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There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

First Deeds

The United States of America, the first ‘democratic republic’, is founded upon a myriad of mistrusts, confusions and contradictions as the circumstances regarding its process of independence from the Britan forced an uneasy alliance of groups with conflicting interests and ideas. Yet, as we have examined through the three-part analysis of Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece, Dead Man, despite the seemingly unresolvable social fragmentation and the resulting cultural, political and social paralysis, there is one thing upon which Americans and non-Americans can agree: America is the land of the ‘free’. Yet, as is often the case, the precise meaning of the word is not self-evident. And the meaning of this particular concept is fraught with a myriad of confusions in this specific Form of Life. And the problem regarding the notion of ‘freedom’ is not a recent phenomenon: it was there at the very beginning.

According to the story, the ‘first’ colonial settlers were English Calvinist who left the initial settlement in Nederland to the British colony in order to preserve their English character of the community. They left England to Nederland in order to safeguard their religious beliefs, yet they came to fear the fast assimilation to the Dutch society and left to the ‘New World’ to preserve their identity. Therefore, the ‘American’ notion of ‘freedom’ understood by the settlers belonging to an English Calvinist cult simply meant: ‘religious freedom’. As I have argued in the second article on Dead Man (in ‘Secularism and Religion’ from ‘American Contradictions’), if this notion is pushed to the extreme, its logical incompatibility with the civil democratic principle, that is, the mutual respect for the rights of fellow citizens and the individual right for freedom within the bound of this respect, becomes glaringly evident: it has been observed, both domestically and globally, fatal to the integrity of a given society. To be succinct, the problem of taking religious ‘freedom’ to its extreme is two-fold: 1) if one takes one’s religious dogma as an absolute notion, then it cannot tolerate differing point of views, hence it could pose an existential threat to others; and 2) if one takes the notion of ‘divine law’ uncritically, one must insist on one’s religious doctrine superseding the civil law and order, thereby posing a potentially existential threat to the very society to which one belongs. Whilst the conflict between religious beliefs and the principle of a civil democratic society has been a major problem, it is not the only confusion Americans suffer. There is another layer of contradiction which is just as destructive.

When the colony split from the British Empire, the newly established ‘republic’ was founded upon a precarious alliance which was plagued by a profound mutual mistrust despite its lofty self-image as the land of the ‘free’ for ‘all humanity’. In fact their ‘union’ was the result of a forced alliance which was favoured based on short-term calculations rather than a common political vision. As we all must know, the ones who brokered this ‘union’ of a motley crew were the Founding Fathers. For them, despite the mutual contempt and conflicting ambitions, there was one thing they could agree upon: the new republic stood for ‘freedom’. Yet, as the feuds between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans demonstrated, they never managed to create a consensus amongst themselves regarding the very meaning of the word. For example: Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist who regarded slavery incompatible with the founding principle of the future nation, yet the likes of Jefferson defended it. Hence it is easy to see that their feud over the fundamental principle upon which the ‘republic’ would be built has been impactful: many of the unresolved political divisions we grapple today were already manifested in their bitter conflict. Whilst Federalists, especially Alexander Hamilton, represented the interests of the coastal urban establishment such as city financiers and argued for the increased power of the executive branch of the federal government for the sake of establishing social coherence and national order out of the chaos in the wake of the war against the Britain, Democratic-Republicans stood for the interests of rural agrarians who favoured increased independence of states and thus fought for the concept of ‘small government’. Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson eventually outmanoeuvred Federalists due to the mastery of party politics and manipulation of public opinions, and finally won the presidency in 1800. Whilst his political agendas such as ‘Manifest Destiny’ and small government since dominated the political imagination of the ‘republic’, this is not to say that the fight was over: the bitter opposition from the days of Hamilton and Jefferson is still continued in the political arena as we speak: urban versus rural, the Coasts versus the Heartland and/or the South, federal policies versus states’ independence, Wall Street versus ‘Main’ street, popular vote versus electoral vote, and the list goes on. Yet, the most notable implication of their bitter struggle and Jefferson’s populist victory is observed in the manner in which America’s self-image has been defined: it had become decisively rural, anti-federal and colonialist.

