I love movies with well-crafted dialogue, especially those movies where a major theme is the power of language. There Will Be Blood, starring my all-time favorite Daniel Day-Lewis, is one such film. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a demi-sovereign Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector at the turn of the last century whose economic success is paralleled by his moral corruption and paranoia.
When one of his workers dies in a drilling accident, Plainview adopts the worker’s son as his own. When the son, H.W., is about 10, a drilling explosion destroys his hearing. At this moment I can’t help but think of the common motif of “disability” in film. And at this point in the film, the deafness is treated as a disability. (Click here for film clip.)
In film, disability is often the physical manifestation or foreshadowing of flawed character. Ah-ha, you say; just when you think we are past the classical view of disability as sin, it reappears in film. H.W. is the only thing that Plainview seems to love. But Plainview also expects his son to succeed him in continuing the family business. When H.W. becomes vulnerable, it strikes Plainview as weakness and his incapacity to make his son well again shows Plainview that he isn’t the all-powerful man he believes himself to be. H.W. is tricked into getting on a train and is sent away.
There is no footage of H.W.’s life during the years that he is gone. Plainview does eventually bring his son back after a salvation scene in a rural church — one of the best scenes in American film. However, since H.W. comes back learning sign language and with an interpreter, we can imagine that he went to a Deaf school at some unknown location. The older H.W. is played by Russell Harvard, the Deaf actor who also played Mark Hamill in The Hammer. In a dramatic encounter between Plainview, H.W. and H.W.’s interpreter, Plainview tells his son that he isn’t really his son. He famously calls him a “bastard from a basket”. Note for a second that H.W. was actually found in a basket, as was Moses in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I can’t help but think that this is an allusion and foreshadowing of H.W.’s eventual emancipatory exodus from Plainview.
It’s at this point I’m not really sure how to interpret the role of deafness in the film. Here are some thoughts.
- It is uncommon to have such well-casted parts with well-signed dialogue. I can only commend the studio for (rightly) giving Harvard the acting work he deserves.
- The incidental nature of H.W.’s deafness (it was the result of drilling) forms a linkage between Daniel’s ruthless, greedy drilling, and H.W.’s incapacity (from Daniel’s view) to follow in his father’s footsteps. This makes the deaf H.W. into the expression of the weakness in the world that Daniel hates, and is a symbol of his incapacity to have a relationship.
- But H.W.’s deafness — and later Deafhood, I suggest — is what allows H.W. to create space between him and his father. Being sent away is a blessing. H.W. ends up being the most authentically compassionate character in the film. Yet, somehow without becoming a saintly figure, for which I’m thankful. It’s only too bad that H.W. doesn’t have more screen time. But then again, with Day-Lewis as lead that would be difficult.
- You could read parts of the film as repeating the stereotype that hearing parents can’t have authentic relationships with their Deaf children. That theme is there. We really don’t get to see a lot of healthy hearing parent/deaf child relationships on screen. (Think of how much all this corresponds with Mr. Holland’s Opus.) But I don’t think this message is the main one.
- Could one read Plainview, H.W., and the preacher as each filling a position a trinity motif? Plainview=father. H.W.=son. Preacher=holy spirit. (???) It wouldn’t be totally out of the question given the deeply religious nature of the film.
- If you’ve seen the movie, what else stick out to you?
I really think this film is about is the power of spoken language to control, persuade, and corrupt. Both Plainview and the preacher have lengthly, arresting monologues in the film. And both of them — in their own way — use their oratory gifts to manipulate, overpower, cajole, swindle, defile, and pervert people around them. And both Plainview and the preacher are examples of sovereign power: Plainview’s raw, human sovereignty to dominate nature, and the preacher’s metaphysical sovereignty over salvation. In this way, the film says something remarkable and profound about language through the character of H.W. It seems to suggest that a break with sovereign authority requires a break with the form of language that sovereignty takes.
This doesn’t mean that ASL is the way out of issues of power. But it calls our attention to the powerful role that language has in making us who we are.
This post was originally published on The Interpreting Report, a blog I ran for several years while working as an ASL interpreter. This post was the most popular post on that site and it is still available here.