Stevi Costa drills into Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood from H.W.’s perspective, examining how the film uses Deafness, disability, and silence to literalize its central themes.
I’ve been thinking about There Will Be Blood recently, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect. It’s a truly great piece of filmmaking. It’s disturbing. It’s slow. It’s completely devoid of actual language for the first 14 minutes and 30 seconds. And Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of his most specific and often imitated performances of his whole career in it. Though the dialogue in this film is sparse, it’s imminently quotable. I’m an oilman. I’ve abandoned my boy. You were nothing but a bastard in a basket. I drink your milkshake.
It’s so quotable that for some reason, nearly a decade later, Amy Sherman-Palladino decided that “I drink your milkshake” was a game the 30-Something Gang would play on the Gilmore Girls revival. Sherman-Palladino’s pop culture references always seemed a little bit off even on the original run of Gilmore Girls, which I watched for the first time this year. But when I saw the revival episodes and heard this joke, it seemed even more strange that in 2016, a group of millennials returning to their hometown would decide that this strange, difficult, beautiful, and violent Paul Thomas Anderson adaptation of an Upton Sinclair novel would be absolutely the thing that they would joke about in Taylor Doose’s soda shoppe as they gathered around a table, sharing a giant milkshake together chanting, “I drink your milkshake. I drink it up.”
There are, of course, no actual milkshakes consumed in There Will Be Blood. But even I made the joke at my annual Oscar Party that year, where the drink I made in honor of this film was a vodka-laden vanilla milkshake, served with very long straws for the explicit purpose of drinking other people’s milkshakes.
So I’ve been thinking about There Will Be Blood because of Gilmore Girls. And because parts of it were filmed in Ventura County, which was recently besieged by wildfire. But I should have been thinking about this movie because it is a film in which disability is so central—and somehow I had completely forgotten that over the past decade. Or perhaps it’s not so much that I’d forgotten it as that I never knew to watch through the lens of a disability scholar. I wasn’t on that path yet, and so, like probably every other able-bodied person who saw this film in 2007, I didn’t really think much about Daniel Plainview’s relationship to his son. I remembered the accident that disables H.W., but I for some reason forgot about the accident’s disabling result. I erased that component of the narrative from my own mind. I forgot that There Will Be Blood isn’t only a narrative about the destructive forces of religion and capitalism ravaging the American landscape; it is also a narrative about disability.
I’m putting together a class for next semester at the art school in which we investigate artistic representations of disability, especially in film and theatre. I did a little informal poll on Facebook a couple of months ago to collect data on films that (A) narrate the transition from able-bodied to disabled, (B) feature a disabled character but doesn’t focus on the transition to becoming disabled, (C) feature disabled actors in any role, regardless of whether a character is written to be disabled, and (D) feature disabled actors playing characters specifically written to be disabled. No one mentioned There Will Be Blood in my survey results, but it fits categories A, C & D. I am not the only person who doesn’t think of this film as a film about disability. Quite literally, everyone I know forgot to put this film on our crowd-sourced list. But it most certainly narrates H.W.’s transition from hearing person to Deaf person, and actually hires a Deaf actor to play older H.W. in the infamous “Bastard in a Basket” scene. (Category C and D overlap for this one.)
Why did we all forget this? Probably because the film is not about H.W. The film is about his father, Daniel Plainview, and is through Plainview’s perspective. It is Plainview who monologues through nearly the entire film, save for a few scenes with his nemesis, preacher Eli Sunday, who gets his own set of yowling fire-and-brimstone monologues about the Lord and eternal salvation. Yet, the first 14 minutes of the film are devoid of human speech, which perhaps foreshadows H.W.’s turn to silence after he loses his hearing in a mining explosion. These monologues are punctuated by great stretches of wordless visuals: the mechanics of mining, the eeriness of the land itself, towns being built in these uninhabitable places—all underscored with some atonal weirdness by Jonny Greenwood.
The shifts between verbosity and muteness really struck me on this rewatch, especially after seeing the utterly lovely Todd Haynes film, Wonderstruck, which is about two Deaf children in different time periods. Wonderstruck plays with language, silence, and music in compelling ways to make a hearing audience better understand the experience of Deafness. I don’t think There Will Be Blood works in the same way. But I’m interested in thinking about how the film uses Deafness and disability within its structural logic. If we read this film through H.W.’s perspective, rather than Plainview’s, one might argue that the film’s structure betrays the credence we give to Plainview’s speeches, or to Sunday’s. It’s the lack of speech that says more about how we, as an audience, should respond to the preacher’s empty promises, and to the oilman’s silver tongue. They are both men who are unable to engage in dialogue with each other and with the people around them. The silence, it seems to me, asks us to think about the destructive potential of capital and religion. It asks us to think, “What would our world look like if we didn’t listen to all that noise?”
