There Will Be Blood

Wow. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. Sure, there are echoes of Griffith, Welles, Wyler, Huston, Kubrick, Malick, and Coppola but There Will Be Blood is its own beast—a remarkably assured, unpretentious, muscular work of American filmmaking (I’ll compare it right now to Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Part II and Raging Bull). Anderson tells an epic narrative of power and providence, fathers and sons, religion and commerce, sin and hypocrisy; and he is assisted by a towering, career-defining performance from Daniel Day Lewis. Lewis is rail-thin, his shoulders hunched forward, his body askew and slightly out of balance; nevertheless, his Daniel Plainview is a determined, singularly-obsessed yet tortured maverick of a character, and Lewis fills the screen with a searing, charismatic, misanthropic intensity. He is equally matched by Paul Dano who mesmerizes as the evangelical preacher who won’t back down as well as this preturnaturally astute child actor, Dillon Freasier, who plays Plainview’s son H.W. Jonny Greenwood’s score punctuates Robert Elswit’s hardscrabbled images with scraping discordant notes. I can’t think of a thing I would want changed and can’t wait to see it again. Run, don’t walk.

35 thoughts on “There Will Be Blood”

  1. Man, I’m just so excited about this film, reading everything I can find online. One of my favorite writers over at is Moriarty and he’s written a review that fully expresses the feelings I had while watching. Without giving anything away, Moriarty writes: “THERE WILL BE BLOOD restores my faith in American film in general. It is still possible to make a classic, a new film that tells a story in a unique way and that makes no apologies. This is not homage. It’s not post-modern. It’s not pastiche. It’s not a sequel. It’s not a remake. It’s not a reimagining. It’s not ironic. It’s not some ham-handed political screed. It’s not an excuse for style over substance. This is, simply put, a great story about a great character told confidently by a great filmmaker.” Hell yeah!

  2. timothy noah is disappointed in the film’s backing away from politics:

    I can understand why Anderson wouldn’t necessarily want to adopt Sinclair’s leftism or any sort of didacticism. It’s a movie, after all, not a political tract. But in the past, movies from Intolerance to It’s a Wonderful Life to Chinatown have routinely been built around the question: How does the world we live in work? The filmmaker’s stance could be that of a despairing (if somewhat hypocritical) prophet, like D.W. Griffith’s, or cornball-hopeful, like Frank Capra’s, or darkly nihilistic, like Roman Polanski’s and Robert Towne’s. But one left the theater feeling that some idea about the larger society the film’s characters inhabit was being set forth. In There Will Be Blood, by contrast, a promisingly broad canvas shrinks. Anderson has a little to say about the conflict between God and Mammon—his film’s title is derived from Exodus 7:19 (though not the King James version, which states, less dramatically, “there may be blood”)—but since the minister, Eli Sunday, and Plainview are both compromised figures, their mutual hatred carries little thematic weight. Also, Anderson never shows how Sunday becomes the big-time minister he’s evolved into at the end of the movie, so the “God” end of this smackdown lacks heft.

  3. Yeah, I read this . . . disagreed with it but gave it my full attention. The reviews are not all over the place (Rottentomatoes’ “Cream of the Crop” gives it a 90% fresh report), yet the film is certainly not one I’d deem mainstream accessible. Still, I think Noah’s agenda (or at least his expectations that the film would be more sociologically relevant) run counter to what Anderson is up to (or maybe the personal is political here; I didn’t read the film as allegory but it was hard not to wrestle with the idea of America while watching). Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman seem to have experienced what I experienced. Ebert can’t quite figure out where he stands (though the spectre of John Huston seems to get in his way). For what it’s worth, Eli Sunday is no more and no less a charismatic charlatan/con man than Daniel Plainview. His journey in the film’s final section didn’t in any way strike me as out of character.

  4. This is smart play-by-play analysis of Anderson’s entire oeuvre as written by the New York Times Carpetbagger via a pseudonym (S.T. VanAirsdale). Hell, maybe that’s the Bagger’s real name. Anyway, he watched every PTA film in a single day and lived to blog about it. Magnolia haters will be well-rewarded. If you haven’t seen TWBB yet (have I mentioned I like it), you might want to gloss over some of the comparisons.

