vision of humanity, Plainview doesn't get a happy ending.

Back in our world, we can witness the rapid dismantling of what's already a pretty rickety excuse for a social safety net in America, along with the unrestrained proliferation of a kind of contempt that Plainview would recognize as his own. It's a lens that transforms just about everyone else into what the president loves to call "haters and losers."

At the same time, Anderson invites us to admire Plainview's prowess and finesse as a salesman and a deal maker. Even before he admits it in a brutal final scene with his adopted son, it's clear how he uses the boy as a prop and a means of gaining others trust. "I'm a family man," he claims. He briefly purports to be a religious one, too, though his fascination with his nemesis Eli seems to stem largely from self-recognition, having seen in his adversary another skilled charlatan and manipulator. If Plainview had gotten all of his tips down on paper, he could've written The Art of the Deal.

Anderson's movie feels just as prescient about our moment thanks to its portrayal of the early oil business, which would soon become the cornerstone of the US economy. Anderson's depiction mixes the heroic with the ironic, deftly showing how the very dirty work of oil exploration fit into well-worn myths about the conquering of the American frontier. One difference here is that it's the poor white settlers who are getting suckered out of the land they occupy. The indigenous peoples there before them had already been "pacified" in the California Indian Wars of the 1850s and 1860s, though their rage lives on in the land claim disputes and pipeline standoffs seen at Standing Rock and British Columbia's Trans Mountain protest, among others.

For the early oil barons, once the land got good and grabbed, it was so easy to get that bubbling crude, it must've felt like God's way of saying He wanted us—though not all of us, of course—to be rich. Trump continues to exploit the notion that there's something fundamentally good, honest, and American about fossil-fuel exploitation, winning votes by promising to resurrect long-dead coal towns, boosting drilling and pipeline construction, and hiring Exxon's former boss as his administration's chief diplomat. (Let's not forget the climate change doubter and energy-sector booster now in charge of heading/dismantling the EPA.) That said, oil is a filthy, filthy thing in There Will Be Blood. Faces are perpetually smudged with the stuff, and corpses tend to be drenched in it. In other moments, Anderson emphasizes its reflective quality—more than once, a pool of oil literally becomes a black mirror.

Since we typically expect to see an inky spate of nothing in those puddles, it's always disquieting to somehow see sun, sky and clouds instead. Likewise, when we look at Plainview now, we may see something we hadn't expected: a rapacious, destructive force of the present rather than a remnant of a comfortably distant past.

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