By Jacob Floyd
Any really simple description of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is quite insufficient. Calling it an epic about oil, religion, and corruption, only scratches the surface and is akin to saying Raging Bull is just a movie about boxing.
I said in my review that it was the most self-assured American film since Blue Velvet. And like the aforementioned film, there is no middle ground in viewing TWBB. Viewers are either sure they’re watching the best film they’ve ever seen, or the most pretentious piece of crap they could imagine.
Essentially, TWBB is crazy. It has the loftiest of ambitions and for the most part achieves those ambitions. But there is more to it than a fresh take on film language. For a film to have such a devastating effect on its initial viewing, which also stays with and grows in the viewer after the screening, suggests there is something, that is at work below the surface, like the oil, and only making itself made known in cracks. One has to drill to get to the full scope of it.
Like the canon of American films that this film deserves to be included with: Blue Velvet, Apocalypse Now, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, Manhattan; this is both a microcosm which reveals the contemporary anxieties of era in which it was made, and also a deeper, more universal exploration of more primal, archetypal issues. There Will Be Blood is very much about our current political landscape (H.W. anyone?), the exploration of big oil and fundamentalist religious fervor, and the catastrophe which occurs when the two make a disingenuous alliance. Taking it back this is the founding myth of America revisited, where money and religion end up making us more depraved and ignorant than we were before we had either. But this film can go back all the way to the beginning, or at least as close to it as one can get.
(note: there will be spoilers from here on out)
The impetus for this interpretation comes from the final line of the film. Daniel Plainview’s “I’m Finished,” both associates itself with the blasphemous syllogism between oil and the blood of Christ established throughout the film, namely the last words of Christ on the cross. It likewise, reminded me of Cain’s damned cry, in the Mormon account,after killing Abel: “I’m free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.” (Moses 5:33)
The inciting incident for the action of the film is a visit from Paul Sunday to Daniel Plainview. And this meeting introduces us to our first biblical binary. Paul, here playing that part of Esau, sells out his family, or his inheritance, for a bowl of pottage, or a few thousand dollars. Eli Sunday, his twin brother, becomes a fractured Jacob, having at times wrestled with some sort of spirit, though the film seems to give us the terminal choice between psychosis or the devil, and felt called of God. Eli also assumes the role of patriarch in his family.
Next the paths of Eli and Daniel cross. And here we meet Cain and Abel, or at least their post-modern counterparts. Eli, the boy of the plains, is Abel, the righteous one, the one who raises the flocks. Abel, or Daniel, is the one who makes his living from the earth, vegetables and grain in Abel’s case, silver and oil in Daniel’s. Like Cain, Daniel puts his pride and his own strengths above those of God. And like the biblical tale, this pride and leads to inevitable tragedy, as Cain slays Abel out of jealousy, and Daniel kills Eli. But here the two stories diverge. TWBB gives us an Abel without God. For a film very tied to the Bible, from a director very concerned with religion, and for a film explicitly about religious faith, this is a film where God is not present. He is not dead in this text, but then again he is not at anywhere to be found. Eli, is at best a troubled fanatic, the result of an abusive father, and at worst a false prophet. God, or using the name of God in vain, an important motif in the film, is the way that Eli finds to not only get the power to rise above his lowly situation, but also to gain greater power over large groups of people to fulfill his own desires. Yet, we end up with the same outcome as the Cain and Abel story. I will get back to the reason why later.
The subplot of Daniel and his fake half-brother, Henry, seems superfluous at first. As if Anderson needed someone for Daniel to talk to, so that we had a little more insight into the character. While that does play into the overall narrative structure of the film, Daniel and his brother fits with one of the many obscure stories in the early chapters of Genesis, that of Lamech and Irad. Lamech is only mentioned in a few passing and vaguely worded verses in Genesis, but is found more abundantly in Rabbinical, pseudo-phagraphical, and Mormon traditions and scripture. In fact, in some of these traditions, Lamech seems to surpass Cain in terms of his evil deeds (see Gen. 4:24). What we have in Genesis is a man consumed with the power he can gain on his own, who boasts of killing a man just because he hurt him. In rabbinical traditions he is a man who violated the laws of God to get power, and when a “shepherd” found out what he had done, he bashed his head in, and was exiled. In the Mormon scriptures, Lamech makes the same deal that Cain made with the devil, however, his desires for gain are larger in scope, and he even says he’s more powerful than Cain (see Moses 5: 48-51). In this tradition his grand-father Irad finds out about the deal, and like the Rabbinical tradition, he crushes Irad’s head for fear of being found out, and is cast out.