  5. Loved this film, and I too can’t wait to see it again.

    I would take issue with those who have been reading TWBB, patronizingly, as the film where upstart whippersnapper Anderson gets it right, sets aside his childish fascinations and green judgment of misfires like Magnolia to blahdiblah. I think this film is a direct and fascinating descendant of the operatic excesses of all of his films, but (like Punch Drunk Love, and to a lesser extent Sydney/Hard Eight) distilled into specific character studies.

    Noah misses the boat in some ways; the film *does* as he notes sidestep the structural critique of business (whether god or oil), even as it carefully shows at ground-level the mercenary exploitations which fuel, license, grease the wheels of such businesses. But its politics run toward (or perhaps counter to) American mythology, more in keeping with great novels like Robert Penn Warren’s _All The King’s Men_. (Ironic, given that Sinclair’s work would be almost an antithesis to Warren’s…) Certainly you can critique the shift to myth or allegory (this ain’t “The Wire”), but TWBB seems right down to its explicit blackly-funny and vicious monologue in the finale concerned with how our need overwhelms and consumes in ways that don’t just elide others’ needs but actually erase, eradicate, consume those others. The myths are that family, or god, matter, that competition fosters progress. And so on.

    Of course (like the strangely-white mythologized South of Warren’s novel), that long line of American myth has its drawbacks: women are so pointedly beside the point that my friend Stephen noted that not one woman speaks a line of central dialogue. The only colors we ever see in this American West is the slick of oil over white faces. And, sure–it’s tragedy at the level of the individual. (Plainview’s self-interest could be blunted or turned aside–or transformed–by real human connection.) But what an “individual;” Plainview is so outsized, so grand and grotesque a vision of the human, that I think the film can’t be reduced to the merely personal.

    And damn, it’s enormously powerful and focused. I found that to be the case to various degrees in earlier films by Anderson, but TWBB doesn’t just capture or convey the operatic psyche of its characters, it makes you feel inside that consciousness–through its astonishing sound design and score, its phenomenal cinematography. And the performances. Good god, when Lewis squints in boundless anger at another character (which happens rather often) I found myself bracing for a punch.

  6. I’d argue Plainview is transformed by real human connection; its just the transformation ain’t always pretty. His relationships with Eli, H.W. and Henry are central to his character; these are individuals, no matter how hard he tries, that can’t be erased or eradicated (at least not psychically).

  7. Hm.


    Okay, yes, I see your point, but I think we’re agreeing — I mean he doesn’t become a better person. He comes close–there are clearly moments with HW as a child, until Plainview stands up and steadily leaves him on that train; there clearly is a desire with Henry, seen most poignantly on the beach; and maybe (according to Stephen) an “almost” with Eli, during Plainview’s forced baptism, where–screaming that he abandoned his child–he seems nearly to break…. but in each and every instance, he recoils from the human connection, out of fear, anger, distrust. And he gets worse, instead.

    Are we on the same page there?

  8. Yes. SPOILERS. I do think everything centers on his relationship with H.W. After the accident, Daniel doesn’t know exactly what to do or how to move forward (one of the most wrenching scenes in the film is when he leaves H.W. on the train). Even more painful is Daniel’s slow realization that Henry may not be that which he purports to be. I’d say the entire “bastard in a basket” scene (is that the line) is one that grows out of a great and convoluted and confusing sense of love and fatherhood and distrust and anger and fear. It’s almost as if he loves his son too much to bear the weight of his presence (and Lewis gives us layers and layers of stuff to unpack). Sending him away is something of a gift, no? But someone also has to be punished. I don’t know . . . I’m assuming its going to make it to the AMC at least for a week or so and I’m going to see it again with a big screen and stadium seats and the like. Please let it be soon.

  9. This finally made it to the multiplex, and it’s well worth waiting for. I must admit that I was expecting to be disappointed. I don’t usually like epics, which this certainly is, and there are so few movies that treat workers as anything other than objects, to be pitied for sure, but never as subjects, making history for themselves. I’d like to see something more faithful to Sinclair’s novel, but this ain’t it, socialist realist is hard to do well, and TWBB is so good, that I’ll forgive it almost anything.