Since this vision was pushed by agrarians (in this particular context, it means: slave owning white plantation owners) who rushed the westward expansion to gain living-space for more colonists, the notion of ‘freedom’ in America also gained a very specific characteristic which shaped the Geist of colonised territories called the ‘Frontier’. This brand of ‘freedom’ was hostile to any form of a coherent social order and championed: anti-social individualism; ad hoc governance; and violent justice. As I have argued in the second article on Dead Man (in the part titled ‘American Contradictions’), this particular notion of freedom is a contradiction based on a cateogry mistake: it is antithetical to the very notion of civil society whose prerequisite condition for its existence is the mutually respectful observation of one another’s rights amongst its citizens: and, importantly, without a firm establishment of civil social order, a sovereign territory cannot be a proper republic. Contrary to the popular American belief, thus, being ‘free’ does not mean: one has a right to do ‘whatever I want’. To begin with, one’s ‘right’ is a political concept reliant on the idea of social contract, therefore it is fundamentally different from the metaphysical concept of ‘free will’. In short, the concept of ‘rights’ defines what we are allowed to do within the bounds of norms and laws, which are in turn subjects for possible revisions. Yet the misinterpretation of ‘freedom’ based on the conflation of ‘rights’ and ‘free will’ has come to define what it means to be an ‘American’ due to the widespread acceptance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’, which erroneously claimed to ‘explain’ what an American ‘is’, when, in fact, he selected a particular version of American Form of Life as an ‘ought’, that is, the ideal which Turner strongly preferred. Unfortunately, Turner’s thesis found a perfect propaganda in Western movies wherein gun-slinging nomadic outlaws called ‘cowboys’ reduced life to a zero-sum game: either you shoot them first or they shoot you.

Whilst Jarmusch has brilliantly exposed this peculiarly ill conceived Weltanschauung with the inception of Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a cannibal bounty hunter who shadows Will Kane (Gary Cooper, High Noon) as his Doppelgänger, there is another man who has come to represent the Geist of the ‘Frontier’. His name is Daniel Plainview, a former miner and a ‘self-made’ oil-man who has dug his way into American Dream of ‘success and prosperity’. Plainview arrived at the scene in the early 20th century California, about a half-century later from Wilson’s time. By then, Jefferson’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ had long been realised: through a series of bloody genocides and wars, the ‘republic’ had gained the domination over the vast territory which stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And the portrayal of Plainview has proven terrifyingly relevant today: not only Plainview has proven himself a worthy successor of Wilson, as an industrialist, he was also in the direct line of succession to John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), a shot-gun slinging lord of a colonial outpost called Town of Machine. Now, in the 21st century, Daniel Plainview has re-emerged as a representative figure for the Geist of Industrial Materialism, the dominant Form of Life since the 19th century which has forced its way into the flesh and the soul of humanity in free fall. Thus, in what follows, I shall examine Daniel Plainview’s trajectory to investigate the implications of Jefferson’s ’Manifest Destiny’, for we all live in the wake of the bloody deeds that have made ‘us’ who ‘we’ are.

American Anthropoid

Daniel Plainview is the main protagonist of the acclaimed film, There Will Be Blood, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who adopted the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!, which was first published in 1926. It follows the 'rise' of a self-made ‘oil man’ (Daniel Day-Lewis), who has become a tycoon in California as the result of a land acquisition which has granted him an exclusive right for a substantial oil reservoir. The subsequent instalment of a pipeline which directly ships the crude oil from his reservoir to the refinery on the coast has broke a new ground in the industry and established his absolute control over the entire process of mining, shipping and sales of the crude oil. A fiercely determined individualist of a humble origin, Plainview began his career as a silver miner who worked alone before venturing into oil business. A small-time operator with a handful of crews, he had sought promising oil reservoirs with some success. Having adopted an orphaned boy of a deceased crew, he was always accompanied by his ‘son’ named H. W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier), and his right-hand man, Fletcher Hamilton (Ciarán Hinds). He was struggling as a small-time operative, yet his fortune saw a sudden turn when he received a visit from a stranger (Paul Dano). Calling himself ‘Paul’, he claimed to have an exclusive knowledge of the location of an oil reservoir beneath his family’s goat ranch. In an exchange of immediate payment of 500 dollars, the mysterious youth offered a detailed account of the land where Plainview and H. W. visited for an inspection on the pretext of hunting quails.

