Plot California, 1898. Digging by hand, prospector Daniel Plainview strikes silver. As his empire expands, his attentions switch to oil. When a worker is killed in an accident, Plainview adopts the worker’s infant son. Some years later: the boy, HW, has become Plainview’s partner. The pair travel to a newly rich oil town to bid for its oil, but leave when faced with hostility from the locals. Daniel is visited by Paul Sunday, who tells them there is oil on his family’s land. Plainview and HW visit and, affecting ignorance of the oil, offer a low price. Paul’s preacher brother Eli helps to secure the deal but demands a large payment for his church. A well is built and opened. Soon after, in an accident, HW loses his hearing. A man, Henry, turns up claiming to be Plainview’s long-lost brother. Plainview accepts Henry and involves him in the company. HW becomes increasingly disruptive, and Plainview sends him to a school for the deaf. Henry is revealed to be an imposter and Plainview shoots him and buries him in the woods. In exchange for the land he needs to build a pipeline, Plainview is forced to join Eli’s church, where he is humiliated in front of the congregation. Later, in 1927, HW has married Eli’s sister Mary. He approaches the now reclusive Plainview to explain that he wants to leave the family business in order to establish his own in Mexico. Plainview rejects him, cruelly informing him that he is adopted and mocking his deafness. A couple of years later Eli visits Plainview, desperate for money. Plainview refuses, forcing Eli to proclaim, “I am a false prophet; God is a superstition” before violently beating him to death (adapted from McGill 82).
Film note There Will Be Blood premiered at a secret closing night event of the Fantastic Fest film festival in Austin, Texas, in late 2007. The third installment of the festival, which specializes in horror, science-fiction, and fantasy, might seem a strange location for a turn of the twentieth century history film telling the story of the tortured relationship between oil prospector, Daniel Plainview and evangelical preacher, Eli Sunday. That said, while There Will Be Blood is low on gore and fantastical visions of the future, the film’s highly expressionist mise-en-scène, grand guignol set pieces, gothic inter-titles, and unrestrained violence do lead the viewer into the dark, challenging terrain often relished by horror fans. Perhaps the film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson also felt that Fantastic Fest filmgoers would be adept at allegorical reading (something required by horror and science-fiction) and thereby able to appreciate how this story of oil and religion might be understood as holding a dark mirror to contemporary US politics at the start of a new century.
Critical visions and Paramount Vantage There Will Be Blood’s premiere at Fantastic Fest also indicates its relatively marginal position in relation to the mainstream. Produced by Miramax, Paramount Vantage, and Anderson’s own production house, Ghoulardi Film Company, the film sits firmly within the semi-independent sector sometimes referred to as “Indiewood” (Hillier 255). This territory (mapped and exploited by Miramax from the early 1990s) taps the dynamic potential of fringe independent filmmaking/filmmakers and allows Hollywood to prospect for new talent, niche audiences and new trends, as well as allowing greater creative freedom (Marcks 8-9).
Though Miramax is the better-known partner, Anderson’s project bears the hallmarks of Paramount Vantage (a 2007 rebranding of Paramount Classics, which first launched in 1998), which produced a cycle of serious and avowedly political films in the late 2000s, including Babel (2006), Into The Wild (2007), No Country For Old Men (2007), A Mighty Heart (2007), and Revolutionary Road (2008). There Will Be Blood sits comfortably in this cycle, engaging as it does with issues of national identity, a revisionist view of history, and the use of allegory to explore the contemporary political landscape. In pursuit of their mission to make critical and political films, Paramount Vantage placed significant faith in Anderson, granting him the freedom to write, direct and part produce, with no reported interference. This was something of a risk: after significant commercial and critical success with Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), Anderson’s avant-garde romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love (2002) played less well at the box office, leaving producers in some doubt about his ability to turn critical plaudits into a return on investment. The involvement of Miramax, as well as the relatively modest budget of $25m, a figure $12m less than Magnolia, suggests Paramount Vantage’s faith in Anderson was made possible by offsetting some of their liability. As such, There Will Be Blood should be considered a calculated gamble that paid off. The film took $40.2m domestic and $76.2m worldwide, making it Anderson’s largest grossing feature to date and a solid commercial success. The film was also one of the biggest critical successes of the decade, picking up eight Academy Award nominations, and with Daniel Day Lewis deservedly winning Best Actor.
