Paul Thomas Anderson’s ability to delve into the psyche of his multidimensional fictional characters is perhaps best showcased in his films “There Will Be Blood” and “Phantom Thread”. Yet, for all their similarities in characterization and understanding of the human mind, their approaches could not be further apart.
Daniel Plainview is an oil man and the protagonist of 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”. Reynolds Woodcock is a dress-maker and the protagonist of 2017’s “Phantom Thread”. Ten years apart, these films tackle the search for meaning and happiness through their main character’s professional journey, beyond all other themes which serve as cornerstones to further explore their beliefs. Both Plainview and Woodcock are men of success and intelligence, but while the former has already found his purpose by the beginning of the film, the latter only does so by the end. The true brilliance of Paul Thomas Anderson is revealed in the way these characters come to discover the fundamental key to happiness and meaning: understanding themselves.
Anderson films are a statement to what we all should aspire to do. To understand our deepest desires, however frail or dishonest they may make us to be. This is not to say that we should strive to destroy or hurt others if it brings us happiness, but it is an essential admittance in order for us to find something true and real. Daniel Plainview understood in his past that he sought so succeed above all others, which he comes to confess when he says “I have a competition in me. I want no-one else to succeed.” to his supposed brother. The film is then the portrayal of a man who knows who he his and what he wants and does whatever is necessary, be it physically destructive or morally reprehensible, in order to achieve his goals. The case is much different when it comes to Reynolds Woodcock. He knows what his professional passion and vocation is, beyond any doubt. However, he lacks in almost everything else. His interpersonal non-romantic relationships are essentially non-existent beyond his sister, all of them becoming unnecessary accessories that could only distract him from his duties. His romantic relationships are numerous and unsatisfactory, with the women becoming marginalized by his irreverent personality and schedule, and him becoming tired of their irrelevance. It is only when he meets Alma and goes on a path that leads him to see her as the provider and caretaker that he always desired, but failed to find, that he sees his hunger truly satisfied. Daniel Plainviews “I’m finished” line thus becomes appropriate for both characters journey’s.
These character’s voyages tell us that we not only should, but must admit to ourselves what it is we seek. Like Reynolds’ desire to fill his long lost mother’s role as a tender to his needs, we should confess the strangest things we feel, need and wish for, however weird and awkward they may be. And like Daniel, we must pursue our most truthful virtues until the very end, only ceasing when we are finished, or death beats before the deed.
One can only imagine that Paul Thomas Anderson discovered this fundamental truth long ago and creates his art in accordance to his internal drive. And it is clear that he his sending us a message, albeit never sacrificing storytelling golden rules that preserve the essence of a narrative. Even the brightest writer shouldn’t tell instead of showing, even if he found the meaning of life. Anderson understands humanity, and if we desire to know as much, and to know ourselves, we should carefully study and watch the films he has to show us.
For now, “I’m finished.”.
Cue music. Roll credits.