Once arrived there, they met a ghost: a dead linger of Paul approached them and introduced himself as Paul’s brother, Eli (also played by Paul Dano). This ‘meeting’ unsettled Plainview and planted the seed of contempt and suspicion, yet, undeterred, he proceeded with the planned inspection. When H. W. stumbled upon a clear evidence of a promising field beneath the waste land, Plainview met with the hapless patriarch of the ranch (David Willis) and proposed the buyout of his property. Just as Plainview was about to walk all over him and strong-arm a deal in his favour, the ghost spoke and inserted himself between them: Eli demanded 10,000 dollars for ‘his church’. It turned out that Eli was a charismatic pastor who commanded a strong loyalty amongst his cult in the community. Plainview agreed to pay 5,000 dollars if the reservoir produced a substantial amount of oil. Whilst Plainview proceeded to buy out all the land surrounding the target, Eli continued to vex him by his constant attempt to capitalise on this opportunity. Since Plainview needed to garner the popular support from the community to profit from his business in the land, despite his money and the power that came with it, he must have adopted to the norm of the community: he simply could not afford to appear ‘Godless’. In addition, given the fanatical loyalty of the congregation, Eli could not be simply brushed aside: the self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ was someone who must be dealt with, and Eli knew it.

Yet, Plainview was not to be underestimated. Whilst he conceded a few battles to this ghostly upstart in order to win the war, he showed who commanded the power on every opportunity he was presented. On one occasion, he beat and humiliated Eli who came to demand what Plainview ‘owed’ to him. This ferocious outburst of violence is exemplary; he represents Turner’s ‘American’ character with unparalleled clarity and rigour. With his insatiable drive to win the zero-sum game of life, and his deep hatred of ‘people’, Plainview is no ordinary business person. His all-consuming focus to ‘win’ at all cost has alienated him from everyone around him and prohibited him from appreciating life: he has been always working or drinking. Whilst he beared the appearance of a ‘family man’, a widow with a very young son, in his early days, this, he now claims, was a mean to make the land deal easier by inducing sympathy amongst the general public. Despite his ‘modest’ speech on the matter of spirituality, he has no faith: he considers all religions superstitious, and he is contemptuous of sparing his thought on unprofitable subjects. Hence he is a quintessential Industrial Materialist who is set out to exploit everything and everyone around him. And, perhaps surprisingly to some, this savage instrumentalist approach to life is not unique to America; it is in fact the baggage which European colonists brought in to the ‘New World’ with them.

This kind of materialism must be traced back to the shift in metaphysics, namely, Descartes’ sharp distinction between Mind and Body. According to the French philosopher, Body denotes all material entities, not limited to the bodies of animated entities. Mind is a substance capable of mental activities such as thinking, and survives the destruction of individual bodies since they are separate entities. Mind is present only in God and humankind, hence, according to Descartes, animated entities other than humans must be considered ‘things’. Based on this understanding, the French philosopher famously declared: the cries of animals ‘in pain’ are in fact mere mechanical noises in reaction to certain stimuli. If Descartes is right, then, the shriek made by an animal who is about to be slaughtered is no different from the sound of a stone being ground, or the sound of a musical instrument played by a virtuoso. In this light, the world except humankind consists of mere materials which we are entitled to exploit in any way we can/want. Whilst Descartes’ instrumentalism is under certain restrictions, and by no means directly responsible for the brutality which enabled Industrialism that followed, it came at a particular historical juncture wherein Europeans were about to move away from the restrictive measures imposed by ecclesiastical authorities and preparing themselves to embrace the crude reductionism represented by Industrial Revolution which rendered, yet again, humankind without capital as expendables. The eventual domination of Anglophone empiricism means that the crude materialism which has come to shape the Geist of Industrial Era destroyed the metaphysical ‘safety mechanism’ which, despite its destructiveness, unjustness and incorrectness, kept humankind’s ambitions in check. God was soon declared ‘dead’, and humans without capital became expendable entities ‘which’ fulfil given functions (in non-capitalist societies, states alone own capital; hence the officials of the states function as business owners in capitalist societies. The means of controlling the distribution of power may be the only difference between respective systems). (From ‘Happy Birthday, David’)

