I need to start this out by saying that I like Hunter Stephenson’s work. Hunter writes for Slashfilm, and in an industry where good writing and interesting thinking is valued below having an internet connection, Hunter stands out as someone worth reading every day. I’ve never met the guy, but as a writer I like to read what he’s saying, even when I disagree with him.
But it seems like someone dusted Hunter’s joint today. It’s happened to me in the past, Hunter – you’ll probably have a pretty fucked up 20 hours or so, but stay strong! One of the side effects of this inadvertent PCP doping is that Hunter has lumped me in with ‘mocha-choking assholes’ who apparently didn’t like There Will Be Blood when it originally came out. He also claims that I’ve not ‘come clean about what this film means and is about,’ which he says is the triumph over God. You can read his whole thing by clicking here.
Well, let’s take the first charge. I didn’t actually review There Will Be Blood when it came out in theaters because I didn’t know what to say. I was blown away by the film (and as a dyed in the wool PTA lover, expected no less), but I was also overwhelmed by it. One of the downsides of the freeform CHUD writing experience is that there are sometimes no deadlines, and instead of being forced to work out my thoughts, I just let the movie get by me. I regret that, and it’s why I requested the DVD review – regular readers will know that I almost never do DVD reviews. I wanted to get my thoughts out there after all this time.
When I saw the movie I knew it was great but, as I said in my DVD review, I ended up ranking it below some films that touched me in a more personal way last year. One of the big problems with top tens, or with appending ratings to reviews, is that art lives in you, and the way you view a piece of art may change over time. A second viewing of There Will Be Blood allowed me to connect with emotional aspects of the movie that eluded me the first time, when I was mostly thunderstruck by the bravura filmmaking on display. If I were redoing my 2007 top ten now, I might change things around (or I might not – there’s a political component to list making as well, and I still feel like Into the Wild remains a criminally overlooked movie).
So maybe Hunter’s half right – I understood There Will Be Blood as a masterpiece of craft when I first saw it, but it took another viewing to get at the film’s other aspects. Good on Hunter for connecting to those elements before I did, and good on him for putting himself out there and declaring the film a masterpiece right out the gate. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last six or so years writing for CHUD it’s that I like to be more careful throwing phrases like that around because it’s all-too common to regret it in the morning.
Hunter’s second charge is just sort of loopy, though. First of all, that’s not what the movie’s about. Hunter’s very long and very interesting review of There Will Be Blood attempts to force his own take on the movie into what’s presented (you know that Hunter’s sort of in trouble when he compares the film’s supposed God killing to Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box, a song not about God but Courtney Love). He seems to misunderstand Plainview in a significant way, seeing him as some kid of Ayn Randian hero against God. He seriously misreads the baptism scene while agreeing with me that it’s the crucial moment in the movie – for Hunter it’s about him faking religion, but it’s obviously about Plainview opening up in a real, honest way for the first time maybe ever. It’s the inherent irony of the whole picture – the false prophet has given Plainview a real awakening. As I said in my review, Plainview is born again a second time here; the first time is when he crawls from that hole in the opening, and this time he’s crawling into a hole in himself.
The problem with Hunter’s take on the movie is that it demands you to see the finale as a triumph for Plainview, which could not be any less the case. Plainview has allowed himself to be destroyed; he’s a bitter and bent figure sitting in a huge empty house. He’s turned his son against him (Hunter defends Plainview’s parenting – even the horrible moment where he abandons HW on the train, the complete inverse of the caring adoptive father we saw on the train with the boy at the beginning – with the bizarre line ‘And does H.W. end up in such bad shape in the end?’. Well, he’s disowned by his father, who tries to psychically wound him with the fact that he was adopted. HW ends up okay in spite of Plainview), and he’s unable to find any joy in life until he finally destroys the petty, shitty preacher who stood up to him years ago. This is a man running on hate. Only on hate. He makes Sunday confess to being a fraud, to not believing in God not because Plainview wants to kill the creator, but because he wants to destroy Sunday totally – within and without.
It’s weird to read Hunter’s interpretation of the film’s final line:
The last lines in the film come from Plainview, with his back
tellingly turned to the screen, utterly faceless, and thus the lines
come from Paul Thomas Anderson as well: “I’m finished.”
For both of these men, the madness of religion, past, present and
future, is completely over, and when you walk out of the theater, you
wish it was over in the real world as well. Daniel Plainview ventured,
perhaps all the way, to where all men must go sooner or later, and if
they don’t they simply aren’t men.
There’s a lot going on with that final line. Allow me to blow Hunter’s mind here by telling him that it echoes the last words of Christ on the cross: “It is finished.” But I don’t think that Plainview is announcing his triumph over religion or God – he’s just finished his task, the thing that was keeping him moving forward all of these years. Everything Plainview had and accumulated led him to this, to him alone and psychically ruined, getting his ultimate revenge on a man who was already beaten. Sunday walked into that bowling alley finished. Plainview just put the cherry on top.
Of course I don’t think Anderson is making nice with religion; there’s no alternative positive religious figure in the film, and it’s doubtless that Plainview does more for Little Boston than Sunday ever could. Anderson is essentially equating these two men, though – they both want to dominate. The way that Sunday treats his father stands in for how he sees his flock; like Plainview he despises these people. Like Plainview he can manipulate them to his own ends. The struggle between the men isn’t about God or capitalism, it is simply about control. Both men want to subjugate people to their will; neither man cares about what they say they care about – souls for Sunday, money for Plainview. They’re the same – although you could argue that they want what the other claims to want. Plainview desperately wants the love of a family; it’s why he takes in Henry so quickly, and it’s why he is so angry at HW for going it alone. Sunday wants money, and lots of it. Each man is unable to get what they want, and it leads to their dooms.
Imposing your own views on a movie is a time honored tradition, and one that can be rewarding when it’s backed up with well-thought out arguments. I don’t think Hunter makes his case, though, mainly because he insists on turning a blind eye to the reality of who Daniel Plainview is. I don’t know that There Will Be Blood is intended as a tragedy per se, but where Plainview ends up is not a good place, and Anderson certainly doesn’t mean for us to interpret it as such. This is like saying that Michael ends up well at the end of Godfather Part III because he lives so long. The guy’s a fucking empty shell of a human being who has given up all that is good in his life – there’s no positive spin to be put on those final moments, in either film.
So in closing, Hunter’s totally wrong. Obviously this is no Kael vs Sarris level epic, but it’s fun when critics can go head to head every now and again – it forces everybody involved to look at their own positions and raises the level of discourse just a notch. Even when you illustrate your piece with a lump of shit.