    TWBB is little short of a masterpiece. Jeff and Mike have said almost all there is to be said. I’ll just emphasize a couple of points. First, Daniel Day-Lewis is simply stunning. He is in almost every frame, and he dominates the movie, but he does it in a remarkably low key way. He is the anti-Nicholson, or the anti-Hoffman. His power as an actor is almost entirely in his face and his body, not in his delivery. He is most powerful when the camera lingers on his face and records his reaction as other characters speak. As Jeff says, this is a career-defining performance.

    Second, there are a handful of scenes that are as well composed and executed as anything I have seen. SPOILER. The soundtrack works particularly well in several places (and the moments of silence when we observe the world from HW’s perspective are almost as good). The scene when they finally strike oil on the Sunday ranch, oil raining down on Daniel, HW clinging to him, a fireball shooting into the sky, and Johnny Greenwood’s jarring, urgent score tying it all together, is as close to perfect movie-making as I expect to see.

  10. This came to Charleston a few days ago and we saw it last night. Of the four of us, three liked it a great deal (well, I loved it, but I’m partial to Anderson). I think one of us was just tired of movies about men who kill (the No Country For Old Men, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood trifecta).

    What can I say about Daniel Day Lewis? My God what a performance. The film is worth going to see again for the “baptism” scene alone.

    I can’t add much right now to the discussion, except that I found Anderson and Lewis handled Plainview’s character very well. After all, how does one really depict a person who has nothing but contempt for the human race but is, himself, all too human? Unlike the impenetrable Anton Chigurh, who is superior to us in every way (though mortal), Plainview is larger than life, but deeply flawed. Take the great scene in the restaurant where he boasts in front of his deaf son (not for him, but in spite of him). The rage that builds. His face is about to explode with hatred. So he mocks Tilford (what a brilliant touch, putting the napkin over his head!), insults Tilford (“you’re a fool”), prances about, and brags. It’s most unpleasant–embarrassing even (the last shot of H.W., in profile, leaves us with a palpable sense of shame). But it’s funny, because what Plainview puts on display is his own vulnerability, a very real weakness. He’s an ass! And the more he boasts, the more fragile (human) he appears. SPOILER: The film’s final blow is the ultimate act of human cruelty, but it is human cruelty (“I’m all finished”). This is a trap of Plainview’s own making: every show of strength betrays his own failing.

    I think I understand Arnab’s point (which he brings from Noah’s piece). Anderson’s film lends itself very well to humanist criticism. So I await with glee a smart reading of the film’s ideology. Like reynolds and Jeff, I suspect one can be made.

  11. I’m so fuckin’ pissed off! There Will Be Blood played in this area (mind you, the third biggest population/market in Pennsylvania, after Philly and Pittsburgh) played here exactly two weeks. I put off seeing it until this week because I figured, well it’s a big academy award nominee, it’ll be around a third week AT LEAST. not so. But, hey, at least I can choose from Step Up 2: The Streets , Alvin and the Chipmunks (which has been playing since December), The Eye and National Treasure . I try try try to be tolerant of this area, but WTF??? As I’m learning from my class,too, film, in its significance and as a unique form, is dead dead dead. But at least I can see the latest Martin Lawrence in flawless digital visuals. jesus, but here’s a naive thought, wouldn’t the multiplication of multiplexes perhaps have brought us more rather than fewer choices. I mean how many venues in Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton do people need to see the fucking Hannah Montana movie??

  12. finally, a paul thomas anderson film i can whole-heartedly get behind. for a change, not a single hysterical woman to be seen–of course, this is because there are no women at all in the film. towering performance by day lewis–i was not as taken with paul dano, however. still, very good, but not better than no country for old men.

  13. Ah, but it is far more ambitious than NCFOM. The Coen Brothers hew so closely to their source text that Cormac McCarthy should be joining them on the Kodak stage tomorrow night with every win. Why didn’t you like Dano?

