Below is a new installment in our long-dormant “MASTER MOMENTS” column, which breaks down a key scene or moment in a movie to its core essentials. We hope to be posting on a regular basis from now on. Click here to peruse our previous installments of the “Master Moments” Column.
It’s hard to imagine today, given how swiftly it has established itself as one of the unquestioned pinnacles of modern cinema, but the feverish adoration both critics and audiences had in 2007 for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was not as wholly unmitigated as it seems today. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Daniel Plainview was duly praised, as was Anderson’s allegory on the anemic effect greed has on powerful institutions like capitalism and religion. Yet there is a clear point where, in the eyes of many detractors, Anderson derails his film. That divisive moment descends on audiences in the shape of its lengthy epilogue. The twenty-minute sequence offers a glimpse (SPOILER) of an older and much wealthier Plainview, years after his prosperous business deal with Union Oil. Drunken and half-crazed, the film closes with Plainview disowning his son and his partner H.W. and engaging in… um… a rather interesting final confrontation with his arch-rival and ultimate victim, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).
Take the time to watch that particular sequence below, in three parts (I unfortunately couldn’t find the full version):
…and Part III
As I said, in 2007 this coda fractured what was an otherwise uniformly ecstatic consensus regarding There Will Be Blood. The Sacremento Bee’s Carla Meyer, in her enthusiastic review of the movie, lamented that the movie “stops being a masterpiece and becomes a really good movie. What was grand becomes petty, then overwrought.” Filmspotting hosts Adam Kempanaar and Matty Robinson similarly criticized the overwrought nature of Day-Lewis’s scenery-chomping, with Robinson plainly stating that the final act “just shouldn’t have happened. It just feels like a different film… The mere execution of this third act is really, really sloppy.” Critic Mick LaSalle, among the film’s more noteworthy dissenters, roundly criticized the exploration of the themes encapsulated throughout the movie and, inevitably, during that final interaction. He says:
“The uneasy interaction between God and secular commerce is the film’s most important recurring notion. It’s where There Will Be Blood could have had something definite and compelling to say, but instead it’s precisely there that we find the film’s Achilles’ heel… The scenes between Day-Lewis and Dano ultimately degenerate into a ridiculous burlesque.”
There is truth to what these critics said. Indeed, Anderson’s decision to flash-forward to 1927 is a bold one. His execution of that whole sequence makes for a hammy and understandably jarring shift in tone, especially considering the (relative) restraint Anderson uses with many prior scenes – scenes such as the baptism, the oil well bursting, Daniel’s first assault on Eli – that employ spectacle and theatricality. Yet to write off There Will Be Blood’s ending due to tonal jerkiness seems, as a dismissive critique, to be much more unsatisfying than any supposed transgression Anderson commits in his movie. I say “unsatisfying” because, in lamenting how an assured auteur like Anderson could bungle such a critical scene, many of these critics reductively imply that Anderson’s stylistic choices are in fact bungles, and not instead thoughtful, calculated prods to encourage the audience to come to their own conclusions about his film. I strongly believe the ending to There Will Be Blood demonstrates the latter scenario. Anderson’s finale is not only tonally appropriate; it successfully converges each of the film’s many spiraling themes to their climactic, glorious apex. Simply put, Anderson punctuates the saga of Daniel Plainview in as gleefully satisfying a manner as he possibly could.
Roger Ebert preemptively defended the ending to There Will Be Blood in his initial review, writing “only madness can supply a termination for this story.” Of course he is right; in a film that tackles the pervasive and destructive reach of greed, ending on a widely destructive note only makes the most sense. But a conversation about destruction affords merely a skin-deep outlook on Plainview. The tragedy to this particular American antihero – just like Charles Foster Kane and Michael Corleone before him – is found not simply in his unraveling, but in the fateful steps and decisions that lead him there. It was no mistake when I used the word “anemic” earlier to describe the effects greed has on institutions meant to help people prosper, both as individuals and as part of a citizenry. Daniel’s greed – or more specifically, his pathological desire both to succeed and for his rivals to fail – is a concept firmly embedded in There Will Be Blood’s opening bookend. The movie opens with Daniel at the turn of the century, in seclusion, toiling away after his own wealth. The first word we hear from Daniel’s mouth, a shout of “No!” comes only after his injury from a nasty fall. That “No!” is a defiant rejection of personal failure, and possibly the birth of his single-mindedness. Daniel returns to the desert some time later, this time – I’m certain reluctantly – with employees to help carry out his ambitions.
