When There Will Be Blood hit theaters in December 2007, I went to see it, went it see it again, and went to see it a third time.
Maybe I’m the only one. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus hooked, unsettled, and most of all fascinated me. I had never seen anything like it, and to this day, still haven’t.
What was it about the unraveling of a self-described “oil man” that won me over so decisively ten years ago? I was a senior in college at the time, and like many students, prided myself on an interest in independent films out of left field. I was also hard at work on a thesis about Søren Kierkegaard and existential philosophy, so anything with tones of alienation, dread, and “the dizziness of freedom” caught my interest as well. There Will Be Blood checked both of those boxes.
But what really grabbed me was the story. Anderson’s adaptation (inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!) is often read as a critique of the dark heart of American capitalism and religion—specifically, the oil industry and evangelical Christianity. For many, this social critique entailed a political perspective, and the film was therefore seen as an indictment of Bush-era policies.
This reading bored me then and still bores me now. I knew that Anderson’s film intuited something elemental about America, but that it was far more elemental than politics. Looking back a decade later, I think it comes down to this: There Will Be Blood delves into the ideology of will power that defines so much of the modern world, and the refusal of grace that slowly but surely destroys one modern man’s soul.
The theme of will power is evident from the very first sequence. At the turn of the century, a silver prospector suffers a terrible fall while mining a hole, breaking his leg. He manages to climb out of the mine with a sample, crawling off to capitalize on the discovery. This is Daniel Plainview, a man who—to borrow Nietzsche’s language—seems to drag himself by the hair into existence. There is no narration, no dialogue: just one man and his admirable will to survive and thrive.
But as Daniel rises to prominence with a drilling company in California, this drive takes on a frightening absoluteness. Following the accidental death of a worker, Daniel adopts his orphaned boy, “H.W.” But this is another power grab, a chance to present the marketable prop of a “son” to investors. He has “a competition” about him, as he’ll admit later on. In fact, for Daniel Plainview, it’s competition all the way down.
He continues to advance in power and prominence until he meets his match: Eli Sunday, the pastor of a local church. Eli’s family has property blocking an oil deposit, and there commences a rivalry between the two men that revolves around payouts, mind games, and the will of each to dominate the other. But where Daniel tries to control Eli with his own will, Eli tries to control Daniel with God’s will—and the war is on.
How do we make sense of this rivalry between these two figures, at once so alike and so different? I think the interpretive key is the modern turn toward will power. In his introduction to The Priority of Christ, Bishop Robert Barron argues that the modern world is marked by two great shifts toward voluntarism (or the primacy of the will). The first was a shift toward a voluntarist conception of God in theology, where God’s will trumps God’s reason and becomes absolute (making his relationship with creation “primarily legalistic and arbitrary”). The second shift, resulting from the first, was that human will trumps human reason, becoming “a distant mirror” of the absoluteness of divine freedom (which makes sense if man is the image of God). As a result, God’s will and man’s will come to be seen as equally “self-contained, capricious, absolute, and finally irrational.”
The upshot is war. Divine will and human will “find themselves pitted against one another,” with “God imposing himself arbitrarily on a necessarily reluctant and resentful humanity.” In short, we have “advocates of the prerogatives of the voluntarist God facing down advocates of the voluntarist self.” And yet, one and the same organizing principle—the primacy of will power—binds them together.
This is exactly what we find in Eli and Daniel. Eli Sunday presents (as his name suggests) God’s absolute will, and Daniel Plainview presents (as his name also suggests) man’s absolute will. To Eli, Daniel is a challenge to God’s sovereignty; so in his bare church, he compels Daniel to cower and shout to appease an angry God’s will. But to Daniel, Eli’s God is likewise a challenge to his own sovereignty; and toward the end of the film, he will exact his revenge, forcing a cornered Eli to announce that he is a “false prophet” and that “God is a superstition.” The men are enemies in a zero-sum game, yet allies in the rules of engagement.
But the true God will not remain hidden.
In what I consider to be one of the great scenes of movie history, a sudden gas blowout in Daniel’s oil rig occurs and chaos ensues. As black gold erupts into the sky, Daniel rushes over to the rig to find that H.W. is hurt, and he picks him up and begins to run. Daniel manages to spit out two telling words (“Oh God!”) as the nerve-plucking chaos of Johnny Greenwood’s drum composition “Convergence” rises. Their thirty-second run downhill feels like a lifetime.
There is apparently an “ocean of oil” under them to which only Daniel has access, but the oil rig is in jeopardy and the risk of a fire looms. He has to rush to minimize the damage to his assets and capitalize on the discovery. By all practical accounts, it’s an intense situation.
But something even more intense is happening within Daniel. As he runs to H.W. and carries him off, he’s not just worried about his business prop; he’s genuinely worried about his boy. We can see a fatherly love and concern stirring within him. And this is why the music feels so intense, urgent, and chaotic: the eruption of oil is also, by means of H.W.’s injury, an eruption of grace, and as Daniel rushes down the hill, the living God is rushing after him. God knows that it’s Daniel, and not his business, that’s in danger, and through Daniel’s fragile love for this fragile boy, breaks into his world to rescue him, to remove his heart of stone and give him a heart of flesh. If such grace is “amazing” in retrospect, it’s literally “a-maze-ing” in the moment: the invitation compels a choice, and that choice causes immense disorientation and alarm.
Daniel’s response is clear. H.W. begs him not to leave, but he runs back to check on a fire breaking out at the oil derrick. His eventual excitement about the situation feels tragic. Daniel thinks a door has just opened for him; in reality, a door has just closed.
As the story unfolds, Daniel buries himself deeper and deeper in the logic of will power. He strives to dominate the oil business, dominate others, and most of all, dominate Eli’s God—who is, in the end, just another competitor.
And this all ends, of course, with bloodshed. Anderson said that he approached There Will Be Blood like a horror film and even compared Daniel to Dracula. The film’s music and cinematography is sometimes reminiscent of the horror genre, but the conclusion is frightening in a way that most horror movies could only dream of, and not primarily because of the blood we see spilled. After one final chance at reconciliation, Daniel irrevocably turns his back on H.W., leading to a deranged final confrontation with Eli in Daniel’s private bowling alley. Their clash of competitive wills has led, inevitably, to madness and mayhem.
Daniel is the last man standing. But here, at the top of the mountain—having knocked down every last competitor, including Eli’s God—he finds himself in the icy nadir of nothingness. He has fallen into a pit that no amount of will power can get him out of; he has gained the whole world but lost his own self. In a striking distortion of Christ’s words from the Cross, he utters: “I’m finished.”
Flannery O’Connor once said that, for the near-blind, you have to draw large and startling figures. Daniel Plainview is just such a figure. But ten years later, what’s most startling about Anderson’s oil man is that he mirrors a much bigger portion of the world than critics generally thought. There still will be blood—not when this or that faction seizes power, but when the turn toward will power, which so often involves a turn away from God’s grace, seizes us.