Bastard from a Basket: Deafness in There Will Be Blood

Curator's Note

As Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis’s guttural monologues compose most of the dialogue in the film, save for a few scenes where preacher Eli Sunday gets his own set of yowling fire-and-brimstone speeches to rival the oilman’s own silver tongue. Our focus on Plainview and Sunday’s bombast, however, overwrites the pointed silence of another character in the film: Plainview’s son, H.W., who becomes Deaf as the result of an industrial accident. H.W.’s transition to Deafness serves a clear narrative function, warning us about the disabling properties of capitalism unchecked. The narrative is quite clear that capital does violence to the human body. Capital can be deadly. It can be disabling.

H.W.’s inclusion in the narrative, however, also makes visible the system’s inherent ableism while simultaneously critiquing it through his own ascendency and assimilation into capitalist systems. In the infamous “Bastard in a Basket” scene, adult H.W.(who is played by a Deaf actor) confronts his father to tell him that he has decided to start his own company. Plainview refuses let his son communicate using his ASL interpreter, demanding that H.W. make his intentions clear by using his own voice and not “that hand-flapping puppet.” Plainview’s refusal to engage with his son’s Deafness is a constant in the film: he not only sends his son away to Deaf school within no explanation, but continues to speak to him  without an accompanying written script or attempt to learn sign language. Plainview expects that his son will conform to the norms of his world, without making any accommodations to support him either as a business partner or a family member. But H.W., on the other hand, with the aide of his ASL interpreter, actually becomes an integral part of Plainview’s business, assimilating into the very capitalist system that once disabled him.

This scene, though cruel, also shows great agency for H.W. This is a film that has heretofore shown us that capitalism is a disabling force, and yet here is a young man with a disability who has made the system accommodate him, disrupting capital’s inherent ableism. And yet, as Plainview’s brutal presence reminds us, it’s the system itself that remains the problem. Even if H.W. is successful as a person with a disability within capital, that system ultimately has no responsibility to him, revealing the very ableist foundations upon which capital is built.

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