A Critical Analysis of There Will Be Blood: Intensional Godhood
Monday, January 28, 2008 10:37:18 PM
After reading many reviews of P.T. Anderson's seminal new film There Will Be Blood, I am disappointed to see how much misinterpretation there is. Where the themes of greed, godlessness, capitalism, hatred, and revenge are certainly present, they are peripheral, and recent oil politics have led critics to miss a central theme that ties all those issues together: the loneliness of godhood. I will explain the four different meanings of the film's title to show that that loneliness is what drove anti-hero Daniel Plainview to his tragic end.
A Hopeless Perspective
Daniel Plainview is a complex character, and for reasons not entirely clear, we know that he is exceedingly mistrusting. But we should begin with his name. The surname "Plainview" describes this lack of trust. He can't or won't try to see deeper into people. He says "I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need," and considers people commodities, not comrades. Pride in his own ability leads him to hate other people's incompetence, which he can't stop himself in finding in abundance in all men. When he looks at people he sees "nothing worth liking". The only exception was a child, whom he adopted as his son, but more on that later. He confesses to Henry: "I can't keep doing this on my own with these... people." He is telling us that doing things with "people" he can't trust is a terribly lonely feeling.
His first name "Daniel" means "judgment by God" and "God is my judge." There is a double meaning here. Plainview is judged by God by the end of the film, punished for his hubris, but he also subconsciously fancies himself to be a judging God. He screams at Eli, proclaiming "I am the Church of the Third Revelation." He tells Henry that he wants to "to rule and never, ever explain myself." This God complex is important to the irony of the ending, and we'll get to that.
As a surrogate god, Plainview believes deeply in the power of his words, that things will be the way he says it, because he says it. He introduces himself to the audience with talk of his promises, telling them what he will do for them, matter-of-factly as if saying makes it so. "...If I say I'm an oil man you will agree." A normal person would have said "...If I tell you I'm an oil man, you'd probably agree" or even "you'd have to agree." Plainview leaves them no choice; it is already so.
When he meets Tilford of Standard Oil, Plainview flies into a fit, yelling over and over "You don't tell me how to raise my family." His threat to Tilford is revealing, as he says "...I'm gonna cut your throat." He will silence him. When he successfully wins the Union Oil contract, he proudly proclaims "I told you I was gonna do." To override Plainview's voice is to override his power, which he cannot accept. It is no accident that he speaks almost entirely in the indicative (and sometimes seemingly declarative) mood throughout the film.
At the conclusion of the movie, the very last words uttered are "I'm finished." It is a sad ending, with a joyless Plainview still vainly thinking he has the power of speech, declaring the film over by saying so, yet at the same time giving us the double (colloquial) meaning that he is "finished." His life is ruined, and he's literally destroyed his future by committing a murder before a witness. He completed his stated goal of making sure that "there will be blood" and it has left him "finished." The title and last words (which are brought back together with the reappearance of the title as the ending music kicks in) are incredibly pregnant with meaning and fate.
Saying Is Believing
Here we find out the meanings of the title There Will Be Blood. First, the literal meaning is that there will be violence in this story. Plainview can and will kill to achieve his ends. The second meaning is a statement from Plainview, telling us that there will be blood, making it so by saying it. He already has the intention to spill blood to achieve his ends. Thirdly, and most importantly, the title is a statement from Plainview where he is trying to create kinsblood, or family, for himself. "Will" means that he is trying to will it into being, making it so by claiming the boy he found to be his son. It is a sad, desperate call for family when we know one cannot just make family by demanding it verbally. This vanity is what this film is about.
His son H.W. most likely represents the Jesus analogy to his God complex. "[HENRY] Where is his mother? [PLAINVIEW] I don't want to talk about those things." Plainview wants the child to be like him, so much so that H.W. could be interpreted as derived from YHWH, the holy Hebrew name of God meaning "He is." I won't get into the specific religious etmyology of the name, but suffice to say, Plainview wants to be reborn in his son. Predictably, the worst happens to his son: the boy becomes deaf. Plainview has lost all his power over his son, and cannot raise him in his own image. Instead of his voice, he must speak to his son now through actions. As he turns his son away from him at the very end, he tells H.W. that his blood does not run in him. His fairy-tale of being a "family-man" falls apart.