The importance of semi-independent film production to Hollywood is evident in the composition of the nominees and winners of the 2007 Academy Awards. Nominations for Best Picture included four semi-independent productions, namely, No Country For Old Men (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Juno (Fox Searchlight), Atonement (Focus Features), and There Will Be Blood, with No Country picking up Best Picture. However, reading the Academy Awards as a sign of the rude health of semi-independent filmmaking may be risky. Speaking at Film London’s second Production Finance Market meeting Miramax President, Daniel Battsek claimed that a large number of foreign, independent and semi-independent films has resulted in oversupply, with film studios such as Miramax “struggling to get their voices heard as independent film production increases whilst demand remains static” (qtd. in McNab). In fact, it may be the case that serious, political films such as There Will Be Blood are now in danger of being subsumed in a glut of below par “Indiewood” product. The success of (500) Days of Summer (2009), Adventureland (2009) and Kick-Ass (2010) may be a sign that soft-soaped films with an indie feel are now the preferred form. It may also be the case that the pessimism and critical vision expressed in There Will Be Blood, as well as the rest of the Paramount Vantage cycle, are now being replaced by escapist and nostalgic fantasies, not only in the mainstream sector, in films such as The Dukes of Hazard (2005), The A-Team (2010), and Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), but also in the supposed radical fringes of semi-independent film production, with Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind (2008) also part of the 1980s revival.
Fossil fuels and fundamentalism There Will Be Blood was made and released with the US embroiled in a war in Iraq. A primary strategic consideration of the war was deemed by many to be the retention of access to cheap oil, and the move to war was justified using religious rhetoric. It’s no surprise then that Anderson has stated in interview, “it’s inescapable not to think about oil and religion right now” (qtd. in Ponsoldt 41). So, how does There Will Be Blood use history to explore America’s entangled relationship and continued dependency on fossil fuels and fundamentalism? The answer lies in the film’s careful presentation of history but also through the invitation to the viewer to understand this history as allegory.
For example, the DVD extra, “Fifteen Minutes”, shows period photographs in a montage sequence alongside the film’s careful reconstructions of oil drilling, tough working conditions, and period attire. The photographs of rows of oil derricks marking the horizon are here restaged by Anderson as metaphor for the industrialization of the Californian prairies, with oilfields and pipelines completing a final stage of westward expansion and marking the end of manifest destiny.
Within this careful period reconstruction, and embodying rampant capitalism, is the character of Daniel Plainview, a silver miner turned oil prospector dehumanized by his desire for material wealth, along with the power and respectability that come with it. Plainview is based on real-life figure Edward L. Doheny, an Irish-American Californian oil tycoon who in the 1920s was accused of using bribery to purchase public land for private drilling (Davies). Doheny was also the central focus of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, on which the screenplay for There Will Be Blood is based. Alongside the film’s self-consciously historical mise-en-scène, the decision to base Plainview on a real, corrupt, historical figure allows There Will Be Blood to reinforce its strong, indexical link with the past as well as offering the audience a cipher for America more generally. There are correspondences here with the way in which Orson Welles used Citizen Kane (1941) to tell the story of real life newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. As with Plainview, Welles’ film (working title The American) presents Kane as a representative figure, a man of his times. Likewise, Plainview’s entrepreneurialism and canny, amoral exploitation of the oil fields are offered as an allegory of a wider nineteenth century capitalist zeal. Any hint of positive character traits–such as the seemingly altruistic act of adopting HW–are soon shown to be self-serving. HW’s role is simply to help Plainview reassure families that he is, in his words, “a family man”, allowing him to secure plots of land at low prices. In the scene in which HW is deafened in an explosion, Plainview abandons him to celebrate the oil well coming in, and later, when HW’s disability becomes burdensome, he is sent away. The film’s depiction of capitalism is scathing and unflinching, something imparted through Daniel Day Lewis’ feral, wiry body, and his performance of a polite veneer of respectability barely restraining a violent, pathological misanthropy.
Plainview is not the only allegorical figure in the film. His nemesis is Eli Sunday, an ambitious, charismatic preacher, who presses Plainview for the funds to found an evangelical Church, which grows in size and influence alongside the oil field. By showing Eli as a man willing to denounce his ideals in order to attain wealth, the sanctity of the church is undermined. This unholy alliance is played out through a series of confrontations and humiliations: Sunday attempts to evangelize Plainview’s workers, Plainview snubs Sunday’s request to bless his new well, and so on. Anderson uses the Christian symbol of baptism to trace this conflict. The first “baptism” comes when Eli, incensed at Plainview’s decision to ignore his pleas to bless the new oil well, decides to confront the untrustworthy businessman and demand the money he is owed for his land: Plainview beats Eli into submission and presses his face into a pool of oil. The second baptism comes when Plainview, in need of Eli’s land to assemble a pipeline, agrees to a religious rebirth: at the ceremony Eli humiliates Plainview in front of his congregation. This “twinning” of the two men has led John Cameron Mitchell to claim that the film unearths “…the actual moment [when] the unholy modern Republican coalition was born” (qtd in Ponsoldt). Their final confrontation takes place in Plainview’s mansion. Drunk, reclusive, alienated, humbled and homicidal, Plainview rattles round his stately home like Kane in Xanadu. Eli, having lost his and his church’s assets in the stock market crash of 1929, appeals to Plainview for help. In a long, fraught set piece in Plainview’s private two-lane bowling alley (a symbol of a decadent leisure society), Sunday is humiliated and beaten to death, with the church subsumed to capital in a final baptism of blood. Plainview surveys the scene with the words, “I’m finished,” perhaps suggesting that the dark work of making the nation is now complete. (There is also a hint here that Daniel Day Lewis is also commenting on his work as an actor, a faint trace of Anderson’s authorial playfulness perhaps?).
