By the time he brought Revelation upon Los Angeles in the form of frog rain, Paul Thomas Anderson had already achieved a level of formal and thematic completeness in his body of work which is rare for any director, let alone one with only three films and thirty years of life behind him. Comparisons to prior masters were abundant: Anderson applied the restless dynamism of Scorsese’s roving camera and propulsive editing to Altman-esque ensemble narratives. He enfolded Jean Renoir’s empathetic view of human nature in playful, flamboyant set-pieces worthy of Orson Welles. And indeed Anderson’s earliest work, particularly “Boogie Nights” (1997), is arguably marred at times by a too-obvious impulse to both flaunt these influences and to do them one better. The development of his varied style, assembled at a young age from diverse antecedents, toward an apex in the divisive go-for-broke epic “Magnolia” (1999), reflected his own version of the Oedipal struggles which haunt so many of his characters, as he attempted to assert himself in a lineage of cinematic greatness. His comments on the film reflect both the grandiosity and the burdens of that lineage: “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I’ll make pretty good movies the rest of my life… but I guess the way I feel is that “Magnolia” is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.”
It’s a statement consistent with the youthfully audacious spirit of those earlier films which, with their elaborate tracking shots and violent narrative coups, are energized by an enfant terrible’s determination to announce his own flashy genius. And indeed the thunderous exertions of “Magnolia” provide frequent, dazzling proofs of that genius. But I question that Anderson, now 42 and shooting his seventh film – an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” – would stand by his younger self’s characterization of “Magnolia” as his magnum opus. Today it seems, rather, a landmark in the ongoing journey of the most gifted and peculiar American filmmaker of his generation, a journey which has since led him into even stranger waters, in search of his own form of spirituality.
Anderson’s fourth film, “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), displayed his artistry in flux, eschewing the epic panoramas of L.A. life offered in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” to center on a single drifting soul within the city. Riffing on romantic comedy formulae while exposing the knotted inner life of a lonely, angry man, it was a puzzling and ultimately optimistic coda to his mythologizing chronicles of love and fortune in L.A., but also his most purely original work to that point, an experiment which lent him the tools needed to embark on the next, current stage of his cinematic journey. In “Magnolia,” the dynamism of the camera, editing, and narrative are not merely the products of a cocksure young artist’s ambition. They have a spiritual, metaphysical motivation as well. Being everywhere, observing the invisible connections between lives, Anderson delivers a statement of faith in a grand design of human existence. In “Punch-Drunk Love,” both this communal spirit and this sense of a metanarrative are gone, replaced by a study in loneliness and anxiety so acutely sensitive to the currents churning in its hero’s guts that it recalls New Hollywood masterpieces of alienation like “The Conversation” and “Taxi Driver.” What “Punch-Drunk Love” brought to Anderson’s art was a new kind of agonized inwardness. In this way, it is the bridge between his first three films and his two most recent: portraits of individuals even more hopelessly alienated than Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), but also parables which regard with skepticism the narratives of religion, industry, and individual advancement which have helped to shape America. Stripping away the stage of contemporary Los Angeles, Anderson went for its roots. Both “There Will Be Blood” (2007) – about an oil man whose empire-building through the first three decades of the 20th century comes at the expense of his humanity – and “The Master” (2012) – about a drifting World War II veteran who is seduced by a burgeoning religious organization – seem like Anderson’s own version of the hypnotic regression therapy used in the latter film: a form of repetition compulsion, which seeks to psychically return followers of “The Cause” to past lives in order to reveal and heal the sources of their traumas, restoring them, in the words of Cause founder Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) “to their inherent state of perfect.” Peeling back the layers of time to expose the raw nerves and open wounds in the nation’s past, Anderson sets his angry, conflicted loners across the landscape of history in search of their souls, and America’s.