Whilst there have been many portrayals of the power-that-be in American cinema, Anderson and Day-Lewis’ interpretation of this California oil baron is arguably the most truthfully sinister one to date: Daniel Plainview makes Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane) look naïve and sentimental, and Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale, American Psycho) one-dimensional. His will to win is so compulsive in that he violently confronts anyone who crosses him: he once intimidated the representative of a large oil company, Standard Oil, who proposed to buy out Plainview's well, by threatening to slit the man's throat. And this was just the beginning. Subsequently, everytime Plainview caught the sight of him, he would go over to the man, being up uncomfortably close, and made this hapless fellow repeat him, word by word, in public. Yet, this chap from Standard Oil should have been grateful to be bullied so mercilessly; Plainview has proven himself to be capable of most bloody deeds and he could have follow through with his threat of cutting his throat at night. As we can see by now, Plainview's hatred toward his ‘fellow’ humans is just as chilling as the savage indifference of Cole Wilson. The deep and savage contempt Daniel shows to everything and everyone he encounters is a logical consequence of his world-view: he judges and experiences everything in life as a zero-sum game. In this callous and crude scheme, ‘winning’ is the only thing that matters and the end always justifies means.

Day-Lewis has given us one of his best performances to date as Daniel Plainview; like the substance that lies beneath the surface of a barren wasteland, his character conceals a deep and violent hatred against everyone and everything, the contempt which surfaces now and then as a dark stain on screen. It is a remarkable character study of someone who is representative of the savage and callous instrumentalism which characterises Social Darwinism: it conceives humankind as a mere organism which blindly strives to dominate other organisms in order to increase its chance of survival for no other reason or purpose. What Plainview's Social Darwinism differs from the original Darwinism is: it does not concern the procreation. This is due to the complete lack of what one might call ‘lust for life’: whilst he hates to lose, there is no joy in winning. Like Wilson, the cannibal cowboy who shows mild displeasure for the taste of his 'dinner', Plainview hates his preys for what they 'make him do'. Both have no inclination to mix business with pleasure: Wilson kills and eats because he has to; and Plainview kills and wins because he has complusive need not to lose. Still, in the end, these are the chores and works that dictates them, rather than they have pleasure in doing. They live on not because they appreciate life, just because they hate to 'lose': quite frankly, if they had a choice not to exist in the first place, they would have done so without hesitation, but with one condition; they would only agree to go if they can bring the world down with them. Since they would give up life, no one else should be allowed to live. Thus, all his fighting and striving intensifies Plainview’s deep seated hatred: he hates to see others succeeding in life as if they have robbed what is rightly his. By taking and keeping all to himself, he denies others their chances. This explains the reasons why the capitalists like Plainview hate to give: the likes of Plainview are not necessarily interested in gaining or building something for themselves; rather, they are hell-bent on denying others to do so. In short, their motivation is thoroughly negative; they are in the game not to be cheated, not to be taken advantage of. Winning something or someone means that no one else can have it/her. Plainview thus prefers to disown his ‘son’ than giving blessing to his new business venture; H. W. Plainview is a mere competitor now. Yet no one, in his mind, makes money off this world because he alone does. And he would absolutely do everything to achieve this goal, for he cannot bear to lose. By showing what this Weltanschauung does to a person and everyone and everything around him, Day-Lewis’ portrayal of this nihilistic American predator is a character study per excellence. His portrayal of this profoundly toxic Geist does not reduce itself into a mere caricature: he makes you clench your teeth and feel his breath on your neck. He makes you inhale the air saturated with alcohol, smoke from his pipe and oil fume from his wells. Day-Lewis’ work here is truly a sight to behold.

Yet it is not a set of individual traits that makes Daniel Plainview a standout amongst the list of notable cinematic representations of destructive American white-male characters in power. Rather, it is the way in which Daniel Plainview is situated within the historic, political, cultural and philosophical context of the development of American Geist that distinguishes this movie from its illustrious peers. In this, Anderson cannot be praised enough; although Sinclair’s presentation of American’ Geist inspired Anderson’s vision, and the novelist’s work is valuable in and of itself, Anderson’s decision to liberally adopt the first 150 pages of the book demonstrates his fine aesthetic instinct. Whilst neither Anderson nor Sinclair explicitly mentions Turner’s thesis, Plainview does illuminate the actual implications of what Turner defined as a quintessential American character in an unprecedented manner. Then it is useful at this point of inquiry to clarify what are the characteristics of ‘true’ Americans according to Turner.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1931), a prominent historian known for his ‘Frontier Thesis’ (‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, 1893), proclaimed that white colonists’ experiences during the invasion of the western territories of ‘North America’ forged the ‘American character’, which consists of traits such as ‘self-reliance’, ‘individual freedom’, ‘egalitarianism’, disregard for high-culture, and a strong predisposition toward violence (Turner relied on the definition of the ‘Frontier’ used by the government census at the time of his writing, and thus his ‘Frontier’ includes parts of the Midwest as well as some parts of the South, as opposed to the contemporary definition of the ‘Frontier’ as the western territory beyond the Mississippi River). (‘The Myth of the ‘Frontier’, from ‘Dead Man, Part 1’)

