How do you prefer your cinematic evil? Heroes and villains have long trod an ethical and moral gray area in movies, and much theorizing has occurred regarding this as a reflection of society. With There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and No Country for Old Men, directed by the Coen brothers and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin, we are presented with yet a new view of the villain. The two films present violent character studies which resonate in contemporary American society.
The similarities between these two films go beyond the violence and the ego-driven protagonists. The differences, as well, are more than the sum of their parts. In Blood we have three players: Daniel Plainview (domineeringly played by Day-Lewis), his adversary, Old Time Religion in the person of Preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and Oil (played by itself, but interchangeable with ferocious ambition, wealth-seeking, and blood).
The three players in No Country are more clearly defined: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is not your run-of-the-mill psychopath. He moves calmly through the movie in pursuit of a satchel full of drug money, but his entrenchment in his victims' lives is too personal for a business-as-usual hired killer. His tracking is almost feral, as if he can smell Moss. Inside Moss’s mobile home Chigurh has arrived too late. He looks around him, removes a bottle of milk from the refrigerator, sits on the couch and drinks it, while observing his reflection in the silent television, as if sensing how Moss lives will tell him what his quarry is likely to do next. The violence he dispenses is uncompromising, but tempered by chance (a coin toss), and seems bound by rules that only he knows.
The novel upon which the movie is based explored the themes of predestination, free will and chance, and these questions are embodied in the person of Sheriff Bell (Jones), who is near retirement and voices the astonishment of someone who has lived long enough and dealt with enough evil to recognize how it has changed over time. Between these two axes is Llewelyn Moss, the unlikely hero, neither completely good nor bad, who stumbles upon the satchel of money. He knows it’s from a drug deal gone wrong, he knows bad guys will come after it, and he decides to pit his will and wits against theirs. He’s a poor man, but one who loves his wife, and he has a sense of humor. We like him. We’d like him to win, but there are no champions in this movie. The Bad guy gets away, the hero dies, and the nominal good guy retires, still trying to comprehend the evil he knows is out there, but with which he has decided not to contend.
We are not expected to like these characters or what they do with their lives. Yet, in the beginning of Blood we do like Daniel Plainview, even though the emotional rationale for his relentless ambition is absent. The almost wordless beginning of the movie is testimony not to an inarticulate man, but to one not given to self-examination. The future oil tycoon is a hard man working with other hard men who are not afraid to gamble their youth and strength muscling wealth out of the earth.
A workplace tragedy occurs, and without fanfare, Plainview feeds a bottle to the infant orphaned as a result. We love the guy, but expect him to turn the babe over to someone else. This does not happen. On a train, the child locks eyes with Plainview and reaches a dimpled hand up to the stubbled chin of his savior. Plainview smiles whimsically.
Only later – after gushing oil and gushing blood – do we wonder whether Plainview’s little smile was at the child’s gesture or his own decision to keep the boy and use him as a shill. He names him H.W. and calls him his partner. Is this generosity and love, or is Plainview the ultimate American pragmatist?
Ambition looks in the mirror, and ruthlessness is reflected, although whether that is viewed as contemptible depends a great deal on the beholder. Since Plainview has no interior monologue, he is pitted against Preacher Eli Sunday. Eli is gifted with the beatific and placid face of a saint, but we don’t know if he’s good religion or bad religion. He asks for money for his Church. Not only does Plainview telegraph his smirking disgust with Sunday’s religious histrionics, we witness his rage when he gives the youth a solid and public ass-kicking, pulling his hair and making him eat mud. It’s not just religion that Plainview despises; it’s anyone seeking power over him. Autonomy and self-direction are very American values.
This is Plainview’s first loss of self-control. But like Llewelyn Moss, Anton Chigurh, and even Sheriff Bell, he is a victim of his predatory obsessions. Unlike them, it is questionable whether he knows right from wrong. In that view, even Anton Chigurh has a moral advantage, asking a prospective victim the most probing question in both the cinematic and real world: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”