In TWBB Daniel eventually kills the man claiming to be his half-brother. Not so much because he had been lied to, as Daniel seems to be suspect him the whole time, or because he’s become a liability, tough that seems to be part of it. Rather, he knows too much. He has seen the darkness that is in Daniel’s soul, a darkness that he does not want revealed so he shoots him in the head. Though it is also interesting that later on Daniel, like Lamech, bashes Eli’s skull in as his method of murder.
So why the use of so many biblical shadows? This goes back to what I said earlier about canonical works. There is a connecting and underlying theme in the first part of Genesis, made more explicit in Mormon scripture and the pseudophagra, that also concerns contemporary issues. And that is the idea of the people of God, and those who are not. Zion and Babylon. What we see in the scriptures, and in this film, is that the people of God cannot be a part of Babylon without eventually being corrupted and destroyed. Eli starts off a fanatic zealot, but dies having been corrupted by the wiles of the world that he adopted in large measure from seeing Daniel’s business ethics. He tries to use the mode of Babylon to establish his Zion and ends up destitute and destroyed.
This is both a reminder and a warning. That the close association of religion to the things of this world; money, greed, imperialism, will only lead to the destruction and failure of that religion. And when the two meet we have corruption, war, and wholesale suffering.
The films’ ending is rather terminal and ironically subversive. But we are left with a small window of hope. We have a corrupted Moses figure. Daniel essentially finds HW in a basket, and makes him his son and heir. Though Daniel initially abandons HW after his loss of hearing in an accident, after the murder of Henry it seems like Daniel planned on restoring him to his former position. In the Bible, Moses had difficulty speaking (Exodus 4:10), from what sounds like a speech impediment. Here, HW, being deaf, cannot speak on his own, and essentially has his own Aaron. And like Moses, HW, in the end, gives up his position among his adopted father and his institution, out of disgust of their modes of operation (See Hebrews 11:24-25). It is even more fitting that our flawed Moses, while he wishes to start his own oil business, goes out on his own, to be in the wilderness, having felt alienated from the nature from whence he came.
Lastly a word on the title. For those who have seen the film, the title is used quite ironically, because, in the end, no, there really isn't any blood. The title supposedly came from a verse in the bible, though I’ve yet to find it, or from what translation it comes from; an important change from the simple original “Oil!” it adds a religious connotation, with a specifically Christian meaning. Blood in Christendom means The Blood of Christ, His atoning blood, the means whereby mankind is reconciled with God, and forgiven of their sins. This is what Daniel means at the end when he says that he eats and drinks the blood of Christ every day, referring to the money he made from the drainage from the ill-gotten oil. For Daniel, oil is his sacrament, his Eucharist. And keeping to the tone of the film it even seems to suggest a play on transubstantiation. Despite his initial fervor for God, it is to this blood that Eli returns when he has become lost and in need of help, of saving. This is juxtaposed against the explicit baptism of HW when his birth father places oil on his forehead. HW rejects this church, perhaps seeing what has become of his father, while Eli runs to it for refuge, achieving humiliation and death in place of reconciliation.
Back to our connecting theme: In the story of Cain and Abel we have the first recorded murder, based on the desire to get gain, as noted in Cain’s initial response. The great secret that he shared with the devil was that a human life could be traded for capital, with his soul as part of the exchange rate. With Lamech we have perhaps the first senseless murder in the Bible, done, not even to get gain, but to keep a secret. The story of Jacob and Esau gives us a man set to receive all of his father’s spiritual blessings, only to sell them for a thing that “moth and dust corrupt.”And the story of Moses, about which Rev. Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. notes, on the significance of Exodus, is that for the first time “the emphasis of the bible turns from that of individual deliverance to collective deliverance…firmly posit[ing] justice and liberation as the very foundation of biblical faith. (The Politics of Jesus, pgs 16-17)”
And this is where our foundation myth comes full circle, back to contemporary issues. The film asks us to examine the price of prosperity, and the cost of capitalism, challenging us to examine ourselves and our quests for worldly success, begging us to ask ourselves if we, like Cain, lose our souls in the transaction and if we are using religion to justify it. If so, the film, and the bulk of holy writ, wants nothing to do with us.