  14. ugh. another grand epic of american liberal individualism. another study of the lone American Man, tortured by the american dream on the one hand and the thundering god of non-forgiveness on the other. another splendidly womanless story of grand male failure — so womanless in fact, that the son doesn’t have a mother (there is most poignantly no mother) and the lone hero never partakes of the pleasures of the flesh (in the brothel scene the women’s faces are blurred in the background).

    the most ambitious thing about this film is the soundtrack, which IMMO is at least 90% responsible for the film’s originality. this is a film destined to be forgotten.

  15. and did i mention the titanic, always already doomed struggle of the american man to tame and conquer the barren american west? it is a mercy, really, a feminist move, that women should not be in this film, because they could only have been whores or careworn wives with light-colored, straight hair pulled into a bun at the back of their heads.

  16. Why this film should not be forgotten (though perhaps it will be): Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance; the opposition of God and Mammon; the simultaneous love and disgust of a father for his adopted son; the cinematography; the West; the oil; the soundtrack.

  17. oh jeff, arnab refuses to give simon his own login! arnab, could you email simon at sevnine [at] miami [dot] edu and give him his very own login?

    chris, yes on ddl’s performance, direction, and soundtrack. as for the themes, they seem to me to have been all covered before, in books and films alike. not that they were not covered beautifully here. i just didn’t see the mind-blowing originality you guys did.

  18. p.s. if i got ten bucks for every time i get asked “what does simon think?” i’d be a rich woman. there’s something about the simon-gio combo that makes people ask this question all the time! since you don’t know simon, jeff, maybe your question is less indicative of the impression you have of him than of some curiosity of your own. but i assure you that people who know simon and me in person always ask that. part of the reason is that i tend to be generous with my opinions while simon’s tendency is to be highly stingy with same. the philosophy thing also plays a part. and of course the fact that he doesn’t like anything and he’s incredibly cynical. and then there are the lowlifes for whom it is all of the above and the fact that he is a male of the species (this is most certainly NOT a suggestion that you should be one such lowlife!).

  19. Thematically, I’m with you, Gio–I don’t see any radical new move, as much as another in a (long) string of texts (particularly American texts) which mythologize or demythologize the Individual (in re the West, in re Masculinity, in re Mammon, in re God, and so on). Citizen Kane’s twisted offspring. Or Ahab’s.

    Aesthetically, as many have noted, it does seem much more ground-breaking. Not just the highlights of the performance(s) and the cinematography, but the astonishing use of sound (including the soundtrack, but stretched further–Anderson’s films are as aurally assaultive and compelling as they are visually). The first fourteen minutes have no dialogue at all, just Jonny Greenwood’s crescendoes of string and the pound of hammer on stone, the grunts and heavy breathing of Daniel. I thought the film’s more singular achievements were sensual; coupled with a familiar but nonetheless strong reiteration of the American-Mythos…. well, I think it really stands out.

    Plus, jaysus, Daniel Day-Lewis. I rewatched this recently, and Kris had to give up, finding it too intense, especially his treatment of his boy once the kid loses his hearing. She’ll probably come back, but the performance is almost literally staggering in its force.

  20. do you know what bugs me, though, mike? that this film should have been made now, in these incredibly fraught times in which america needs to take a very hard, painful look at itself rather than celebrate its past. i mean, you can curse the west and american individualism and oil all you want, but when you make a film like this it will also, always, be a nostalgic film. it will be a film about toughness and endurance and hard choices. about impossible loves. about loyalty and betrayal. it will be a film about the tough american heart. you can celebrate american loneliness and misguidedness in the selfsame gestures with which you critique it (a trap into which, if i remember correctly, citizen kane does not fall — am i right? it was some time, and the film never spoke to me). even this sensuality you talk about — ah, hard to resist! the scrappy, dusty, hard, merciless west. the rocks. the boots on the dirt. the fire and the oil. simple folks and that crazy frontier revivalism. the purity of it all. i dunno, i dunno. the last thing we need, right now, is more celebration of americanness, whiteness, masculinity.