“There Will Be Blood” literally picks up where the Western genre leaves off, with a solitary prospector (Daniel Day-Lewis) mining for silver at the close of the 19th century. The man will evolve into our protagonist, Daniel Plainview, but for now – hairy, speechless, nameless, and toiling in the earth – he resembles a primordial, even pre-human ancestor of the man. Plainview’s primitivity, Anderson’s shots of the empty landscape, the eerily discordant score by Jonny Greenwood, and the extended silence of this first scene and the ones which follow – in which Plainview founds a small drilling company and adopts the baby son of one of his workers – all evoke the “Dawn of Man” sequence which opens Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The United States of America is nearly a century and a quarter old at the film’s beginning, but Anderson’s prologue could be called the Dawn of the American Man, or the Dawn of American Industry. Plainview plummets into the mine shaft and breaks his leg, hauling himself from its depths and back to civilization by sheer force of will. The signification is double here: Plainview emerges from darkness, crawling across the landscape like an early life form. But his literal fall also has Biblical parallels: both the moment of original sin and the plunge of Satan from heaven. We never know what Plainview was like before this fall, but he emerges with the seeds of all-consuming sin in his heart. Secular and Christian representations of life’s origins are hence folded into a single image, along with the archetype of the fortune-seeking prospector in the American West. Anderson is imagining, in this scene and this film, nothing less than a creation myth for America as we know it, with Daniel Plainview as a secular Satan. And indeed if Plainview manifests a religiophobia which is not merely atheism, but an instinctive loathing, an almost psychotic revulsion toward the thought of God and His followers, it may be because his megalomania, like Satan’s, rebels against a cosmos outside his own – the uniquely, darkly American cosmos that he carves out for himself.
Plainview goes on to build an empire which is founded on lies. Like Lancaster Dodd in “The Master,” he is a charismatic huckster with something to sell, although instead of a product disguised as a belief system, Plainview peddles a belief system (capitalism as a way of life) disguised as a product. And like secular America, he claims to be of no faith but to accept them all, although “There Will Be Blood” ultimately becomes a clash between twin tyrants: capitalism and religion. He repeats obsessively that his is a family business, shared by his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), whom he later abandons. The cruelty of Plainview to H.W. is just one of the many conflicts between fathers (or father figures) and their sons in Anderson’s work. A mythic and self-perpetuating form of struggle, the conflict of fathers and sons helps give shape and narrative to history, because the sins and errors of parents live on in their children. Like Dodd’s Cause, poised halfway between psychoanalysis and religion, the centrality of filial conflict in Anderson’s work acknowledges the tenuous membrane between past trauma and present pain. This is the common ground between the mysterious, perhaps providential cosmic order envisioned in “Boogie Nights” and especially “Magnolia,” and the shift in focus to individual, traumatized psyches in the later films: the universal fact that, as the narrator in “Magnolia” tells us, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
The old farmer whom Plainview cheats out of his property to drill for oil is named Abel; Plainview is both a Wellesian Kane and a Biblical Cain. (Later, he will also murder a man who poses as his brother). The Biblical resonance of “There Will Be Blood” persists throughout the film. In a pivotal scene, the moment in which Plainview becomes irrevocably corrupted, oil gushes from the ground in a pillar of fire, the derrick collapsing like a Tower of Babel. Gazing into the inferno, bathed in the light of hell, Plainview’s soul begins to slip away. Among Anderson’s significant characters, he is unique in seeming to be beyond any possibility of redemption. Witnessing a ritual of spiritual healing by the young pastor who becomes his nemesis, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), Plainview flippantly observes “That was one goddamn hell of a show.” And although he eventually confesses before the congregation and allows himself to be baptized, his corruption proceeds unabated. In “Magnolia” the rain of frogs which brings both judgment and the chance of redemption to its troubled characters is one of the most persuasively miraculous moments in cinema. One can only imagine how Plainview would scoff at this, an allusion to the Book of Exodus. In a maniacal final scene, he takes revenge on Sunday by forcing him to recite, as if giving a sermon, the words “I am a false prophet, God is a superstition.” It is the most relish that we will ever see from Plainview. When he cries out “I am the Third Revelation!” while assaulting the pastor with bowling equipment, Anderson’s darkest vision of America is realized: it is, he says, a fallen world, estranged from light and God, where penitence is hucksterism and an oil-drilling devil is our hero. When we last see Plainview, after his second murder, the loss of his humanity has purged him of regret and self-pity. All he can say, with orgasmic satisfaction, is “I’m finished!”
If “There Will Be Blood” is a journey into an all-American inferno, then perhaps “The Master” visualizes purgatory, with its wistful suggestion that, in another life, things might have been different. An infinitely more tender and ethereal film than “There Will Be Blood,” it nevertheless deals with many of the same themes: mental illness, fathers and sons, the seductiveness of religion, the psychic cost of the American dream. And like all of Anderson’s films, it is ultimately about searching for love, for a family, for a home, for a faith, trying and failing and trying again to forge some kind of connection with another human being. But Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has nothing to aim for. He is not a hell-bent obsessive like Daniel Plainview. The only future that he imagines for himself is marriage to a girl whom he left behind before going to war. He merely drifts, unmoored from those invisible ties which linked people in Anderson’s earlier movies, as if, in his chronicle of American history, the Second World War has swallowed everything into ennui. The Cause insists that the source of unhappiness is past trauma – a sentiment true of many of the characters in “Magnolia,” locked in the cages of their childhoods. And although Freddie’s war experience has affected him in some mysterious way, his troubles, like Travis Bickle’s, have some more fundamental cause than PTSD. Dodd insists that they originate in past lives, and that the mission of The Cause is to cure the spirit of these negative influences. Like psychoanalysis or Christianity, The Cause holds that mankind is in some way broken, fallen from an earlier state of grace.
