There Will Be Blood

Sunday, May 04, 2008

If you had to list America’s two main obsessions you’d probably whittle it down to money and religion. Both seem to consume the American soul – the pursuit of monetary gain and the need for spiritual enlightenment. But if there were to be a battle between the two for America’s heart, which would win?

The battle between Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) could be viewed as America’s internal struggle between commerce and religion. Sure in modern America both co-exist, but despite that there’s still a conflict. In the darkest corners rampant greed and fundamentalism still want to take hold.

Of course Daniel represents the commercial side of America – the one that wants to possess its body, who wants to own everything. Eli on the other hand represents the form of evangelism that wants to possess everyone’s minds, who wants people to look upon him as god on Earth. Needless to say, with these two conflicting personalities sharing the same space there’s going to be fireworks.

A wonderful scene early on in the film is when Eli turns up at Daniel’s office and tells him that he’s going to bless the well. He doesn’t even ask, he merely dictates everything he’s going to say and do, most of it incredibly self-important. Daniel sits there and politely agrees, but when it comes to the blessing, he completely ignores Eli and does it himself. It’s a monumental slap in the face, but one which is done with a velvet glove – only Daniel and Eli are aware of what was supposed to happen; as far as everyone else in concerned, the ceremony went off without a hitch.

But then to illustrate the way that the conflict ebbs and flows, later on Daniel has to come crawling to Eli so that he can say a few words at a funeral – one of his men, who attended Eli’s church, dies while working. You can see the sheer contempt Daniel has for Eli as the preacher rants and raves, and when they talk Daniel makes it clear that the church needs him. Without Plainview and his men, the well won’t produce and ‘blow gold all over the place’. In other words, the church better know what side their bread is buttered on.

However, even though at one point Daniel slaps Eli around and drags him through oilfields for being a fraud who can’t cure his son’s deafness, Eli Sunday still won’t be put in his place. He seizes on the opportunity to make Daniel bow before him – Daniel needs to use some land and the owner of the land make it a condition that Daniel be blessed by the church. Eli returns Daniel’s violence by slapping him and casting evil spirits out of him. But worse than that he gets Daniel to scream that he abandoned his child. This is the one thing that really pisses him off. But it’s notable that even though Daniel has had to humiliate himself, once the ordeal is done he can’t help but smile. He has the land and he can now finish making a pipeline that will ensure his wealth. He cares more about money than he does his child – it’s a grimly comic moment.

The final scene between Daniel and Eli sees a kind of role reversal. The money from his church squandered, Eli comes to Daniel begging for help. Daniel agrees to help him, but only if Sunday stands up and declares himself to be a false prophet and that god is a superstition. He makes Eli say it over and over again and louder and louder, until he finally admits that he can’t help Eli, that the land Eli wants Daniel to buy has already been drained dry. We then have the infamous milkshake scene and Daniel clubs Eli to death with a bowling pin. It’s quite a comic scene, and one that threatens to become ridiculous – Dano overacts, Day-Lewis shouts ‘drainage’ at the top of his lungs and Plainview dances and waves his straw around – but it ends up being a suitably silly ending to a rather silly conflict. The pull of soulless greed and soulless fundamentalism should strike anyone as childish – both are concerned with an overwhelming simplicity of thought. Therefore it’s quite apt that these people should meet their end while chasing each other around a bowling alley.

But despite this, if there’s a winner in this conflict, it’s Daniel. Therefore the film kind of suggests that as far as America goes, commerce will triumph over religion. And it makes sense, as religion is often dependant on the generosity of businessmen. Religion needs commerce more than commerce needs religion.

But capitalism goes even deeper. There’s a scene where Plainview tells the townspeople his intentions. He says that he’s going to build schools and roads and irrigate the land. What he does is very generous, but it also means that America is forever at the mercy of those with money. In times past a class system based on what family you came from decided the future for everyone. Now it’s a class system based on money. Things have changed but not much.

And even though Daniel pretends that he cares about the people around him, does he really? The answer is no. Plainview is only concerned with perceptions. He just wants to look good. Hell, at the beginning of the film, when one of his workers dies and leaves behind a child, Daniel brings him up as his own just so that he can find it easier to buy land. It’s not until the end of the film that his son is finally told that he’s really an orphan, that he’s no relation to Plainview. Daniel tells him he’s a ‘bastard from a basket’.

But even though at the end, when Plainview has become a bored drunk, he tells his son that he means nothing to him, there is some complexity to the relationship. He does love him. It’s just that he has little patience for problems that can’t be fixed – when his son becomes deaf, he does his best to help him, but his patience runs thin and he offloads him. A gushing well can be capped, but a deaf son will always be a deaf son.

The most telling moment in the film is when the well is on fire. Daniel celebrates because there is an ocean of oil under his feet. But when someone asks whether his son is okay – he gets knocked on his head by the gusher – he casually says he’s not. Nothing is going to get in the way of Plainview making a fortune. This is all that he cares about. This is all he’s focused on. Everything else is window dressing. His son, his clothes and his plain words present an acceptable image for the outside world; one that masks the soul-destroying greed. And it’s an image that America still presents to the outside world. As a country it says that it cares, but like Plainview it ends up taking more than it gives back. Therefore the initially jarring music at the beginning is entirely appropriate. This is almost a horror film. A marvellous ode to avarice and the corruption of the American dream.

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  1. Great writing, great review, great film.