This account of the interdependency and violent conflict between Plainview and Sunday begs to be read as a depiction of the pathology of American capitalism and religion, past and present. The centrality of religious fundamentalism to contemporary politics can be traced to the arrival of the so-called “moral majority”, a movement dedicated to ensuring core Christian values were part of the rise of the New Right in the 1980s. Since that period fundamentalist religious groups have held significant sway over the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. There Will Be Blood’s scathing vision of the deep, tangled connection between capitalism and the church draws attention to the longer history of these structural forces in US society and their continued influence on contemporary reality. In the present, the Republican party is in turmoil, in part because it can no longer easily accommodate evangelical religious groups whose value systems run counter to its commitment to unbridled free market capitalism. The rise of the Tea Party (formed in part by these religious groups) perhaps indicates that the mortal struggle depicted in There Will Be Blood is far from over.
Hollywood’s greed Through allegory, There Will Be Blood offers viewers a critique of American capitalism. The film is almost without precedent and Hollywood (perhaps unsurprisingly as a powerhouse of capitalist enterprise and profit) has largely been reluctant to venture into this terrain. A number of reviews of There Will Be Blood mention Citizen Kane (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Giant (1956); kindred films that also bravely face up to capitalism’s contradictions and costs, though all these films have redemptive elements not found in Anderson’s film.
In the years preceding the Great Depression of 1929 a film emerged that is most similar to There Will Be Blood, namely, German émigré Eric Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). The film’s central protagonist, McTeague (Gibson Gowland), is sent to the city by his mother, where the pursuit of wealth drives him insane; after murdering his wife he meets a grim end fighting for his last few coins in Death Valley. Heavily cut on its release, a contemporary reviewer wrote that “[p]erhaps an American director would not have seen greed as a vice,” implying that Stroheim’s critical vision was in part a consequence of his outsider status. Polish émigré Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), made in the shadow of the 1973/4 recession (itself the result of an oil crisis) is also considered a like film. Central villain Noah Cross (John Huston)–the corrupt, homicidal and incestuous retired water chief of California–is comparable to Plainview. Arguably, the tendency for critique to be the privilege of the émigré director is no more. Sharing the critical, pessimistic visions of Stroheim and Polanski, There Will Be Blood is a thoroughly American picture, written and directed by Anderson and released uncut by two semi-independent American studios. Released against a backdrop of corruption scandals and a worsening economic crisis ignited by the failure of sub-prime mortgages and unrestrained, often criminal, stock market speculation, the film perhaps registers a wholly American wavering of faith in free markets and capitalist deregulation.
The title of There Will Be Blood is taken from Exodus, the second book of the bible. The book tells of a corrupt Egypt ruled by the Pharaohs and exploiting the Jews. It reads, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron, “Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their reservoirs of water, that they may become blood; and there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.”’” Anderson’s film seems to ask its audience to see America in the early twentieth century as similarly corrupt, and with ordinary Americans subject to the same malice and abuse of power as the Jews. The neo-conservative political ideology of George W. Bush coupled with fundamentalist religion has resulted in a society that steals from and exploits its own people.
Richard Maltby argues that Hollywood’s desire to secure a large audience for its films often results in an aesthetic that is essentially opportunist in its economic motivation (Maltby 35). In contrast, There Will Be Blood has a strong, singular and coherent message: that capitalism and religion in the past and present are corrupt and corrupting. Where Anderson’s previous films have been playful, formally self-reflexive, and heavily engaged with pop culture, his latest film seems intent on taking an avowedly critical political stance. Where the book of Exodus was also an influence on Magnolia, with a plague of frogs raining down upon the citizens of Los Angeles and liberating them from the sins of their parents and their own symptomatic neuroses, there is no redemptive note in There Will Be Blood. No plague of frogs, nor transcendental coming together in song, the film seems to say, will offer salvation to a society presided over by murderous oil men and megalomaniacal preachers.
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Ponsoldt, James. “Giant Ambition: An Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson.” Filmmakermagazine.com. Web. 31 Mar 2011.
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Written by Kris Woods (2009); edited by Guy Westwell (2011), Queen Mary, University of London
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