One of my favorite philosophical ideas that has consistently proven itself to be true time and time again is M. Scott Peck's concept of the four stages of spiritual growth.
The first stage is "chaotic/anti-social." People in this stage are completely self-involved and unprincipled. They may appear very cool, powerful, and strong but deep down they are utterly empty. The answer to every question is themselves.
Stage two is "formal/institutional." Someone enters this level when they find something to provide order to their life, whether it be an institution, religion, or ideology. People at this level are very rule-based and dogmatic in the way they live their lives. They submit to some system of authority. They have the answers.
Stage three is "skeptic/individual." One moves into this stage after rebelling against the simplistic, black and white rules of stage two. The person here begins to study and assemble their own way of living and thinking. They start looking for the answers elsewhere.
Stage four is "mystic/communal" and few people reach it. It's in this stage that the individual really starts to transcend themselves and their world. After rebelling against the systems of authority they may begin to see the value in things like religion and develop a different understanding of it than those in stage two. They continue to seek "the answers" but realize that the real answers are seeped in mystery.
I bring this up because I have never seen a more exact, spot-on study of a stage one personality than that of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in P.T. Anderson's new masterpiece "There Will Be Blood." Throughout the film's completely engrossing 158 minutes we're just plunged deeper and deeper into the black heart of one of recent cinema's greatest monsters.
Taking Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! as a start, Anderson fashions a story set in the California of the early twentieth century. We meet Plainview as he works in solitude, pounding the earth inside his silver claim. He soon discovers accidentally what will be the driving pursuit of his life: oil. Within a decade he's one of the most successful "oilmen" working in the region, traveling from town to town with his adopted son H.W., talking to different communities, trying to get them to turn over oil operations to him. One night he's visited by one Paul Sunday (Paul Dano of "Little Miss Sunshine") who offers to sell him an oil lead for $500. Paul tips Plainview off to the ranch of his family, a barren, rocky land where nothing grows.
Plainview and H.W. venture out to the Sunday ranch under the pretensions of a family camping trip. When he offers to purchase the land from family patriarch Abel (David Willis) without mentioning the property's oil prospects he encounters the force that will be a thorn in his side for the remainder of the film, Paul's identical twin brother Eli, a faith-healing evangelical preacher who wants money to build his church.
The conflict between Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview dominates the film. It can be read in many ways, as a clash between the stage one and stage two personalities or even as symbolic of the interactions of the worst of capitalism and religion.
Further complications arise in Plainview's pursuit of power and profit that reveal the true darkness of his soul. An accident at the new oil well involving his son is profoundly disturbing - the first major revelation of the monster we're beginning to understand. Later a man named Henry Plainview arrives, claiming to be Daniel's half-brother. This lone family member will actually spur Daniel to open up for seemingly the first time, revealing the dark drives that push him.
It's some kind of strange coincidence that "There Will Be Blood" arrives in the same year as the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men." The two films, while profoundly different have many strange similarities. What needs to be said and celebrated first and foremost is that for both Anderson and the Coen brothers they represent new career highs. I could have never dreamed that Anderson would top "Boogie Nights" or "Magnolia" and that the Coens would best "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski." But both did in the same year!
The important similarities, though, come in the films' themes. Both are explorations of two very different, deeply evil, greedy, selfish, stage one personalities that are driven toward a single goal in the wastelands of the American West. Both Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh and Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview are the most compelling mysteries of the year, and both will win Oscars (for best supporting actor and best actor, respectively.) They play men on missions that we really do not understand. Why does Chigurh kill everyone in his path, sparing only one person by the random chance of a coin flip? Why does Plainview work relentlessly, continuing to pursue more and more money even when Standard Oil offers to make him a millionaire - practically the equivalent of a billionaire in 1910 terms? Why are they so consumed by themselves and their singular pursuits?
There are many different answers to these questions, and to the grand question they ultimately represent, one of those age old, never-ending, philosophical puzzles: the question of human evil. How one answers these questions will likely depend upon which stage of spiritual growth one finds oneself.