  21. Wow, I read the film as a virulent critique of Americanness, whiteness, masculinity, religion, capitalism. There wasn’t a frame that seemed nostalgic to me. What exactly is there to be nostalgic for in this film (nothing is shown on the screen that I would like to see revived or recuperated)? I read your posts and feel as if you are speaking about a John Wayne or Sylvester Stallone film. I mean maybe some folks watched the film and longed for the good old days when men were men and the land was ripe for stealing, but I thought the film continually undercut such responses (and those people are not anybody with whom I want to be stuck in a cinema). Nothing is romanticized in TWBB, and due to Greenwood’s soundtrack nothing is sentimentalized. The film certainly interrogates (or to use Mike’s word, demythologizes) masculinity, and I can see how some viewers might be bored or even repelled by that (the films I compare it to–The Godfather II, Raging Bull, Citizen Kane–are similar), but I can’t help but feel such responses are shaped by agendas that exist outside the world of the film. I thought it was a moving and horrifying look at greed and faith and geography and family, but ultimately about a certain vision of Americanness that I find stultifying. Nostalgic? I think it speaks to a certain kind of fear and loathing that best defines what most frustrates me about America today (and I’m talking to you GWB and you HRC).

    As for what did Simon think, you have generously communicated that you and Simon watch most everything together, and, in the past, perhaps when it suited you, you have shared Simon’s responses on the blog. I guess I was curious if he felt the same way as you did. Did watching it with you shape his responses (as your responses were very strong and passionate). It was certainly no comment on your status as “an inferior woman” (but I think you know that).

  22. i totally see what you say, jeff. i think i have expressed before my belief, though, that absorbed and focused representations of something, however unpleasant that something, always end up glamorizing it. in order to avoid such glamorization, the representation should use a larger canvas, a whole host of other scenes and images, present alternatives. watching daniel battle his demons on the screen for 2 and a half hours elicits a horror that, also, fascinates and attracts. or at least this is what i think/feel. obviously, you do not feel that way.

    it seems to me that close identification of the kind PT anderson fosters in his movie — the close ups, the sounds, the landscape — cannot but tap into cravings and longings and desires that reside already in the spectator. the filmmaker knows it, hence the libidinal appeal of the film.

    but you are right, the soundtrack is deeply distancing. it is, in fact, what i liked best about this film. very striking.

    i’ve also thought more about the determined womanlessness of this film. it is definitely not usual to see a baby among men and get no explanation for it. every time daniel is asked about HW’s mother, he denies her (“she died at childbirth,” “i found you in a basket,” etc.). it would be interesting to talk about it (even as i realize that you all saw this movie many months ago). why such a stark absence of heterosexuality — or sexuality tout court — in this film? why the relentless men-alone-neness? it seems very poignant to me that the only man-woman interaction is between HW and mary, who meet when they are children and then marry. HW is the anti-daniel. as an adult, he’s polished, gentle, almost effete. his deafness literally shuts him out of his old man’s influence. in the only other scene, besides the one at the end, when we see him as an adult, he marries his childhood sweetheart. the gentle marriage scene in which mary translates for HW is an open acknowledgment, an embracing of “the other sex” that i find interesting and powerful when juxtaposed to the rest of the movie. little mary, by the way, is never warm towards daniel, though there is some kindness going from him to her. he buys her a lace white dress, which she wears casually while running around with the other kids…

  23. Gio, these are great points. And I’m pretty much with you on the point from para one (comment 25): repulsion and fascination are parallel, if not plain synchronous, dynamics in film viewing. (I say this as a lifelong fan of gory horror, which pushes perhaps most explicitly on the tensions of those links.)

    I do still see something about Daniel Plainview that seems to rub our nose in the link. In Kane, the character’s megalomania is pretty thoroughly critiqued, but our pity for the man fuels our fascination and identification, I think. (In the end, he’s just a boy who loves his sled, eh?) But Daniel’s a different kind of beast; he is a man not just shorn, eventually, of any strand of empathy, he is a man almost without any desire (but the desire to control). The film’s end seems a careful rejection of the more conventional shift toward pity: it’s hard to feel that sense of loss, as Daniel first disowns the adult HW and then bludgeons Eli. The odd grotesque comic energy of that last scene also seems designed to discomfort our viewerly desires to read Daniel as Tragic Hero. We don’t see a man who’s lost his bearings, who lost that childhood innocence… he’s kind of a monster there.

