There Will Be Blood, which arrives on DVD today, has been rightly praised for its black-comic allegory about capitalism and religion climbing into humanity’s darkest pits to destroy each other amid the earth’s inky primordial oozings.
As such, it is one of the cleverest left-wing films of recent years, its oblique approach via historical fable being both more subtle and more shocking than such recent works about the evils of petroleum as Shooter and Syriana, movies in which oil interests are so absurdly evil they’re practically Satan’s cheerleaders.
Syriana, for instance, contains an impassioned speech in which an oil man crows, “Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win.” It’s typical of the George Clooney school of filmmaking — Clooney co-starred in Syriana, not to mention last year’s corporate-corruption thriller Michael Clayton — that political statements must be delivered in neon. In a Clooney-ized rendering of the Enron saga, there would be a scene in which the firm’s executives robbed the piggybanks of their shareholders’ kids.
There Will Be Blood’s allegory was at the heart of the worldview of Upton Sinclair, the Socialist muckracker who wrote the book, OIL! on which the film is loosely based (and also wrote such titles as The Profits of Religion). But God vs. Mammon is only half of the film. An equally central theme, one that has received much less attention, is that a man is nothing without family.
This essay is for those who have seen There Will Be Blood, so I will give away plot details. Read no further if you don’t want to learn the film’s storyline before you see it.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his second Oscar-winning performance) is a man for whom work is life; as the film begins, in 1898, he’s a silver miner who breaks his leg and drags himself out of a shaft with immense and excruciating effort. The camera leaps back to show us a bleak, terrifyingly empty landscape: Plainview is completely alone, seemingly many miles from any kind of help.
Plainview first shows some humanity when he cradles his infant son while a mine turns into a gushing oil well before our eyes. Without a word being spoken, it’s clear that Daniel’s painful sacrifices are partly driven by his love for his son, whose mother never appears and whom Daniel never voluntarily discusses (although he will later claim she died in childbirth — his wavering glance tells us this is a lie — to a housewife whose property he needs for oil exploration).
Daniel’s rocky climb to the top is forced to a violent halt when a well he builds in the town of Little Boston uncorks so much oil that the treasure itself sows chaos, causing an explosion that turns the rig into a plume of hellfire and nearly kills Daniel’s now nine-year-old son, leaving him deaf.
Shortly after that, a man calling himself Daniel’s half-brother Henry appears on the scene, talking about the family’s home and background in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Never before has the film given us a hint about where Daniel came from or to whom, other than his son, he has a bond; to this point, Daniel has been more machine than man, a human drill.
Despite the serious setback with his son, who has become withdrawn and erratic since the accident, perhaps blaming his father for leaving him in harm’s way, Daniel changes. It’s as if the brother has replaced the son as a reason for his existence. Daniel speaks for the first time in the film about non-business matters, and his soul comes gushing out. Unprompted by Henry, he confesses there is a competition in him that makes him want to see other men fail, and that he hates most people.
Feeling comfortable with Henry is what enables Daniel to send his son away to school; he casts off the memory of his failure as a father and tries to rebuild a kind of family with his newfound kin. When Daniel finds out that his “brother” is an impostor, though, he kills him in a rage. The man has done nothing to Daniel except learn his feelings, but that is enough.
It is the despair about lacking family that destroys Daniel; from the moment he finds out his brother is a fake, he is essentially beyond reason. Being reminded of his son causes him to act churlishly, and (this is more important) in a manner contrary to his own business interests, in a roomful of Standard Oil executives. And in the psychotic episode that concludes the film, he will beat to death Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the corrupt and fraudulent preacher who has been dogging his every step.
In their final meeting, Daniel at first merely teases and humiliates his old adversary; the dispute between them, bitter as it is, is essentially about business. What brings on Daniel’s final rage is family.
Daniel has just suffered the loss of his son for a third time, following the accident and the banishment to school. The boy, now grown, has gotten married and wants to start his own business, in Mexico. This Daniel sees, inevitably, as competition and therefore betrayal, but not just in a material sense; he shows that he is deeply wounded by his son’s plan to move away from him by replying that his son is an orphan whom Daniel found in a basket and used for business purposes, to make him seem like more of a family man when selling his services to wary townsfolk. This is almost certainly a lie; we’ve seen Daniel’s devotion to his son in his eyes.
This loss has left Daniel drunk, lonely, and sour, but not muderous. What sends Daniel into his second homicidal rage is when Eli calls Daniel his “brother by marriage” — Eli’s sister has married Daniel’s son. Daniel can abide a false prophet; selling salvation is merely smart business. What really strikes Daniel as sacrilege is a false brother.
Smith is a film critic for the New York Post. He blogs at http://www.kylesmithonline.com