B. and I saw “There Will Be Blood” last Saturday.

I liked it, but I think my expectations may have been too high.  Someone recommended it highly last Thanksgiving, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.

A central problem for me was being unable to relate to the character of Daniel Plainview.  I’ve read that the movie has dark lessons for modern society about corporatism and runaway greed, etc.  But I don’t think it does, really. 

Plainview was a man of his time.  Robber barons – the self-made men, the empire builders – were qualitatively different from modern CEOs, corporation men.  Robber barons were obsessed with cornering the market, gathering all resources under their control, yes.  But they were individuals, who wanted to succeed on their own terms, not in the straitjacket of a corporation.  

The only person I could really understand in the movie was the young Standard Oil man.  He was fully recognizable as a modern personality, a company man.  I went looking for the name of the actor, and I couldn’t find it.  Not on the official website, not on IMDB.  On IMDB, they list three actors as “Standard Oil Man” numbers 1, 2, 3.  As if they were interchangeable.  Which, in a sense, they are.

B. and I disagreed about just how crazy Plainview was.  B. thought he was a sociopath – so pathologically self-centered that he was literally incapable of caring about others.  And that it was all due to his personality, not to circumstances.  I disagreed, on both points. 

The Javier Bardem character in No Country for Old Men, now, he was a sociopath.  He had literally no feeling for his fellow man – didn’t recognize them as human, nor himself, really. 

But Daniel Plainview, while antisocial and paranoid, clearly did recognize the humanity of others.  This was demonstrated in his conversation with his purported brother Henry, where he talks about his drive for competition, and how he hated most people, and saw only the worst in them.  He acknowledged people – he just didn’t like or trust them.  But he also said, “I can’t keep doing this on my own.”

Why didn’t he like or trust other people, and why did he descend into isolation and madness?  Here again, B. and I disagreed.  I think partly it was his temperament, yes – his greed set him at odds with other greedy men.  But partly it was the world in which he lived – the times, the cutthroat oil business. 

I think of my great-grandfather (who had mines and ranches in the West) – how he walked into town one day, walked into the barber shop, and shot his main rival at point-blank range, as the man sat there defenseless in the barber’s chair. 

Granted, my g-grandfather shot him for an arguably good reason – the rival had broken a dam between their land.  My g-grandfather’s two children were playing in the river.  When the dam broke, the river flooded, and the children drowned.  But the point is not why he did it – it’s that in the West of that era, might made right.  My g-grandfather was an important man.  He didn’t suffer any consequences for murdering a man in cold blood – I don’t even think there was a trial. 

That was the world in which Daniel Plainview lived.

I think of my father’s father, an executive for Big Steel, who drank a fifth of scotch a day and dropped dead of a heart attack at age 59.  He once told my father he hated and distrusted men on sight.  Not just withheld judgment – hated them.  Unless he came to have a reason not to.  He carried a gun at all times, because he had to.  He had to be smarter and tougher and meaner than the men he bossed, or he would get rolled. 

That was the world in which Daniel Plainview lived.

So I think it was a combination of Plainview’s innate temperament and the harshness of the world in which he lived that drove him to madness.  I don’t think he was a sociopath at all.  I think he was at a breaking point when he met Henry – a breaking point that could have been a turning point.  When Henry became someone he could no longer trust, Plainview broke.

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