Questions of Credibility

There Will Be Blood

blood.jpgA heretical question about Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood: Is Daniel Plainview a good person?

The inquiry is an overstatement, because the answer is obvious: Of course not. The early 20th Century oil baron uses his adopted child as a prop — calls him his “partner” — and sends him away when an accident turns him deaf. Years later, he cruelly berates and rejects the boy. Plainview kills the preacher Eli with a bowling pin (and takes the phrase “in the gutter” quite literally). He murders the guy impersonating his half-brother. He admits that he’s a misanthrope.

Perhaps his biggest sin: He’s a capitalist more than a human being, and as such he tries to extract from people their land at a price that’s less than fair. He preys on their ignorance and their shortsighted greed to make himself rich.

I’m being facetious on the last point, yet many people don’t separate Plainview’s emotional and physical violence from the exploitation that’s inherent in a profit-driven world. One can fault him for taking advantage of people in business, and one can fault him for killing folks and being a bad father figure, but those should be considered independent of each other. The first is the cost of a free-market economy; the remainder qualify as character flaws.

Contrary to the assessments of many critics, I don’t think Plainview is evil, and more than that I’m not convinced he’s much different from most of us. The horror of the movie is that in Daniel we see our ugly potential. And because we get glimpses of his decency — and the possibility for his redemption — his descent becomes heartbreaking. He is what we must strive to avoid.

The issue of Plainview’s moral character is essential: If There Will Be Blood is any good, it must allow for its main character’s goodness. Otherwise, it’s a skillful but easy study of an asshole — and a fundamentally dull asshole at that. (He does have one great metaphor to offer the world, whatever else his shortcomings.)

The crucial scene is Plainview’s public confession. His motives going in are certainly crass, and we know that he recognizes the value of a good church performance. As he tells the preacher after one service, “That was one goddamn helluva show.”

But when he’s in front of the congregation, forced to humiliate himself, something happens. By the time he reaches the climax — “I’ve abandoned my child! I’ve abandoned my child! I’ve abandoned my boy!” — he sounds and looks and feels nakedly sincere. Say what you will about Daniel Day-Lewis’ voracious performance as Plainview, but I bought his character’s confession, and his credibility there — the hint that he might not merely be a self-serving hypocrite — adds critical depth to the character.

And then Daniel brings back his son from the school for the deaf. You can read this as a continuation of his church fraudulence — until he gets what he wants, he will act pious — and I won’t argue the point too much. But if it’s reasonable to interpret the gesture as contrite, then we can have an honest investment in Plainview, a hope.

It’s a fair reading. Plainview stops the physical abuse of a young girl and from that derives no benefit. When Daniel adopts H.W. early in the movie, his motives are at least partly altruistic; what the young boy offers to his sales pitch is surely less than the challenge and cost of caring for him. And when H.W. is hurt, Plainview’s disgust with the preacher flows from something deeper than the fact that his sidekick has been damaged. “Aren’t you a healer, and a vessel for the holy spirit?” he asks. “When are you coming over and make my son hear again? Can’t you do that?

(If Plainview is a monster — instead of merely becoming more monstrous as the movie progresses — wouldn’t he see H.W.’s disability as a business opportunity, to play on people’s sympathies?)

Given Daniel’s business and public-relations acumen, nearly all his actions can be viewed uncharitably, as having ulterior motives. But if you believe in Day-Lewis’ performance, you should also believe, however slightly, in his character.

Michael Clayton

clayton.jpgTwo movies live in writer/director Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. One is a brisk, bleak, claustrophobic, dense thriller in the vein of Syriana, and the other is a crowd-pleasing legal potboiler that could have come from John Grisham.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with crowd-pleasing legal potboilers, just as there’s nothing wrong with brisk, bleak, claustrophobic, dense thrillers. But when they’re combined, they need to melt together, rather than struggle against each other. Up until its final five minutes or so, Michael Clayton feels grounded and correct, a clear-eyed portrayal of contemporary corporate corruption, spin, and damage control. But in its closing scene, the movie does an about-face, finding an audience-pandering climax that was born in the movies rather than the real world. The movie plays a good game right up until the end, but the conclusion sinks it.

The groundwork for the ending of Michael Clayton is certainly laid in the plot of the movie, but it’s so tonally incongruous — a leaf of justice and hope in a forest of cynicism — that it cannot peacefully coexist with what came before. I might have bought Clayton running into the woods, never to be heard from again. I might have even been able to swallow a final confrontation with Tilda Swinton’s chief counsel, with the title character demanding a payday.