Because I was watching There Will Be Blood from H.W.’s perspective this time, I found myself hating Daniel Plainview so much more than I did when I watched this film a decade ago. H.W.’s transition to Deafness serves a clear narrative function, warning us about the disabling properties of capitalism unchecked. The narrative is quite clear that capital does violence to the human body, as there are at four major mining accidents that are increasingly violent at each turn. In the first, Daniel Plainview falls down a silver mine, breaks his leg, and must lift himself out. In the second, his mining companion drowns in the mine, leaving behind baby H.W. with no one to care for him. In the third, a miner is struck in the head with a drill and is killed instantly. Finally, the explosion ruptures H.W.’s eardrums, and the resulting fire nearly kills the boy. The cost to the laboring body is high. Capital can be deadly. It can be disabling. It, of course, also drives Plainview to kill: He kills Henry, who falsely claims to be his long-lost brother to get in on the Plainview fortune; he bludgeons Eli Sunday to death with a bowling pin.
But I think the film also uses Plainview’s treatment of H.W. specifically to remind us that we shouldn’t like this man. He is no hero. He is a monster. I hate that Plainview continues to jabber at H.W. as though the boy can hear him. I hate that he doesn’t bother to get a goddamn notepad to write things down for his son. When we see him snuggle his son and hum directly against the boy’s skull, we’re supposed to think he’s trying to connect to the boy. We’re supposed to think that he loves the boy. But humming, like everything Plainview says, is just noise. It’s meaningless. I hate that he puts his Deaf son on a train to nowhere without at least giving the boy a note that says, “I’m sending you to a Deaf school in San Francisco.” I hate that Plainview performs his alleged guilt over this act for Eli Sunday merely to expand his oil empire. H.W.’s Deafness is something Plainview uses for sympathy from others; it is a narrative tool he manipulates to further his own story. He is a nightmare person, and I hate him. I hate that he continues to speak to H.W. even after the boy returns from Deaf school with an ASL tutor/interpreter. We have no indication that H.W. has learned to read lips, so Plainview’s insistence on speaking to the boy without coupling this with writing or signing is his own ableism writ large.
H.W. adapts himself to his father’s world, continuing to work at the oil company with the aid of his interpreter. He gets a lovely subplot with Mary Sunday, who learns to sign and falls in love with H.W. The two marry in 1927, and sign their vows to each other, which I think is gorgeously staged. H.W. does so well in his father’s business that he decides he wants to strike out on his own. He tells his father this in what’s now referred to as the “Bastard in a Basket” scene, which is where we should all absolutely hate Daniel Plainview if somehow everything else didn’t bother us so much. H.W. sits in his father’s office and signs his intentions to move to Mexico with Mary and start his own company. He sits directly across from his father and looks him in the eye as he signs. His interpreter sits at the edge of the table, and speaks H.W.’s signs aloud so Daniel can understand the message. When Daniel responds to his son, he insists the boy look at him, rather than at the interpreter—even though H.W. doesn’t read lips and needs to see his father’s words signed to him. Daniel insists that H.W. use his voice, and not use his “hand-flapping puppet” to speak for him. H.W. complies, clearly telling his father his intentions. And Plainview responds by telling H.W. that he isn’t his son at all. He’s nothing but a bastard in a basket. He doesn’t sign this, either.
I like this scene because it shows great agency for H.W. This is a film that has heretofore shown us that capitalism is a disabling force, and yet here is a young man with a disability who has made the system work for him. He has made the system accommodate him. And yet, as Plainview’s brutal presence reminds us, it’s the system itself that remains the problem. Even if H.W. is successful as a person with a disability within capital, that system ultimately has no responsibility to him, just as Plainview has no responsibility to treat the boy he has raised as his own as a family member or an equal—merely a competitor. And so H.W. exits the narrative, and we’re unable to take much joy in his agency because it is undercut by his former father’s cruelty.
The film, and probably also the Upton Sinclair novel upon which it is based (and which I most definitely have not read), makes use of its disabled character to literalize the way capital ravages the laboring body, and then doubles down on H.W. as a narrative prop to show Plainview’s own moral destruction. It is by watching this man repeatedly yell at a Deaf person that we understand his moral failings. But does the narrative need to use a disabled character in this way? I’m not sure. I mean, the two murders pretty clearly cement that I shouldn’t like Daniel Plainview. To use H.W. to further this point seems only to perpetuate disability as a narrative crutch, and yet if I watch the film from H.W.’s perspective and allow myself to see this boy as a character around which the film is built, I don’t know if it’s quite as clear that H.W. and his Deafness are solely a plot device to further Plainview’s moral decay. There’s something to be said for the film’s strategic use of sound, silence, music, and visuals that suggests H.W. and his Deafness are more central to this film than I could have imagined a decade ago.
And yet all of that richness has been erased in our cultural memory by Daniel Day-Lewis slurping the words, “I drink your milkshake.”