The desperation with which Plainview seeks "blood" to ameliorate his loneliness is as pitiable as it is foolhardy. When Henry appears, claiming to be his long-lost brother, Plainview refuses to accept him until the man says he has no ambition, which finally lets Plainview have someone close but whom he will not compete with, unlike his son at the end. He calls Henry his "second breath," and uncoincidentally gets rid of H.W. at the same time he gains Henry as a brother. Although they become fast friends, Plainview kills Henry when he turns out to be an imposter. Plainview can't accept family that isn't blood, or isn't created by his own accord as H.W. was. "Well, if it's in me, it's in you." But it wasn't in Henry.
That shortsightedness costs him all forms of family. Interestingly, one of the last things Eli says to him before being murdered is that they are brothers-in-law now, just as the last thing Plainview asked of Henry was "do I have a brother?" But in the relationship with Eli, his fatal flaw is revealed. One cannot have family without trust. To Plainview, Eli is a false prophet, and he makes him confess so much. Eli also has a gift with speech over men, and Plainview cannot accept that.
The greatest insult he bore was Eli making him declare he had abandoned his son during the baptism, which Plainview never forgave. "I drink your water, Eli... Everyday. I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy's tract." He had violated Plainview's voice, and therefore his power. Plainview would do the same to Eli for revenge. In essence, Eli is like him, albeit without his skill and ruthlessness. Eli raves at his father, "Do you think God is going to come down here and save you for being stupid? He doesn't save stupid people, Abel." Fundamentally, two distrusting men of competitive hearts can not be brothers. Perhaps he killed Eli because of, not in spite of, Eli calling him his brother.
Reaping The Conclusion
This brings us to the tragic irony of the film, and the fourth meaning behind the title. Plainview fails to resolve his loneliness with his distrust, sabotaging himself with the desire for others like him. All the people who could have been family to him, albeit not family in blood, he ruined. There Will Be Blood is telling us that there will be sacrifices (blood of lamb). "Give me the blood, Lord!" cried Plainview, but in demanding so, he loses "adopted" blood, people who could have been as good as family to him, along with his dream since childhood of building a house filled with children. His arrogance in speaking in the indicative mood to not just get his way but almost "procreate" his wishes upon others does not change the fact that he's mortal and human.
God has judged him proud, and punishes him with loneliness. Further irony is found in the fact that the person he judged most correctly was Eli, an image of his own hubris. And yet he's compelled to keep sacrificing these salvations because of his competition, his hate. This is God in a mortal. In the Bible, God gave us Jesus, but in this film, Plainview can not make the sacrifice. H.W. must be in his image, or there will be no H.W. He doesn't love, he wants, and thus fails to achieve godhood. Where Eli is false in God's name, so too is Plainview in God's image.
One thing I must address is the misconception that this film is about capitalism. Sure, capitalism exists in the movie, but it's not Plainview's driving motivation. Capitalism's emotional equivalent is human greed, as the word itself means the accumulation of "capital," defined as sanctioned wealth or property. Plainview is not primarily a greedy man. Greedy people choose personal gain over personal values and loved ones. Plainview, however, goes out of his way to choose a more strenuous (and dangerous) long-term gain (with Union) over an easy short-term gain (with Standard Oil), inarguably to prove his worth. He also desperately wants to bring someone he can trust and love into his business, to dominate, but also to share with. These are not consistent actions with simple avarice.
Watching the film again, I trust you will find how striking the glorious cinematography captures Plainview's loneliness, from the opening well scene, to the hauntingly destitute derricks, to the shots of empty landscapes and solitary trees. While I'll admit this wasn't a perfect film, and not quite a PT Anderson film even, it is one of the finest character studies in recent memory, pulling strings from Altman and riffing on Kubrick even down to the Kubrickean bowling alley set. There are still many more things to discover in this film, which is really the Citizen Kane of our time not just 'cuz it's fun to make that comparison, but because they are moral tales about falling from trying to achieve some form of godhood. Even while it is unwatchable for some, it is satisfyingly interesting, because there is a bit of Plainview in all of us.