    The absence of women–Daniel’s brother does get them to go to a brothel, while they’re prospecting by the ocean, but the camera eye stays resolutely on Daniel, stewing in the corner, staring pin-eyed at something we never see, only hearing the drunken slurs of Henry and the women. (Soon after–I think even the next scene–he kills his brother.) And the stuff with little Mary: what I remember most forcefully is how angry Daniel gets when he hears that she is beaten, and there is the scene at the picnic upon the opening of the well… he grabs Mary as she runs by, and then talking “to her” says with a drunken barely-repressed fury, as her father sits staring uncomfortably and fearfully into his food nearby, that hitting her won’t happen again, won’t be tolerated. Even his affection for her is a kind of tool for aggression against other men.

    I don’t think I’m really clear about my points; I really liked your post, G, and I want to think some more about it–but wanted to get these first gut responses up.

  24. Jeff–It’s interesting that you invoke John Wayne here, because it seems to me that conventional ideas about masculinity and whiteness were already being troubled as far back as The Searchers . Ethan’s old-fashioned heroism (along with its racism) is critiqued by comparison with the new “softer” masculinity of Martin (Jeffrey Hunter).

    Unfortunately I have not yet seen this film (because it takes just the right mood for me to sit down for 2 1/2 hours of grueling drama)–but I would suspect that its primary audience (a mainly art-house crowd, I’d think) would already be inclined to put the film on the spectrum of movies that are critical rather than celebratory of stable ideals–that in the background are deconstructions like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Major Dundee , going back as far as The Searchers ?

  25. yet i wonder, mike, what we all say when we go speechless and weak in the knee about d.d. lewis’ performance. are we saying just that, that d.d. lewis acted very beautifully? is our man-crush towards him and his performance proportionate to what he actually did here? we do not always feel so deeply moved, and fascinated, by actors’ great performances as we do by d.d. lewis’ in this performance. where does this deep emotional investment in this particular performance come from? i spoke to someone today who, though he liked the movie okay but not terribly, said, “oh, but d.d. lewis, amazing.” what other performances elicit this kind of visceral response and why? in other words, what kind of performances elicit this kind of visceral response?

    yeah, the scene with little mary you describe is the same scene i mention, in which daniel plainview asks her if she likes the dress he just bought for her. it’s also the only scene mary has in which she speaks, and daniel speaks directly to her, i.e. her only real scene, apart from the silent one of the wedding. i don’t remember daniel’s fury, though, or i didn’t see it. when HW tells him that mary has been beaten at home for not praying (i think), daniel barely responds, and in that scene, when he talks “to her” but not to her, he seemed invested in a sort of i’m-doing-a-good-deed kind of way, not passionately and personally.

    michael, i haven’t been able to get through a film in one sitting for a long while. this one was a good one as it took us only two sittings. it can get as bad as chunks of half hours spread through 4 or 5 nights, depending on how long a film is. i can’t imagine actually going to the theater. anyway, i wish you explained better what you mean by “stable ideals.”

  26. Well, a cultural studies reading of John Wayne in the 21st century is one thing; but the reception of The Searchers, particularly filtered through Gio’s nostalgia argument, is potentially more complicated. I have a feeling if you were to put together a random sample of Americans (let’s say 100) and showed them The Searchers and then conducted some post-screening surveys and discussions, the post-structuralist critique of the mythos of the American male would not be at the top of thier list. I could be wrong. Even the moral ambiguity at the center of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence does very little to decenter Wayne’s iconic status as American individualism writ large (sure, he’s a fading giant but a giant nonetheless).

  27. Jeff–I think my point is much simpler than whatever the phrase “post-structuralist critique” suggests. That group of 100 would have to be remarkably inattentive not to take note of Wayne/Ethan’s racism, isolation and propensity toward pathological violence–whatever their abstract notions of “hero” might be, they couldn’t help but clash with the abrasive role of Ethan/Wayne in this film . Interestingly (maybe not) most of my students seemed to have only a dim idea of John Wayne–since they were free of nostalgia, they regarded Wayne’s figure as heroic, yes, but also rather disturbing.

