Thoughts on There Will Be Blood


Joshua proposes that Daniel Plainview is Satan. Michael agrees. Heck, even Rolling Stone agrees. I don’t.

There Will Be Blood starts off below the earth. Daniel Plainview is hacking away at the dirt, slamming his pick ax into the rocks. He’s covered in dirt. He’s covered in the powdered rocks. Quickly he falls, breaking his leg. After he arises from the pit, he slithers on his back into town, and for the rest of the movie he’ll bear the limp.

Again, Josh suggests that this is a serpentine introduction to Plainview, who is wounded and licking up the dust. That seems a bit too cute though, and Jon rightly points out that it could just as easily be a heel wound, showing that Plainview is actually the messianic seed.

As Daniel Plainview moves to oil, he is still slamming that pick ax into the ground. As it breaks through the bone of the earth, the oil comes bubbling up. Plainview’s got a crew now, and while he and a co-worker pound away in the oil, we notice that their rubber coats match the oil. They look just like it. More oil drips down from the cans used to scoop it up. It baptizes them, as the men become covered in oil. But then an accident occurs. The rod and the cans crash down upon the oilmen, killing Plainview’s associate and wounding him. As he arises from the pit yet again, we notice that he’s bleeding. We notice that his blood has mixed with the oil. He truly is an oilman.

The fatality was H. W.’s father. We saw him in an earlier scene just long enough to witness him christen his baby’s head with oil. That same oil required his life. The oil gives, and the oils takes.

From this death, Plainview adopts H. W. and makes him a part of the family, and importantly, a partner in the family company. We then move on to see that Plainview is a traveling apostle. He reminds his congregation that he believes in plain speech. It fits with his view on life. He’s also a family man, an oilman, and he believes that his crew should bring along their families. Family is important, and that’s why H.W.’s always by Plainview’s side.

In keeping with his plain speaking and straight-shooting business maneuvers (Plainview doesn’t like confusion), we learn that Plainview is a harsh business man. He keeps his word, and when Paul arrives on the scene, Plainview is willing to pay, but he is sure to warn Paul on how he deals with liars.

Paul is the chosen brother, just like Daniel. He leaves his family, who he knows will never be the family he needs, and he sets out to make a name for himself. He knows that Plainview is the man he needs, and he sells the information, fair and square, though certainly at his family’s loss. We find out later that Paul went on to start his own oil company. He went on to become an oilman himself. Perhaps he started a new family there.

Daniel and H.W. set out for Little Boston to scope out the oil. Daniel attempts to deceive the Sunday family, seeking to pay quail prices, but Eli gets in the way. Daniel is suspicious of Eli from the start, not sure if he is perhaps really Paul in disguise. We quickly learn that Eli has ambitions as well. He wants to attain power, and just like Paul saw, Eli sees that Daniel is the way to get this power. But Eli’s longing for power will take the form of a symbiont, and this is something that Daniel simply hates.

Daniel Plainview preaches an oil gospel to the citizens of Little Boston. He will be sure that they have bread. He will bring them families and children. He will bring them education. He will bring them a future. Plainview even adopts Mary Sunday, seeing that she will be the ideal wife for H.W. He buys her a new white dress and makes sure that her father never beats her again.

As he raises his oil steeples into the sky, Plainview hears the singing coming from Eli Sunday’s Church of the Third Revelation. He doesn’t care for it already, and he is growing more and more tired of Eli. When Eli seeks to gain prestige in the community by blessing the derrick, Plainview rejects him. Plainview blesses the steeple himself and honors Mary Sunday instead. The camera focuses in on Eli, looking down, as he is comforted by old, old women. While Plainview promises the future, Eli is left with the dying past.

Eli is the opposite of Plainview. He doesn’t speak plain at all, but rather whoops and hollers. A religious shyster, Eli sets himself up as the one to bring prosperity. He rises to power by faith healings and extravagant sermons. He lives off Plainview’s workforce. The rivalry has begun.

Then the next major accident happens. H.W. is struck deaf. This is a turning point in the life of Plainview’s character. His connection to family is now gone. He can no longer communicate with H.W. and has to make a choice that day. He leaves H.W. and runs out to his oil, which is now in golden flames, spraying the fire all over the countryside. Plainview grabs a sledgehammer, and slams it into the wire-supports, down and down into the ground, letting loose the restraints for the derrick. He then falls to his knees before his flaming oil. The oil-god rages, never being consumed.

Plainview looks to his partner and asks, “Why are you looking so glum? There’s a whole ocean of oil beneath our feet. No one can get at it except for me!” When asked if H.W. is going to be ok, Daniel responds, “No. No he isn’t.”

To be fair, oil was Daniel Plainview’s first love. It was his first family. It gave him H.W. to begin with. Plainview has made his choice. He has made his sacrifice.

As H.W. begins to leave the family, Daniel’s supposed half-brother, Henry, arrives. This drives H.W. mad, and he attempts to kill Henry. He knows that he’s being replaced. Daniel, though suspicious, accepts Henry as a means to carry on the family business. Family is very important to Daniel.

And this is why Henry’s betrayal was so unbearable. Daniel was not simply greedy, though he perhaps is a greedy man, but rather, the finding out that Henry had lied to him was a deep betrayal. Henry destroyed the family, again, and there was no way to quell Daniel’s rage. After killing Henry, Daniel has to bury him under ground. As he slams that shovel into the ground, down and down again, we notice that the oil bubbles up, like it always does.

