A Lenten Morality Movie
There is plenty of blood in this movie. Plenty shed blood. But no redemption. And that is what ultimately makes this powerful story horrifying.
There Will Be Blood is a kind of morality story hinging on the conflict between a wildcat oil exploiter Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, up for an Academy Award), and a boy preacher Eli (Paul Dano).
They are both men possessed – Plainview by a lust for oil, Eli by an obsession with his charismatic performances. Greed for oil, exposed as a lust for money, is pitted against greed for power, disguised as devotion for God. The conflict turns out to be a bloodsport.
Plainview is well and ironically named. He is a man who will not speak of himself, and passes himself off as affable and reasonable. Yet he sees only evil in others. And from the beginning his greed is there in “plain view” in his dark and haunted face.
In 1898 he offers a struggling California farmer a “fair price” for the oil rights to his hardscrabble farm. The farmer’s son, Eli (whose sweet face masks a heart as greedy for religious power as the oilman is for money) insists that the deal must include $5000 to build his dreamed of Church of the Third Revelation.
Evil within (hidden from plain view) emerges in a terrible struggle between oil and religion. When the gusher from a drilled well erupts in flame it becomes a symbol of the passions which possess – and will ultimately destroy – these men.
Plainview’s adopted son- the only person he loves – is deafened in an explosion at the wellhead. When Eli shows up to demand the promised five thousand dollars for his church Daniel’s rage erupts. He pummels Eli, nearly drowning him in a puddle of mud and oil.
Much later Daniel gets his own comeuppance. The rights to a piece of land he needs to lay a pipeline for his oil belong to a member of the church, and come at a price: Daniel must confess his sins, be baptized, and “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” At Eli’s command Daniel kneels, bellowing out his sins, while the gleeful preacher literally tries to beat the devil out of his head.
“Our culture,” writes Robert Wicks, “teaches us that everything out there is hostile. We have to compare, dominate, control, and insure. In brief we have to be in charge.” There Will Be Blood dramatizes this blood lust.
The truly horrifying outcome of this modern morality tale is the way these counter possessions hollow out the oil man and the religion man into caricatures of themselves.
Toward the end the movie turns into a kind of cartoon.
Daniel is living alone in the mansion he has built by the ocean. His son H.R. tells him he is leaving to live his own life and build his own career. Plainview’s bile spills out. “You have none of my seed in me. You are a bastard in a box,” he screams as the only love he has known walks out of his life.
In the final scene Daniel is lying disheveled, delusional, with unkempt and matted hair, in the bowling alley of his mansion, surrounded by dirty dishes and empty whiskey bottles.
Eli comes to see him, now a stylishly dressed, well-known, and totally broke radio preacher. Trading on some supposed “friendship” from the past he asks for a loan. The oil titan affably agrees. But then the humiliating scene of confession in the church is reversed. There is a price here too. To get the money the preacher must confess that all he has preached is a lie, that there is no God. And Daniel makes him howl his recantation as Eli had made Daniel scream his repentance.
This final take is like something from a Batman movie. These men who have lived for control, through oil and religion, become grotesque caricatures of themselves. Daniel chases the groveling Eli with a bowling pin, knocks him to the floor, and then splits his head open, blood pouring into the gutter of the alley.
Daniel’s manservant comes on the scene, and ignoring the bloody body asks Daniel if he wants anything. With his back turned, face hidden, Plainview gives a dismissive wave. “I am finished,” he grunts.
And he was. And so was Eli. Both finished. Game over.
This is the haunting horror of the movie. There was lots of blood. But the blood missing was that of the Lamb of God, who on the cross declared, “It is finished,” so that he could take away the sin of the world.
If only Daniel and Eli had known. And all those who will see this movie this Lent.
February 6, 2008