Nietzsche doesn’t sit well with movies. Cinema likes happier philosophers. Der Wille zur Mach, or “the will to power” isn’t a popular notion when writing movie heroes. Audiences don’t generally want men of will. We like men of the people, friendly guys. What will distress most people about There Will Be Blood isn’t the violence, it’s the egotism. Daniel Day-Lewis plays an anti-hero like no other (save Scarface); a man driven to succeed not by greed, or ambition, but by will. It is a performance, and a movie, that takes a singular approach to tragedy. Because Daniel Plainview isn’t flawed. He is perfect. He is the apotheosis of godlessness; a man possessed by his self.
At the start of the nineteenth century, an enterprising psychopath named Daniel Plainview is told of a large oil deposit in California. The oil flows beneath a desert town called Little Boston. The people of Little Boston prize God. In order to get at the oil, Plainview strikes a deal with the Sunday family, who hold powerful sway among the townsfolk. Eli Sunday, the eldest son, is told he can use the oil-money to found a church. He takes it that he has Plainview’s blessing. But he is wrong. Each man believes the other’s will can be overcome. Their struggle encompasses the next twenty years; two murders; one marriage; many lies, and the angriest baptism ever put on screen.
Daniel Day-Lewis surpasses and almost parodies himself as Daniel Plainview. He plays him as a man who acts like a human being, but never feels as one. Even his tenderness toward his adopted son is undermined by mercenary instinct. He has only ulterior motives; he never befriends a man he can’t use. There are no women in Plainview’s life, and small wonder: he doesn’t display the slightest interest in sex. His dealings with people are like watching as a zoo keeper tends the animals. He never looks at people; he inspects them. Where in Gangs of New York he was a leader through might and braggadocio (a psycho, yes, but a very human psycho), here he’s a leader because he’s profitable. People come to him for money. And people’s worship of money disgusts him. Day-Lewis has always had a certain Romantic, at-a-remove quality in his best films. Here, it’s as if his idealism burrowed inwards – blighted – leaving only superiority, and ill will.
Paul Dano, quite a way removed from the mute teen he played in Little Miss Sunshine, plays Eli Sunday as a cunning hysteric (if that’s not an oxymoron); a man who shares Plainview’s moral superiority, but fatally lacks his inner-strength. Eli is not compelling, he is the man another movie would make a villain out of. Here, he’s not the hero (Blood has no time for heroism); he’s the anti-hero’s antagonist. Dano has a rudimentary quality to his face (something like a medieval portrait of a saint) that it lends itself to religious fervour. Hearing him howl and cackle as he works the congregation feels authentic even when what he says verges on the ridiculous (“…As long as I have teeth, I will bite you!”) He has a lupine, dare-all energy to his performance; lying fires him. You know Daniel Plainview will destroy him ultimately, but you also see in Dano why Eli thinks he has a chance.
A lot of critics will want this movie to be about America. They’ll see oil and think: Iraq. But I’m not convinced There Will Be Blood has any allegory to it. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) has never been much for politics. I don’t think Daniel Plainview should be read as George Bush. This movie is about gazing into the abyss. Think Nietzsche: “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” There lies strength, and emptiness. In the last third of the movie, we watch Daniel Plainview arrive at his only logical end. He doesn’t kill arbitrarily. He kills because his entire life has been about asserting his will, and quashing God.