    Gio–I always try to attend movies in the theater, because I am free from distractions there. I don’t much like watching movies at home–with the distracting pull of napping, channel surfing, eating, noodling around on the computer, etc. This is why my Netflix rentals wind up costing me, say, probably 20-30 bucks each. In the post I meant to write “stable ideas”–I wanted to say that the audience for Anderson’s film might be more likely to consider notions of masculinity, etc., as something in flux–as having been in flux for a considerable period of time– rather than something with a fixed ideological meaning.

  28. I’ve been working this one around in my head for the last couple of days. First, the fact that your students read Wayne in The Searchers as heroic though disturbing seems to back up Gio’s claim. I watch DDL in TWBB and though he is disturbing and all too human, there is not much there I can find heroic. I was, however, reminded of three WLTW favorites that line up with Gio’s concerns over the nostalgic evocation of heroic male individualism (America-style): “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” and “The Wire.” All three of these shows mix disturbingly heroic characters with barrels and barrels of moral ambiguity. And, I would argue, all three of these shows tap into the spectators’ desire to consume dangerously glamorous, larger-than-life representations of individuals operating outside the boundaries of “civilized” society. There is something nostalgically charged about the ways in which I watched (gazed upon) Barksdale or Omar or Marlo or Stringer Bell or Tony S. or Seth Bullock or Swearengen. But I never felt that thrill watching Daniel Plainview. I was in awe of the performance, and I was in awe of PTA’s gumption, and I was pulled into the narrative’s oppositional tensions, but Plainview always felt small, stunted, and fragile.

  29. Since we’re on The Searchers, a film I love, let me chime in: we can’t help but regard Ethan as heroic, and I think that is Ford’s intention. His arrival at his brother’s homestead at the beginning of the film is seen largely through the eyes of those who view him as something of a god: his nieces and nephew, Clayton (who steals a view for us of Martha, tenderly folding Ethan’s coat), etc. But Ford also intentionally corrupts Ethan’s heroism from the beginning. He fought for the confederate army and stubbornly refuses to surrender his word to it but nevertheless treats his medal like a meaningless trinket.

    On the issue of Ethan’s character, I don’t think Ford wants us to settle on either side (is he heroic or psychotic?). Those moments in the film where Ethan seems obviously mad (as when he pointlessly empties his rifle at a herd of buffalo) are counter-balanced by caricatured scenes of the Jorgensen family. Laurie and Charlie are half-wits, and their courtship is just plain silly (it becomes over-the-top ridiculous when Martin returns and challenges Charlie). When Ethan arrives on the scene, he appears to us the only sensible, adult figure. He’s a man among children. My students often find the homesteaders repulsive, and I think Ford wants us to find them repulsive. Should they seem too human, too much like us, Ford would compromise Ethan’s status. Ethan is heroic–but he is also obsessive and uncompromising. Still, we find it hard to denounce him (even as his thirst for revenge reaches psychotic proportions) because everyone else is a grotesque creature of the domestic: infantile, backward, and confined to meaningless ritual.

    Daniel Plainview’s contempt for “these people” mirrors Ethan’s. But Ethan has something he hates even more: native americans (or, more precisely, what he calls the “half breed”), and thus he has what the genre deems an acceptable target of hostility. As repulsive as Ethan is, we are unable to deny that he is larger than life. The Searchers, then, is part romance, part nightmare. We follow the pattern of action of an archetypal hero who is superior to us in every way (he knows better than to try and push his horse back to the Edwards homestead; Martin doesn’t) even nature suspends some of its laws for him (he survives what seems to be a fatal gunshot wound). But the pattern of action leads us into the hero’s personal hell.

    For me, TWBB is mostly nightmare. Beautiful, yes, but still a nightmare (I think, contrary to what Gio suggests, one can find beauty in the dusty, merciless west and not be nostalgic for it. Just because we find something that is old beautiful doesn’t mean we’re being nostalgic. I think nostalgia is a lot more complicated than that). Ethan is beautiful but he scares the shit out of me. Still, as Aaron Edwards says when the Comanche move in on the homestead, “I wish Uncle Ethan was here.” Daniel Plainview scares the shit out of me too, but I’m not sure I’d call for him when in trouble.

  30. If you haven’t seen ‘The Searchers’, or haven’t seen it in a while, it is available for instant viewing on Netflix. It is a great way to break up the end-of-semester grading.

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