A cinematic masterwork of epic and far-reaching scope, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 There Will Be Blood is a film that feeds off legends, allegories and origin stories, to then go on and create its own mythology about the American Century and the end of the dream.
The analogy between the plot of There Will Be Blood and the socio-economic history of the United States isn’t a difficult one to establish. The development of the country – and the subsequent social, cultural and technological progress set in motion by this – is the result of some morally dubious choices and dishonest manoeuvres. Rather more complicated, however, is to reconcile the negative aspects of such a society with the notion that this is the land of freedoms and opportunities.
In 1898 New Mexico, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) works incessantly trying to find silver – he hammers the walls of the mine with the conviction of a preacher. Few years later, he finds oil buried in the soil of Southern California and sets up a company to extract the liquid gold. When one of his workers dies in an accident, leaving baby H. W. behind, Plainview adopts the child. In 1911, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) approaches Daniel with information about a piece of land that might have oil underneath it. As soon as he is sure that in fact there is oil in the town of Little Boston, CA. Daniel tries to buy the land. He then meets Paul’s twin brother, Eli Sunday (again Paul Dano), a preacher who wants to use the money paid for the land to build a church in the community.
As soon as oil production begins in the region, an accident makes H. W. deaf in one ear. One day, a stranger named Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) arrives claiming to be Daniel’s half-brother. They grow closer and H. W., jealous and upset, tries to burn the house where Henry is sleeping. Plainview sends his adopted son to a school for the deaf in San Francisco. When Daniel finds out that Henry was lying about being his half-brother he kills him. Then a member of Eli’s congregation, having witnessed the murder, blackmails Daniel to repent his sins in Eli’s church, and there he is humiliated by the preacher. Years later, as Daniel Plainview is more wealthy than ever, H. W. leaves home on bad terms. At the end, Eli visits Daniel, looking for financial help. Lonely and mentally disturbed, Plainview kills him.
..There Will Be Blood Trailer © Paramount Vantage.
The parallels between the story of There Will Be Blood (based on the 1927 novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair) and America’s own obsession with growth are well established by critics everywhere. Both business and religion (one feeds the body; the other feeds the spirit) are important pillars of American society. And when they clash in the film, in the characters of businessman Daniel Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday, the allegory gets deeper as it shows the inherent contradictions between the ideologies and the schizophrenic aspect of such a community that calls itself deeply devout but has its members stuffing themselves to death with colourful foodstuff.
Rather bolder however is to notice the similarities between the driven oilman and the pious churchman. Their battles are fascinating mainly because they are so much alike and seem to be driven by the hatred of what they see in the other and recognise in themselves. They’re tigers in front of the mirror – ready to kill… determined; arrogant; greedy… In possessing these traits (traits that are perhaps deplorable in certain circumstances) they have built America. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then maybe the pathway to greatness might be paved with despicable actions. Neither the Roman nor the British Empire reached their zenith through charitable work.
When we first see Eli Sunday, during Daniel and H. W.’s hunt for quail, like Plainview, we don’t know what to make of it. As they are setting their tent, Eli, who is carrying some wood, walks slowly towards Daniel and H. W., sets the sticks on the ground and extends his hand. ‘My name is Eli.’ It is possible to notice Daniel’s brief disorientation. As Eli leaves, they exchange looks but say nothing. As a good strategist, Daniel will reserve judgement for when he has gathered more information. The initial encounter of these two foes sets the tone for Plainview’s animosity towards Eli – he has finally met someone capable of reflecting back some discomfort onto him. And obviously, the key question remains: Was Paul trying to trick us?
Was he indeed? For the teachings of the one who inspired the whole thing seem to have been lost in the wilderness. Nowadays, both business and religion seem to share the same goal, and that’s power. Since the rejection of a vow of poverty and not only the acceptance, but also, should I say, an idolatry, of profit as part of God’s will, hypocrisy accusations make no more sense. This sprawling parable on American capitalism gives us a good overview of the American Century. The USA is as much a free, dynamic and creative society as it is a ruthless nation, aware of its own sins. Like it has been said before, they’ve got oil in their blood and blood in their oil.
Together with No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik), both also released in 2007, There Will Be Blood form a trilogy of astounding westerns of deep significance. Each one of these films dealing with different facets of the American culture, a culture that has become so ubiquitous around the world as to be recognised by every single person on the planet.