Milkshakes, Murder, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Absurd Comedy: There Will Be Blood at 15

Movies Features Paul Thomas Anderson
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Milkshakes, Murder, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Absurd Comedy: <I>There Will Be Blood</i> at 15

In February 2008, almost two months to the date following the U.S. release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth film, There Will Be Blood, Saturday Night Live parodied the “I drink your milkshake” scene. In the sketch, Bill Hader portrays Daniel Day-Lewis’ formidable Daniel Plainview. Amy Poehler plays Plainview’s deaf son, H.W. The two travel the country together in search of the best milkshake for their Food Network series I Drink Your Milkshake. Unsurprisingly, Hader captures both a pitch-perfect Day-Lewis-as-Plainview impression as well as the simmering lunacy of the character (and something tells me Hader created the sketch in large part to proudly demonstrate his uncanny imitation).

Hader reveals a comically long straw (like the one Plainview describes in his rant) used to slurp up milkshakes in the cartoonish way that Day-Lewis’ own slurping sounds might have been applicable to real milkshake-drinking. Plainview’s unbridled rage is transplanted beautifully into a silly and genuinely hilarious sketch that, judging by the scattered chuckles of the audience, was mostly for cinephiles like Hader who had actually seen the film and understood the niche reference of a scene that doesn’t happen until the film’s final few minutes. The sketch was indeed from a time when Saturday Night Live was actually funny and had cast members who were also actually funny, but it works because it merely plays up the absurdity of an already absurd scene. The heavy lifting was already done by Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.

But that SNL sketch wasn’t the only lampoon of the “I drink your milkshake” scene in There Will Be Blood. In the months and years following the film’s release, YouTubers created their own parodies due to the inanity of the dialogue and of Day-Lewis’ histrionic performance. These parodies spilled over into the various, repurposed “bottom text” memes of the mid-to-late 2000s.

When you think of “comedy directors,” the name Paul Thomas Anderson probably isn’t the first that comes to mind. The nine films that define Anderson’s critically lauded career beginning in 1986 frequently mix humor with interpersonal drama. Anderson’s narratives tend to focus on isolated, alienated men, occasionally defined by varying degrees of familial dysfunction, who are searching desperately for something, be it love (Punch-Drunk Love, Licorice Pizza), belonging (The Master, Boogie Nights), a missing ex-old lady, kidnapped real estate mogul and dangerous heroin syndicate (Inherent Vice) or an unquenchable thirst for power (There Will Be Blood). But Anderson’s films are consistently funny, some more outwardly comic than others, like Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic comedy-drama, or Inherent Vice, a raucous hybrid of comedy and mystery. Even in Anderson’s bleakest, cruelest film, There Will Be Blood, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, there is what is possibly Anderson’s funniest, most iconic, and most absurd scene, in a career ceaselessly defined by such scenes.

There Will Be Blood chronicles the epic rise to power of Daniel Plainview, a silver miner turned oil tycoon in late 19th century and early 20th century Southern California. His tragic story of ruthless greed and seclusion estranges him from the adopted son he inadvertently deafens and subsequently abandons, bankrupts him morally and leaves him alone, drunk and bitter in a neglected and empty mansion. In the film’s final moments, Daniel is visited by Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) at his home. Eli, now a radio preacher in need of money after the stock market crash of 1929, returns to Daniel many years after making a fraught deal over his family’s oil-rich land. He’s come to offer Daniel the Bandy tract: An area near the Sunday land owned by the recently-deceased William Bandy, whom Daniel neglected to negotiate with at the time.

Eli had agreed to sell his land to Daniel under the agreement that Daniel give Sunday $10,000 for his church and allow him to bless the well before the drilling commenced. Daniel refused the blessing, and the site subsequently befell a series of misfortunes. Now with the upper hand, Daniel accepts Eli’s new offer under the condition that Eli denounce his faith and admit that he’s a fraud, payback for having humiliated Daniel during a public repenting. Eli relents to the demand, only for Daniel to cruelly reveal that he already drained the area of oil with his neighboring wells. The Bandy property is now worthless, leaving Eli a blubbering, desperate mess. Daniel continues to mock and humiliate Eli to an obscene degree, comparing his thievery of Bandy’s oil to placing a very long straw into Eli’s milkshake and “drinking it up” along with his own milkshake. Then he hurls Eli across his bowling alley and begins chasing after him with the pins.

Day-Lewis’ performance in the scene is at once terrifying and hysterical, highlighting the degree to which Plainview has forgone his humanity and the potential for meaningful relationships with others—even contentious former associates in need of dire help—in favor of petty, materialistic revenge to further prove his business acumen. His mansion has been paid for with blood money, and it stands as a monument to the emptiness of wealth. Plainview embodies the innate moral bankruptcy inherent within capitalist America even as its citizens profess the traditional values of religious good. Greed and faith are not mutually exclusive, but intimately in conversation with one another. Plainview’s rags-to-riches story is the reality of the American dream.

There Will Be Blood is, outwardly, a joyless, fatalistic film, but like all of Anderson’s work, it has bits of humor woven intentionally within the text—for example, the phallic relationship inherent between Plainview and his oil wells, or the famous “peach-tree dance” exchange. Yet what makes Anderson’s films so surprisingly funny is the absurdity of the situations and the ridiculousness of his larger-than-life characters, despite being written in otherwise tense, dramatic moments (like the aforementioned “peach-tree dance”). It’s something that can be readily overlooked on a first watch; it’s easy to simply be impressed by what you’re watching.

But one of the most rewarding things about Anderson’s rich work is that his dense, sprawling, formally impressive films are often, well, kind of silly. His films feature toilet humor, performances and bits bordering on slapstick (Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice) and overarching themes akin to barely (or not at all, in the case of Boogie Nights) concealed dick jokes. On subsequent watches, the less obvious humor reveals itself a little more each time. It’s what makes Phantom Thread one of Anderson’s most comically rewarding films on every revisit. I saw it when it came out; I was 22 and wrote off at the time as merely “pretentious.” But that’s what makes the film so funny, in part because the silly humor, founded on repression and manipulation, intentionally nestles itself within the formal and narrative pretensions, very similar to the humor of The Master. Even the surname of the film’s lead, effete and haughty Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), is a dick joke between Anderson and Day-Lewis, as noted in Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks.

The “I drink your milkshake” scene concludes in a brutal murder and a man forever isolated by his own avarice, but it has nonetheless spawned years of jokes, memes and parodies. It’s hard not to burst into hysterics when Daniel Day-Lewis, in his highly affected, early Californian accent, begins launching bowling pins at a shrieking Paul Dano. It’s just a funny thing to watch. The theatricality of the performances paired with the gravity of the situation and the sheer lunacy of the dialogue forms an unholy marriage of pure, unbridled comedy. It’s in these dark situations of inappropriate humor where Anderson’s films find their most striking depictions of humanity.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.