Quite tellingly, There Will be Blood presents each and every one of ‘American’ trait in a stark light according to the historic facts available today. Much celebrated ‘Frontier’ in California, the ‘Promised Land’ wherein 'American Destiny' should have been revealed in its full glory, is a lifeless wasteland where ‘pioneers' languish without relief. In their harrowing experience, the lofty ideal of Emersonian ‘self-reliance’ merely amounts to the lack of prospect and options; they make do with whatever they can salvage from the land. Drinking salty water and locked in the land where nothing grows, the farmers' ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ bring them no fulfilment; they are surviving for no other reason or purpose. These much celebrated American traits, such as ’self-reliance’, ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, bear no resemblance to the bright picture painted by the likes of Emerson and Turner: these communities appear abandoned rather than ‘self-reliant’, primitive than ‘free’. This secure and stable barrenness is disrupted when Plainview arrives: the ‘self-made’ oil man brings jobs and cash to make more money by bargaining his way into the community who sits upon the land whose resource originates from the massive extinction of once dominant species. The presence of Plainview amongst clueless goat farmers paints a picture which illuminates what American ‘freedom' in ‘Frontier’ entails: it is a zero-sum game in which one is ‘free’ to play one’s hand in any way one can if it is the one that promises the ‘victory’. Since the winner takes all in this game, there is no reason to spare a thought on ‘losers’: it is their fault that they have lost. Then where is the notion of ‘egalitarianism’ in this picture? Unfortunately ‘egalitarianism’ in ‘Frontier’ means only one thing: everyone has an equal status as a ‘player’ in the game without rules. If you ‘win’, your past and origin do not matter. Yet one must note: it does not guarantee that the condition in which players meet is equal, for everyone is ‘free’ to do whatever she/they/he can to advance her/their/his bloody pursuit of ‘happiness’ in this game. If you come from money, use it to your advantage. If you hold certain privilege, based on class, race and/or gender, use it to get yourself ahead. In short, according to the rule-book of this game without rules, you are allowed to do anything to win: in fact it is perfectly fine to cheat or break the law if you can get away with it. Plainview, in fact, gets away with a bloody murder and continues to ’succeed’.

As the story follows the abysmal descent of Daniel Plainview, he reveals how the winning this bloody game should look like: he becomes an anthropoid, someone who resembles human only in appearance. With his relentless aggression, Plainview has been approaching the depth of abysmal nihilism exemplified by the ‘perfect creature’ concocted by David (Alien: Covenant) in his 'devil's laboratory', that is, the ultimate predator which only exists in order to deny others a chance of survival. Whilst Plainview and the David’s creature represent the same nihilistic Weltanschauung, in some ways, our 20th century anthropoid is even more cynical: he even rejects procreation. The only thing that multiplies from his endeavour is: money. Whilst this is consistent with the ethos of Industrial Materialism and Social Darwinism, the slumbering oil baron in his vast, lavish and claustrophobic mansion in his pristine estate paints a ghastly picture: it is a far cry from the ‘freedom’ envisioned by the founders’ of the first democratic ‘republic’ or the author of the celebrated myth of ‘Frontier’. When Plainview viciously parts ways with his ‘son’ by denouncing H. W. as a ‘bastard’ in a basket he picked up to manipulate his public image, he is finally ready to meet his destiny. Alone and joyless in his well-furnished personal echo-chamber, Plainview falls into his alcohol-induced coma before he faces the reckoning. Naturally this very special occasion has everything to do with his nemesis, Eli.

