I just watched There Will Be Blood (2007), the Paul Thomas Anderson film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! about a small Texas village that becomes a boomtown in the crude oil rush of the early twentieth century. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his performance as Daniel Plainview, the story’s tortured protagonist, and the film itself was also nominated for an Academy Award, so I was very much looking forward to seeing There Will Be Blood.
I didn’t get it.
First, let me acknowledge that I do get why Daniel Day-Lewis won the award for best actor. His performance would have been totally compelling even if it were excised from a coherent narrative milieu and plopped down on the screen sans context... which, in my estimation, it pretty much was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Basically, I think There Will Be Blood did badly almost everything that Scorcese’s Taxi Driver did well (with the obvious exception of first-rate performances by both leading men). In fact, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood are just better and worse cinematic renderings of the same phenomenon, that is, the manner in which individual and collective decadence slowly comes to drive a person mad, and how the relentless monotony of that slow decay eventually erupts in meaningless violence that is (desperately, ironically) intended to reinstitute some kind of meaning.
Both protagonists, Travis (Taxi Driver) and Plainview (There Will Be Blood), are loners steeped in a world of moral blankness, compulsively executing the demands of a profession that does not allow its practitioners the luxuries of a stable home, a conventional family, or any other of the various kinds of “roots” that ground and validate human existence. Both the taxi driver and the oil man look down on the world around them with a kind of forced moral high-mindedness, indulging its inhabitants and its ways when necessary, but never making themselves at home in it. They both attempt to authenticate their otherwise empty lives by attaching themselves to a child who, for both, represents the vulnerability and innocence that has yet to be sullied by the cruel world they know. But they both inadvertently defile that innocence and exploit that vulnerability, and they both hate themselves for it.
Scorcese and Anderson establish the spiritual isolation of their protagonists through slow, sometimes monotonous, pacing and a constant reinforcing of the milieu in which their loners are alone. For Anderson, this means plenty of long-shots of the sweeping, but barren, Texas countryside and the relentless drumming of larger-than-life oil pipes, two environmental “characters” that are meant to be indifferent to and to dwarf the individual. For Scorcese, this means tight, almost claustrophobic, shots of New York City at night, porno houses, tiny efficiency apartments, crowded political rallies, and the inside of a taxicab—all situated in the world of junkies and johns and red-eyed taxi drivers whose tacit refusal to sleep only makes the surrounding decadence seem more relentless.
And, of course, Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood are both revenge films. Travis and Plainview are both angry, self-righteous, slowly simmering powder-kegs of ressentiment, fueled by their pretension of a kind of Everyman morality. The explosion of violence at the end of both films is ultimately a parody of revenge, though, since the bloodshed is only superficially for the sake of an Other (the child). Really, this violence is the failed exorcism of a heart of darkness, and it makes no difference at all in the world. There will be blood, for sure, but for the sake of nothing, accomplishing nothing.
So, how does Scorcese pull this off in a way that Anderson doesn’t? I think it’s because Scorsese gives us a point of view in Taxi Driver—mainly through the voiceover narration of Travis—which not only serves as a thread through which we can trace the arc of the story, but also provides the audience a first-person point of entry into the stratum of undifferentiated sense-data (what Husserl would call the not-yet-explicated Sinn) that serves as the antagonist and eventually drives the protagonist mad. Anderson, on the other hand, opts for the (mere) intimation of a story, concentrating all of his effort instead on the intensification of a character who is never adequately developed. Watching There Will Be Blood gave me the feeling that someone must have made an error or two in post-production, that somewhere there are a lot of missing but critical scenes that got left on the editing room floor. Hence, the film is too much “impression” and not enough “substance,” too much raw Sinn and not enough Bedeutung or Austruck. The result is that Daniel Day-Lewis’ compelling performance is suspended in thin air—groundless and senseless—a lot like his character, but not in a good way.