This movie is not for the faint of heart. There Will Be Blood is a chilling portrayal of the depravity of man. The cryptic title produces many word associations, but surely the concept of atonement is central to this film. It should be read as a clear warning. Misdeeds will not go unpunished. Writer and director P.T. Anderson has dealt with heavy topics in his films before, but never in such a focused manner. Anderson clearly understands the Augustinian dictum, “the enemy is within.”
The discordant overture of this film (composed by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead) sets the unsettled tone for what follows. This tension is constant and never is released throughout the film. The protagonist, Daniel Plainview, is, for lack of better words, a cold heartless bastard. He devotes his life religiously to becoming a successful oilman. His goal is to make as much profit as possible, yet he is far from hedonistic. When he goes drinking with his newly discovered half-brother, Plainview hardly seems to enjoy himself. He shows no interest in women, and he clearly is not planning an early retirement.
When one of his employees dies in a drilling accident, Plainview adopts the orphaned child as his own. There is no explanation for this action, but quickly this boy, H.W., becomes his doppelganger, learning his deceptive tricks of the trade. In numerous meetings, Plainview awkwardly tells clients that he is a family man, but the irony of this claim is overwhelming. When H.W. is rendered deaf in a blowout accident, Plainview clearly evidences guilt over his neglect, but this guilt is not the result of any real love for his son. Even this guilt is self-centered.
With oil prices surpassing $123 a barrel and predicted to hit $200 soon, the oil business is a more lethal force than ever. Oil is representative of modern economic realities. While this movie is set a hundred years in the past, its critique of the (post)modern world is crushing. The world is desperate for meaning and purpose, but the sole ambition of many people today is to amass greater wealth for themselves. While thousands die of starvation in North Korea, the spiritual famine in first-world countries is not so easily satiated.
The film is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s classic novel, Oil. As part of the progressive political movement in America, Sinclair decried the evils of capitalism and sought for Marx’s utopian society. Marx analyzed well the problem with modern capitalistic societies, unfortunately his misguided solution to the problem wreaked more havoc in the 20th century than could have been imagined.
Besides Plainview, Anderson also focuses on one other character. He is Eli Sunday, a fundamentalist faith-healer who has taken advantage of the naïve townsfolk for his own profit. The preacher’s bastardization of religion is shown to be morally equivalent with Plainview’s murderous ways. While some may interpret this as an indictment of Christianity, it is actually the same warning that the ancient Israelite prophets cried against the hypocritical religion of their day. These men thought they were fooling everyone, but in the end, they received their just deserts.
In the final scene, the promised blood is let. Plainview brutally bludgeons Eli to death with a bowling pin. The audience feels no sympathy for the victim as it has already been shown that the minister is just as guilty as the corrupt oil baron. However, I did sympathize with Plainview. Of course, he deserved his terrible state. He brought it upon himself, but I can’t help but feel sorry for him. While he was totally responsible for his actions, there was something pathetic about him. He’s in deep need of help that he never receives. As the credits roll, the viewer is left with emptiness. The film offers no redemption. It cries out for something more.