What exactly does Blood’s prologue have to do with its epilogue? We see, in that significantly quieter opening chapter, a seed-planting of sorts; an introduction to Daniel and his two irreconcilable needs: the need to be alone and the inconvenient necessity of collaborating with others who will help earn him his success. The principal segment of the movie, taking place on the oil ranch in Little Boston, shows those seeds spurting from the ground, portending to the ugly things to come. Where the closing chapter holds significance is in how it shows the full, wretched fruition of those planted seeds. By the time Anderson flashes the story forward to 1927, he has won everything we are sure he has ever wanted: limitless wealth, a lovely mansion and the ability for remote strangers to make money on his behalf. In short, Daniel has bought the ultimate luxury: seclusion once again.
The great irony for most tragic antiheroes is that, once success befalls them, it is discovered to have come at irrevocable cost. Even with Plainview left in his empty home, estranged from his family and from most of humanity, it’s hard to imagine him arriving at such a conclusion anytime soon. Sure, his belligerence costs him H.W., the adopted son he admittedly loves and will occasionally miss. But from the very beginning even that relationship always feels like some kind of perverse, dispassionate business transaction; a chance to afford the orphan of a workplace injury a better life in exchange for a chance for Plainview to endow his morally ambivalent vocation with a façade of “family” values. The truth is that Plainview perceives life single-mindedly as a series of transactions and, once he gets what he’s always wanted, it is impossible for him to perceive any kind of personal loss as a cost for his successes. That great irony of loss befalling the tragic antihero is something Plainview seems no longer capable of recognizing.
So what to make, finally, of Plainview’s bloody showdown with Eli Sunday and the thematic dialog it sparks? Though they are framed as mortal enemies and ideological antitheses, it is to recite There Wil Be Blood’s most crucial thesis in declaring the two are in fact kindred spirits. Both are bound by their selfish aspirations, and both cynically exploit their respective institutions – and their lowliest devotees – for personal betterment. They go about their exploits in different ways. Plainview is honest about his contempt, at the (worthwhile) expense of alienating the human race. Eli gains countless friends and admirers, yet he does so by manipulating their ignorance and their faith. Theirs is not a battle of religion versus capitalism; it is about the primordial, Darwinian drive to prosper in a modernized world where man and his institutions have effectively become the practitioners of natural selection. When Daniel exploits Eli’s desperation in the end by forcing him to concede the absence of God – only to admit afterward with great relish that his “milkshake” is drunk – it is a primal, snarling assertion of power over his now-vulnerable prey. When he bludgeons poor, sniveling Eli to death, and exclaims “I’m finished!,” make no mistake: Daniel Plainview is bellowing his victory cry. His ultimate ambition – victory over all – is officially transacted via the blood of that false prophet..
I don’t believe the epilogue to There Will Be Blood, flamboyant and indulgent as it is, actually telegraphs any of these points I’ve made here. At least, not as plainly and heavy-handedly as the movie’s dissenters would have you believe. It is crucial that the sequence takes place fifteen years after the events in Little Boston, because the flash forward affords us the chance to see where Daniel is at the end of his journey, to reflect on the movie’s two preceding hours, and to presuppose just how exactly he came to find himself in that bowling alley with Eli Sunday’s brains stuck on his shoes. Some say the ending is unnecessary. I say it offers up one final, cryptic hint at uncovering what Daniel Plainview is really all about, and Anderson does so with style and bombast.