Daniel’s baptism is a telling event. It shows Eli’s ruthless spirit. A bit of revenge for Daniel’s earlier attack, in which his head was pushed under the oil (again because of family), now Eli is slapping Daniel around, as he makes him confess the sin of abandoning his child.

Has he though? At this point Daniel has sent his son away for rehabilitation, perhaps in hopes of seeing him again. Eli’s request is evil. It breaks Daniel, at least as much as Daniel can be broken, and we see true remorse in Plainview’s face. It will be the last of it.

Daniel continues to degenerate from this point on. He refuses Standard Oil because he doesn’t want to see them succeed, but also because they attacked the family. He kills Henry for attacking the family, and when H.W. wants to convert from son to competitor, Daniel disowns him.

The Moses allusions are intriguing. H.W. needs a spokesperson. He is a bastard from a basket. Now is his Exodus. He is taking his family, his true family, and is going to a promised land. This is crushing for Daniel. Daniel claims to have never loved H.W., but this is a lie. The film reinforces that this is lie by playing the various clips of Daniel’s love for H.W. But now the relationship is severed.

By the end of There Will Be Blood, we are still not exactly sure what is going on. What has become of Plainview? Has he degenerated to dehuman status? Is he really the devil?

Not exactly. Plainview’s god has paid off. It kept its promises. It was a harsh provider, but it did provide, and now Daniel has a mansion in the midst of the depression. Even poor Eli’s fortunes have dried up. He spent the church’s money on various sins, and now he returns to bargain one last time.

Still the opportunist, Eli Sunday now seeks to sell that last bit of oil land to Daniel Plainview. Plainview is laying on the floor- in the gutter to be precise- but this is not the first time he’s assumed that posture. He lay on the floor at the beginning of the movie, and in the middle of the movie. He is certainly drunk and sad, but Daniel is not fully washed up. He still has a little work left to do.

Eli calls Daniel his brother. He wants to emphasize the family. The Church and the Oil are related. They are one. Except Eli is the false brother. Daniel informs him that it was Paul all along who was the chosen one. Paul was the true Sunday son. And Paul, just like Daniel, knew how to make something out of his lowly situation. Eli was passed over.

Now Daniel brings out the fullness of his rage. This is what we’ve all been waiting for. He taunts Eli. He tells him that the oil was all drained. The blood of lamb had been drunk. Daniel Plainview has already taken the saving flow. Eli is a false prophet and Eli’s god is a superstition, but Daniel is the true revelation. He baptizes Eli, smashing his head with the bowling pin, thrusting it down and down, over and again, just like the pick ax before.

And the blood comes bubbling up.

Daniel was the true prophet. The oil prevailed. And even as deranged and anti-social as Daniel Plainview has become, the audience’s sympathies still lie with him. We silently cheer as Eli is killed. We never liked him, and we hate him now at the end more than ever. We are all secretly glad that Daniel is finished.

Plainview represents reality. He doesn’t see much good in people, but this is not a character fault, necessarily. He sees the world the way it is, plainly. He tells us how things are. His business is tough, but for all its fierceness it is rewarding. Plainview’s fate is at least as good as the other main characters’. The oil-god is demanding, but it provides where Eli’s god does not.

Andrew Matthews has the best observation that I’ve seen, as he writes:

Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is that Eli’s church is called the Church of the Third Revelation. On a whim, I checked out Revelation 3 and found some interesting correlations. In the letter to the Philadelphian church it is prophesied that false Jews will kneel at the feet of God’s elect. In the final scene of the film, Plainview claims to be the true chosen one, and (though it is not explicit in the film) had been “kept” from the “hour of trial that had come upon the whole world” in the form of the Great Depression.

Also, in the letter to the Laodicean church, there is juxtaposed true wealth with false wealth. Both the film’s protagonists had pursued false wealth (whether power or profit), but one had clearly succeeded while the other had failed. Plainview, an evangelist of the salvific power of oil, ended up inflicting an enormous spiritual toll on the life of the Little Boston community.

But is Plainview’s wealth false wealth? It is easy enough to conclude that from our Christian perspective, but is that what Anderson is saying? The oil brought as much salvation to Little Boston as it did destruction. It brought wealth, food, and a future. There Will Be Blood will not be content to grant us the simple moral. Had Plainview kept his family, perhaps his end wealth would not have been bad at all.

If anything, we learn that wealth needs family. You need to share the money. You need to buy for others. You need to cast down your golden crowns.

To trade family for money results in a solitary hell, but it remains a hell that accomplishes much. It remains a hell that many people aspire towards.

I do not see redemption in There Will Be Blood, as I do not think that Anderson provides any. I think the only redemption is self-survival, and the only vindication comes in the destruction of the liar Eli. The rage that was welling up inside Plainview (a la Punch-Drunk Love) has now been spent.

My initial mistake was wanting There Will Be Blood to do more. I expected, nay, demanded it. I wanted fall and redemption. It is not there.

There is a clear competition between the oil company and the church. The two gods compete, and by the end of the film, we do learn which was the “real” god, though neither lived up to any ideal. Plainview is victorious, though scarred, and we are left with the cold reality of expensive success and survival.

This entry was posted in movies by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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