‘Destiny’ Manifested

Eli Sunday, the son of a goat farmer whose property holds the key to Plainview’s American Dream of success and prosperity, demands recognition. He is a dead linger of a mysterious youth who calls himself Paul, the messenger from the impoverished land which, he claims, sits atop of an untapped reservoir of crude oil. Whilst ‘Paul’ disappears from the scene with 500 dollars in cash, his 'brother' Eli takes his place. Unlike his mysterious Doppelgänger, Eli is here to stay. With his eerily knowing smile, he initially unnerves Plainview, and it does not take long before Eli begins to vex him with his meddlesomeness. Eli is a self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ who performs spectacular exorcism of some sort in his makeshift church, and is worshipped by his loyal congregation. Whilst he may appear a hysterical fanatic in front of his followers, Plainview knows better: he is a narcissist who has been exploiting the religious bent of the impoverished and uneducated population to stroke his ‘self-esteem’. Yet, with Plainview’s arrival, Eli sees the way out of this ‘Frontier’; he longs to split from this wasteland with the money this oil baron ‘owes him’. Naturally Plainview holds him with great contempt, and takes every opportunity to bully him. Yet, when the table turns, Eli has his revenge: he forces Plainview to join his congregation and publicly humiliates him. Then, he finally achieves his goal: when he extracts enough money from Plainview by blackmailing him, he abandons his home and his followers for greener pastures, claiming that he is embarking on a missionary work. Eventually he becomes a radio preacher and invests the fund in stock market to satisfy his greed.

It is safe to say that Plainview has met his match in Eli, and his intense hatred toward this particular person generates a violent tension which threatens to erupt in a moment’s notice. Whilst Eli has been a catalyst of Plainview’s prosperity, Eli is dependent on Plainview’s success to achieve his own goal. Naturally Plainview hates to deal with Eli because he hates to give. Eli also hates to be dependent on Plainview for he sees himself above everyone else. Deadlocked in a mutual contempt, Plainview and Eli constantly seek to outmanoeuvre one another. Eli represents everything Plainview hates and despises. Eli is a hypocritical ‘man of God’, a greedy false ‘prophet’ who exploits his followers to satisfy his narcissistic need for recognition. He knows nothing about oil business, yet he makes Plainview work and claims a cut of Plainview’s hard-earned money without himself lifting a finger. Like a stubborn parasite, Eli refuses to let go of his host. What becomes clear from the trajectory of Eli is: there is no supposed opposition between Industrial Materialism and religion. Business and religions are, in short, means to an end, that is, winning a zero-sum game. Therefore, despite the difference in their respective means of exploitation, Plainview and his nemesis do not represent opposing forces in American Geist; they oppose one another in their attempt to ‘win’ this game of domination. In this regard, they are one and the same: they are cynical and contemptuous egomaniacs who happen to be interlocked in their respective descent into the abyss. Naturally, their relationship ends badly and violently: in a fit of anger, Plainview murders Eli in his private bowling alley. It is a savage sight to behold; Plainview’s fury and hatred is exposed with full force in their final confrontation.

At this juncture, we must ask ourselves: What is the nature of Plainview’s hatred? We know that he hates everyone. We also know that his hatred runs deep. He is intensely violent and hates to ‘lose’. Therefore it is easy to see the reasons why Plainview loathes Eli; he is the only person who has ever made him pay more than his willing, forced him into submission and publicly humiliated him. Above all, for the man who hates to give, the fact that he has been blackmailed into helping Eli gaining financial security by paying undisclosed amount alone must boil his blood. Yet we must also note: Whilst Plainview has been intensely violent and homicidally competitive, he has already committed a murder before killing his nemesis. Therefore it is easy to comfort ourselves by thinking: this is just his character: he is a homicidal psychopath. However, whilst perfectly reasonable at a glance, there is a problem with this view: Plainview is not meant to be an exception, because neither Sinclair, Anderson nor Day-Lewis intended him to be as such: he is a representation of the Geist that haunts the land of the ‘free’. This singularly sinister character represents what the logical implications of ‘Manifest Destiny’ must look like. Hence Plainview is absolutely diabolical without allowing the audience to project any sentimentality upon him or becoming himself a caricature. Without a doubt, Plainview is the most accurate diagnostics of American ‘Frontier’ one would come across: every pixel on the screen, and every decibel from the speakers, is haunted and stained with this poisonous hatred of Plainview’s. It is as if the world itself is made of a savage scream. Is this whailing coming from the mouth of victims or the cannibal? It is impossible to tell. One would perhaps never see anyone who is so completely consumed with hatred like Plainview. He commits bloody murder, disowns his ‘son’, and spends his days stone drunk in his luxurious echo-chamber waited by his butler. It is a harrowing picture of American Dream that has come true.

