Happy Father’s Day from Paul Thomas Anderson! The Blu-Ray edition of There Will Be Blood has just arrived in stores, and I’d like to think that its perfect-for-dads-and-grads timing isn’t coincidental — that its release now really is intended to give the paterfamilias in your household a timely refresher course in how not to be a parent. Sure, that connection is a bit of a stretch on my part. (The delay between the standard DVD two months ago and this high-def edition really has to do with Paramount needing time to shift gears to Blu-Ray after the competing format they’d backed, HD-DVD, went kaput.) But the timing is fitting, since there’s no one who makes “family” films quite like P.T. Anderson. Yes, I’ll explain.
First, let’s correct one of the most common misperceptions about a movie that invites all kinds of misunderstandings. Think of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” for a moment and sing this refrain: The kid is not my son. Probably a majority of reviews and blogs about the film mistakenly referred to the boy in the story, H.W, as being the “son” of the drama’s central figure, Daniel Plainview. He’s not, although you have to be paying attention during the movie’s mostly silent opening reel to realize that H.W.’s real father dies in an oil drilling accident about 13 minutes in, at which point the antihero, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, takes over the orphan’s raising. (Warning: There will be spoilers.) H.W. is a fake son, just as it turns out later that Daniel’s would-be brother, Henry, is a phony sibling, too. Why is all this so significant? Because if Anderson’s disparate films — from Boogie Nights to this one — tend to all be about anything, it’s lonely people who have either no kin or horrible kin going to great lengths to create all-new, makeshift families for themselves. And if you view Daniel Plainview himself as a sort of overgrown orphan boy whose growing monstrousness masks a longing to have some “blood” of his own, then he becomes an almost sympathetic character, instead of just the ultimate Bad Dad.
There Will Be Blood was one of the most acclaimed films of2007, yet it’s remarkable how few of its admirers have grappled withwhat it’s really about, other than to make vague proclamations aboutAnderson illuminating the evils of greed. Is it oil, or some sort ofmetaphorical commentary on what modern progressives refer to as “bloodfor oil”? Perhaps, to some extent, although if that’s what reallyconcerned the writer-director, you’d think he wouldn’t have completelythrown out the second half of the agitprop novel on which it wasofficially based, Upton Sinclair’s epic Oil!, in favor of thecompletely original, weirdly intimate psychodrama that eventuallydominates the film. Did Anderson mean to use the conflict betweenPlainview and the phony-baloney local preacher to comment on therespective failings of commerce and religion? Maybe; the fact that thephrase “there will be blood” has its origins in the Old Testament (andhere you thought he ripped it off from the Saw ad campaign!)supports that view. But if you believe that successful auteurs tend tohave ongoing preoccupations, and you look at Anderson’s earlier movies,you’ve got to believe that Blood is about family, or the lack of it.
In Hard Eight, a.k.a. Sydney, the director’s firstmovie, John C. Reilly is all but adopted by Philip Baker Hall, who’seven better at being a father figure than he is a con man. In Boogie Nights,Mark Wahlberg deserts a dysfunctional family to take up with a morefunctional clan that just happens to be a porno repertory company.(Julianne Moore even offers to be Heather Graham’s mommy.) In Magnolia,Tom Cruise and Melora Walters both have some pretty serious daddyissues to deal with; one copes by becoming an obnoxiously extrovertedmotivational speaker, the other by completely withdrawing. Thesalvation from family via romantic love that Walters experiences inthat film is further explored in Punch-Drunk Love, the first Andersonfilm that really had more to do with coupling than family dynamics.While we didn’t learn too much about Adam Sandler’s parents in thatone, we get hints of how messed up things were from his damagedrelationship with his domineering sisters—and how the nurturing love ofa woman might heal what got screwed up at home.
There’s no such hope in the gleefully fatalistic There Will Be Blood,of course. But the same attention to family issues and emotionallongings is there, which is why it’s a little sad that so many of thefilm’s fans saw the protagonist as nothing but a supervillain in thetradition of Bill the Butcher, Day-Lewis’ Gangs of New York badguy. Call me crazy, but I continue to be touched by Daniel Plainviewevery time I see the film — murderous, retributive wretch that he is.The key to how you see his character will be how you react to thepenultimate sequence, and whether you think he means it when he tellshis “son” that he was a “bastard in a basket” whom he only used to getahead in business. I think some viewers are so relishing the idea ofDay-Lewis as a depraved sociopath at that point that they miss thetorture the character inflicting on himself. Anderson goes out of hisway to make sure we don’t miss his inner conflict by throwing in aflashback to happier times, with Daniel tousling the hair of hisadopted progeny — one of many affectionate moments that show his lovefor the boy was real, not something manufactured for the sake ofcapitalist gain. For whatever reason, Daniel is driven to alienateanyone who might ever love him. And though that probably wasn’t yourfather, chances are you know somebody who did have a dad like that,even if he never ended up knocking anybody off with a bowling pin.
When Daniel sends his son away for good, it’s clear — from thatwell-placed flashback — that he is casting himself into the fieryfurnace of hell, wherein he really lands in the final scene thatfollows. I think Anderson’s message is this: If we can’t find a way tobond with our own blood — be it real family or the kind of people weadopt into our lives as family — then our wounds fester, and there willbe blood, the other kind, violence, finally bubbling up like oil.
So on that light note, please: Fire up the PlayStation3, pick up There Will Be Bloodon Blu-Ray (the format that might well have been invented for just thisgorgeous a movie), and watch it this Sunday with someone you love,preferably a father or father figure. And for God’s sake, go out andshare a milkshake afterward, will you?