But the gotcha ending doesn’t fly. I don’t see George Clooney’s Clayton finding his moral bearings, even after an attempt on his life. I don’t see righteous indignation and outrage in him. (The movie implies that you’d have to be cra-a-a-a-azy to fight the power in institutions such as law firms and agricultural giants.)

I don’t buy the neat, easy resolution. And I don’t buy that Swinton’s anxious, uncertain attorney could climb that high on the corporate ladder. (Her character seems designed as an acting showcase. Hence: an Oscar nomination.)

In There Will Be Blood, it was the little moments of authenticity that sold me. In Michael Clayton — generally surefooted — it was that single closing misstep that soured me.

I don’t consider Plainview to be evil either, in fact he shows real moments of humanity like when he cradles his son after the rig accident. With Plainview you have to dig below the surface, he has no love interest other than his own ambition but won’t let the big oil companies spoon-feed him success. His violent moments seem to be a reaction to someone violating his trust like his phony half-brother or unpious preacher. I think in the realtionship with his adopted son he did what he was capable of doing but looked at his grown-up son’s plan to start another company as the final betrayal. Plainview then was left to rule his kingdom in an empty castle.

I keep going back and forth on the Plainview confession scene, because while I believe that perhaps part of the character truly is confessing to his abandonment of H.W., I also think that the entire performance is a fraud meant to get Plainview what he wants. The character can’t help but lie and lie some more, and the moment he’s finished being baptized, he says something indecipherable but which ends with “my pipeline”. Then he shares a few unheard comments with Eli - which leaves Eli looking pale and miserable. I think Plainview puts on the entire thing and that his seeming atonement is anything but.

That doesn’t mean that he’s a one-dimensional monster; it means he’s something far worse.

Interesting comments on both films. I think you’re right on about Blood, and somewhat off-base on Clayton. I don’t see Clooney’s final scenes as an unambiguous moral epiphany -- yes, he arrives at doing the right thing, but he does so more out of revenge and the necessity of self-preservation than out of any social conscience. Before the attempt on his life, he was willing to take the company’s payout and walk away, even knowing that his friend had probably been murdered. I think the ending is tremendously interesting because it provides something of the feel of a conventional resolution, but if you really think about it this is a film about a character who only finally did the right thing when he absolutely had no other choice. It’s not at all clear, at the end, whether Clayton has actually changed for the better or not -- I for one think it’s a pretty hopeful ending, but not by any means lacking in ambiguity or complexity. This complexity would be totally lost in an ending that just embraced nihilism or had Clooney flee without consequences; that would be a real betrayal of the film’s constant moral inquiry. The final shot forces you to spend a few minutes looking at Clooney’s inscrutable face, wondering just what he could be thinking at this moment.

I think you’re very right about Plainview being a case of squandered human potential, though. He’s a man whose decisions consciously push away all hope for human connection in his life, and that’s why he’s such a tragic figure -- he wouldn’t be interesting if there wasn’t that underlying sense that he’s done this to himself, and that it didn’t have to be this way.

I think Plainview’s violent outbursts are less the results of people violating his trust and more in reaction to what the preacher stands for. Both violent outbursts occur right after the two times that Plainview “abandons” H.W. The first being when he sends his son away and the second being when he disowns him at the end. Both actions are followed by the supposedly morally superior preacher coming in and becoming the unlucky victim of Plainview’s anger. Such a reaction could only be the result of some latent humanity and feelings for his son.

Re: H.W.’s disability

I’ve only seen TWB once, so correct me if I’m wrong on this. When Plainview asks, “When are you coming over and make my son hear again? Can’t you do that?” is this spoken as a plea or sarcastically? I would suspect the latter, but I don’t recall how it was spoken.

When questioning Plainview’s motives regarding H.W., I keep going back to the scene where he puts H.W. on the train. When Plainview is leaving he looks emotionally distraught. The point is sometimes made that this is because he is losing a valuable asset for a while, but I suspect a deep love for H.W.

Thoughts?

Joseph:

I, too, have only seen There Will Be Blood once — and several months ago — but I’m intrigued and convinced by the ambivalence expressed in some of these comments. It is a plea or sarcastic? Yes. Exactly. Right on.

The reason Plainview is fascinating is that either reading might feel correct depending on your mood. More to the point, both might feel right simultaneously. Daniel is certainly disingenuous on the surface, but he cannot hide the humanity he has. He contains multitudes.

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