Much speculation has surrounded the plot’s supposed inspiration in the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. But the relationship ultimately proves to be misleading. It is no mistake that Dodd’s religious organization is called simply “The Cause,” or that Anderson gives us only tantalizing glimpses of the organization’s beliefs, which center on reincarnation. Anderson is not interested in Scientology specifically, or even in the evils of cult generally, but in all Causes. He wants to understand (although Daniel Plainview did not) what inside a man would draw him to organized religion, or lead him to invent one, and the answer seems to be merely: the need to belong, and the need for certainty. It is Dodd who gives Freddie, for a brief while, a place to call home and a reason to be. The Cause, meeting in the home of one of its members, is founded on a spirit of community, and through their bond as Master and student, Dodd shares more affection with Freddie than with his own wife (Amy Adams). Fumbling for answers, Freddie and Dodd instead find only each other. Their love is doomed to failure, however, because Freddie – weirdly contorted in face and body, brutal and graceless in behavior, disturbed if not deranged – seems like a refugee from the same primordial state of man which Dodd intends to conquer, and which Plainview, for all his evolution, never truly exorcised from himself. In one of “The Master’s” most striking scenes, Freddie and Dodd are confined in adjoining jail cells. Freddie erupts in a truly shocking display of physical intensity from Phoenix, which calls to mind Robert De Niro’s famous jail cell tantrum in “Raging Bull.” De Niro’s tormented howl of “I am not an animal!” has become a repeated credo of The Cause: “Man is not an animal… We sit far above that crowd, perched as spirits, not beasts.” In the neighboring cell, Dodd both consoles Freddie and mocks him for his lack of self-mastery. He is the image of composure, a free spirit rather than a caged beast. The image – of man’s intellect and his suppressed bestiality, of his superego and id, united in the frame but separated and entrapped by the bars of their cells – seems to chime with Dodd’s conception of divided human nature, in which intellect can and must dominate. But a moment later, Dodd too is exploding in fury, lashing out at Freddie with a barrage of profanity. The boundary between Master and animal, between the spirit’s perfection and the fallen flesh, is more nebulous than he would like to believe.
When Freddie confides that he doesn’t understand The Cause’s method or message, Dodd admits “Neither do I.” What we are hearing in this moment, I think, is Anderson’s own unwillingness to be “The Master,” his response not only to reviewers who complain that the film lacks conclusive answers and motivations to justify its metaphysical uncertainty and hazy narrative, but also to the young artist who proclaimed that “Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.” The enigmatically harmonious cosmos of that film, with its life-changing frog downpour and mystical Aimee Mann sing-along, has grown more opaque, perhaps even purposeless, in “The Master.” We do not have the answers. But the humility and humanity of that admission, Anderson suggests, is the best that we can hope for, and therefore more important than actually understanding.
This is Anderson’s humanism, which is, perhaps paradoxically, the key element of his spirituality. In Anderson’s early films, all of the many characters – whether selfish or cowardly, sadistic or deranged – are gathered up in an empathetic embrace. The difficult thing to grasp about “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” is that this remains true. Not even Daniel Plainview, his features contorted by a glee which is both wolfish and boyish as he takes his last revenge on heaven and earth, can escape it, because for Anderson, cinema is itself a kind of spirituality. It’s no mistake that Freddie is dozing in a movie theater when he receives a dream compelling him to return to The Cause. Like The Cause, film hypnotically transports us through time, into other lives. Like many religions, it unites people in shared experiences, and asks for belief in miracles. But for Anderson, seeking forgiveness from heaven, or the restoration of our souls to a state of grace, is less meaningful than humbly admitting and accepting our own fallen natures. His cinema is a great communion. Call it a religious experience.
Jack Welch studies film and literature at the University of Tulsa, where he’s written movie reviews for the campus newspaper The Collegian and edited the student literary journal Stylus. He currently lives in Wichita, Kansas.