Yet, terrifyingly, Plainview is not done yet. His final confrontation with Eli shows not only his hatred in its full force; it shows its true nature. His hatred toward Eli is singular: it is as if Eli represents everything he hates in this world. Thus we must wonder: What does Plainview see in this young adversary? The answer is simple: himself. As we have seen, Plainview and Eli are the same despite the difference in their respective methods of exploitation. Whilst Plainview strong-arms ‘people’, Eli manipulates them by taking advantage of their religious bent and ignorance. Whilst Eli maintains a pious appearance and speaks softly, he cannot conceal his cold disdain toward ‘people’ whom he has been deceiving as a 'prophet'. Plainview clearly sees Eli’s contempt toward humanity, and he hates Eli for the fact that they are of the same kind: and Eli knows it. It is this contempt that cuts them off from humanity, and this alienation is strikingly embodied by Paul Dano’s Eli: the moment he walks into the scene as ‘Paul’, he fills us with the overwhelming sense of dread as if we are seeing an undead. Not only Eli is ghostly in his presence; he does have a perfect outlet for his well-concealed savageness, the primitive violence whose intensity matches that of Plainview. As a ‘prophet’, he has entitled himself to bring out his anger and hatred toward his fellow humans in a form of unhinged ‘sermon’ at his church, and his congregation loves his showing. This violent narcissism of a ghastly imposter, exemplarily brought to life by Dano, eclipses the entire genre of ‘Horror’ movie: it shows that there is no reason to seek the terror in artificial settings, for the darkness lies right in our own psyche. Hence it is easy to see how Anderson exposes the great hypocrisy of religious aspect of life in America: on the surface, there is no more contrasting character than Plainview and Eli. They are as different as an ant and a grasshopper. Yet, if one looks further, it becomes clear: they are identical in their violent hatred of humanity, of each other, and, most significantly, of themselves. Therefore, Plainview hates Eli because he sees the worst of himself in this false prophet.

It is clear that their respective self-hatred is the source of contempt. And this explains the intensity with which Plainview hates Eli. Yet, the most important question we must ask ourselves is: What is the reason for such a deep and all-encompassing loathing? As the story of Plainview and Eli develop, it is clear that simply believing such a disturbing symptom as the typical traits of certain individuals misses the point in its entirety. It is easier for us to single out a few and avoid interrogating the problems at the root of such developments. Americans are especially prone to this error due to the extreme form of individualism they espouse: Americans overwhelmingly favour retributive justice over restorative one due to their understanding of what American ‘freedom’ entails. Yet, it must be also clear that no one exists in a vacuum. And Anderson’s intention is explicit: the bloody bowling alley set in the basement of a luxurious mansion at the heart of Plainview’s estate is the ‘destiny manifested’. Whilst the life as a zero-sum game has made Plainview an anthropoid reminiscent of the ‘perfect’ creature concocted by the demonic android named David 8, Daniel Plainview is not quite there yet: tragically, Plainview is only able to express what is left of his humanity with his violent hatred that renders him inhuman. The very fact that he hates everyone, himself included, shows that he is not quite like David’s perfect predator who mindlessly devours everything it encounters. If that is the case, there is no need for fury, hatred and despair that drives his self-medication. David’s creature does not destroy the world out of hatred; it does what it is made for. Plainview, on the other hand, loathes himself because he cannot bear the savagery involved in surviving Jefferson’s ’Frontier’, the ‘glorious’ destiny manifested in the vast territory stretching from the ‘Heartland’ to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson’s ‘pioneers’ came all the way to the edge of the continent by the ruthless praxis of Social Darwinism. They grabbed the land by committing a genocide, went to war and built a ‘nation’. Then, they have become isolated, abandoned and languished. Many have attempted to escape this hopeless predicament. The problem is: the only way to the ‘freedom’ leads to a zero-sum game wherein there is only one winner who takes all in expense of others. And no one comes out of this game unscathed; Plainview, like everyone else, has slowly chipped away his humanity and become consumed with self-hatred. There is no joy in this landscape, and there will only be blood, for Plainview has long lost the ability to shed tears. Plainview’s bitter disappointment is inevitable: the 'Promised Land' for a glorious victor is nothing but a well-furnished crypt, a vast echo-chamber which is exclusive to himself, like a coffin. This is only appropriate: ‘win’ or ‘lose’, there is nothing to live for in this destination. The man who adopted and cared for the orphaned infant boy is no more: he has lost his way and cannot go home.

The Master (2012): Part I

The Master (2012): Part I

Dead Man (1995), Part III

Dead Man (1995), Part III