Amongst the many thematic threads that run through Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, the relationship between autonomy and belief is at the forefront. Whether through a self-prophesied agent of God in There Will Be Blood or an enigmatic leader of an emerging movement in The Master, or an all-encompassing event at the conclusion of Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s films continually explore the contentious relation between people and their belief – or lack thereof – in a higher power, and the institutions that serve as a conduit to that power. In the three aforementioned films, the believer is an agent of power, giving significance to their beliefs. The belief will always find a believer, and to this end, a way of creating meaning. These films thus present a dialogue between the individual and theological institutions, and how the ‘higher power’ that propagates it retains significance even in the absence of belief.
The first Anderson film that delves into the personal and communal impact of a belief in ‘higher power’ is his sprawling 1999 opus Magnolia. Centred on several interconnected stories set in San Fernando Valley, the film explores the indefinable – yet critical – moments that ultimately binds its characters. The religious references aren’t overblown, but instead appear sporadically. A key element that persists is references to numbers eight and two – shots within the film are littered with them. This includes the numbers appearing on buildings, as playing cards and as weather temperature. The subtle presence of these numbers is a reference to Bible verse Exodus 8:2, which includes the passage “If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.”
This passage foreshadows the film’s conclusion, when a torrential storm of frogs affects every main character in the film. This varies from getting hit in the face by a frog to seeing them rain from inside a library. Regardless of its direct impact on the characters, the event ties all of the characters together absolutely. They are no longer tied through relationships and brief encounters, but through a ‘universal’ interaction with the same experience. The event, whilst not religious in and of itself, still points to a higher power. This higher power ultimately binds everyone, whether that power is God, a supernatural force, or the human capacity for forgiveness and empathy.
Unlike Magnolia, a higher power is discussed explicitly in There Will Be Blood. The 2007 film follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an American turn-of-the-century oil tycoon whose personal desire for success supersedes any ties to religion, family and morality. As he learns of a lucrative oiling opportunity in the town of Little Boston, he finds a way to balance the town’s needs for new infrastructure and his own pursuit of power. The church is deemed an integral institution in the town, championed by the devout Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). However, soon the communal desire for Christian affirmation is contrasted with the personal desire for capital gain. This contention emerges through the central conflict between Daniel and Eli.
The conflict of religion and capital comes to a head during Daniel’s confession, when he is asked to seek forgiveness for his debauchery and lack of moral standing, and for doing so the owner of an integral plot of land will sign it over to him. Daniel accepts, and receives slaps of exorcism from Eli in front of a full congregation in the name of recovery. Christianity in this context moves from a means of finding solace to a means of exercising power. Eli is powerful in his position as the redeemer, and Daniel must remain subservient to his slaps. Once the confession is complete, Daniel silently revels in his acquisition of a large plot of land. The power is now his, as his Christian subservience yielded financial results.
This power play reaches its threshold at the conclusion of the film. Daniel, now exorbitantly wealthy and retired, is visited by a desperate Eli, who struggles financially and looks to Daniel for relief. Knowing he holds the position of power, Daniel goads Eli into calling himself a “false prophet”, ultimately making him renounce his own beliefs by making him say “God is a superstition”. In renouncing his beliefs, Eli writes his death sentence – Daniel has belittled Eli to the point of insignificance, and he ultimately kills him. These confrontations point to the notion that a belief in a higher power is not solely a conduit to community as it is in Magnolia, but a means of exercising power and control. Through the conception of and a belief in a higher power – in this case, God – there is greater room for control and manipulation.
These conceptualizations of power and institution continues in Anderson’s The Master, which follows an emerging ‘religious’ movement and the relationship between its leader and one of its followers. The follower is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran who struggles to acclimatize to society after returning from war. He stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the enigmatic leader of the “The Cause” – a nascent movement with its fair share of skeptics. Freddie’s relationship with Dodd stumbles between amusement, commitment and disillusionment, as his personal search for belonging and love comes up against Dodd’s constant rhetoric and cultish machinations.
Unlike the subtle references to a higher power in Magnolia, and the entrenched manipulation of ideological purpose in There Will Be Blood, The Master positions belief as that which isn’t grounded in higher power, but instead grounded in the self. A belief in the human race drives Dodd’s philosophy, as he is granted the position of higher power through his knowledge and wisdom. Similar to the close of There Will Be Blood, Dodd can be found at the conclusion of The Master in a grand office the size of a church hall. He has established a place from which The Cause can continue to grow. Freddie, through a final meeting that sees him serenaded by Dodd with “A Slow boat to China“, finally finds solace in the arms of a woman he meets shortly thereafter. The Cause provides an impetus for Dodd, but does not create meaning for Freddie – similar to the way Daniel Plainview turns away from Christian fervor. This is to say that just as beliefs in the Church and God is a means of exercising power, The Cause is a means of discovering something beyond religious institution for Freddie.
Through an examination of these films, a discourse on power, discovery and self-hood emerges. Belief, in all of its forms and significations, is a conduit to the creation of the individual and community. This belief is grounded in the presence, absence, acceptance, and rejection of a higher power. The true reality of a higher power is insignificant, as the signification attached to it allows for community, power, and attainment of self-hood.