Iraq by allegory

Submitted by AWL on 22 February, 2008 - 12:24 Author: Matt Cooper

Already hailed as a masterpiece, this film is one of the bookies’ favourite for the Oscars, particularly for Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of oil man Daniel Plainview. His performance certainly dominates the film — he is central to all but two scenes in the film — and it is as subtle and understated as it is masterful.

The cinematography and look of the film are pitch perfect too, the production only being a little undermined by Johnny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead) unsubtle orchestral score that inserts a sometimes shrill note of discordance and unsettled wrongness. That contrasts too much with Day-Lewis’s much more nuanced performance.

The film is directed — and written with real flair — by P T Anderson, previously best known for his 1999 film Magnolia.

The story is entirely focussed on Plainview, from his time as lone prospector for gold in the 1890s, to his end as a reclusive millionaire at the end of the 1920s. From the start he is driven by success, dragging himself with a broken leg for miles not to seek treatment, but to register a claim at the assize office. What becomes evident very quickly is that Plainview is a heartless individualist driven not only by his need to be rich, but as he himself explains, a need to see everyone else fail.

Plainview’s show of concern for others are exactly that, performances, something that allows him to see through Ely Sunday (Paul Dano), an evangelic preacher in the community which lives on top of the oil, the people whom Plainview cheats to make himself rich.

It is these two elements, the quest for wealth through oil and the corruption of religion, that are the heart of the film. What little humanity there is in Plainview’s heart is burnt out by his greed. When facing a choice between his son HW (Dillon Freasier) and oil, he chooses oil. (One of the subtexts of the film is that it is Plainview’s lack of family and community that has led to his greed and antipathy towards humanity, although even here Plainview is fixated with his own “blood”, looking for people embodying something of himself.)

The church offers neither salvation for Plainview nor any meaningful community resistance to him, but offers to sell its blessing like medieval indulgences. In the person of Ely, the church fixated by the wealth that oil brings.

All of this adds up to a very good film, a depiction of the lust for oil and the futility of religion. Very timely at the end of Bush’s presidency.

But, and this is a very big but, whatever the subtleties of Day-Lewis’s acting, his role has been written as a one dimensional monster. To become rich Plainview has to be callous to everyone, and in becoming rich he becomes ever worse. Plainview is an entirely allegorical character, more like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now! than Kane in Citizen Kane.

It is worth comparing the film to the novel Oil! by the American socialist Upton Sinclair on which the film is very loosely based. Of course a film has to be much briefer than a book, and it is always unfair for a film to be chastised for not doing all a book can, but there are two central and important elements to the book missing in the film.

In the book the oil man (J Arnold Ross) is a family man, and this makes his amoral search for profit all the starker; he is not a monster driven by his own moral failure but by a system that puts profit before humanity. Also in Sinclair’s version there is resistance, the oil workers (who in the film are sweaty industrial eye-candy) are unionised, strike and struggle against their exploitation. Most importantly, Ely’s brother Paul is a communist agitator.

It is understandable that a film made in the USA in 2008 sees only a futile dance of selfish struggle and embrace between capital and church, but reading Sinclair’s book will leave with a feeling that the film could do so much more.

All this said, There will be Blood remains a very good film. A much better film that some other Hollywood reactions to the war in Iraq (Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs being perhaps the worst example). Those films that tackle the subject tangentially do best — another example is Paul Haggis’s In the country of Elah — as they ask the audience to think rather than telling them what to think.

Upton Sinclair’s Oil! is still in print (available in the newly packaged movie tie-in Penguin edition at an inflated £8.99). After you’ve seen the film you might wish to read the book too.

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