Why do you boast, O mighty man, of mischief
done against the godly?
All the day you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.
You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking
You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
But God will break you down for ever; he will snatch and
tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living. [Selah]
The righteous shall see, and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying,
“See the man who would not make God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches,
and sought refuge in his wealth!”
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Matthew 6:24 (RSV)
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood; Would you over evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.
Lewis E. Jones, 1899
In his latest film director-screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson ventures far from the hope-filled world of his Magnolia and deposits us in a dry land of greed and malevolence, although it is still California. Loosely based on a novel by Upton Sinclair—Oil—the film eschews that writer’s socialism, becoming instead a character study of a man whom Jesus and the Psalmist would assert has sold his soul to Mammon. Interestingly enough, the film features a second character who, while claiming to serve God, offers a mirrored reflection of the main character, so the film could be viewed as an expose of American religiosity as well as of capitalism—sort of an Elmer Gantry Meets Citizen Kane.
We see the humble beginning in 1898 of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the first quarter hour of the film toiling away in a deep hole mining for silver or gold. It is dirty and dangerous work, in one sequence Daniel breaking his leg and having to haul himself up to the surface and get to the distant town. There is no dialogue in this section, save for his exclamation, when he digs out enough ore, that he has found it. By 1902 the dirt on the floor of the pit has become black and sticky from the seepage coming to the surface, and thus the miner becomes a seeker of “black gold,” the coin of the new industrial age arising in America. Covered with the sticky substance, Daniel touches the baby held in the arms of one of his men, placing a dark mark on the infant’s head as if he were anointing him. (I saw the film the day after Ash Wednesday and thus was especially struck by this small act!)
Jump ahead to 1911, and Daniel, now an experienced oil driller, is addressing a crowd of landowners about his drilling on their land. Like a snake oil salesman, he assures him that only he can deliver the goods. Right beside him is his adopted son H.W (Dillion Freasier), whom he uses like a prop to gain people’s trust. When some in the audience ask skeptical questions, Daniel walks out on them, refusing to listen to their pleas to return. A young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) offers to tell him where there is a large tract of land with an ocean of oil, but for a price. After sparring, they strike a bargain, and Daniel and H.W. are soon pretending to hunt quail on the land owned by Paul’s family. Through chicanery and a false promise to Eli Sunday (also played by Paul Dano), Daniel obtains the oil rights to the land, and soon is working through a realtor to sign up the owners of adjoining ranches. Like a Horatio Alger hero, Daniel soon is well on the road to wealth and power—but happiness will prove far more elusive.
There is much more to the story, including that of Eli, a charismatic preacher/healer who becomes Daniel’s enemy when the latter reneges on his promise to pay a large sum of money to his Church of the Third Revelation. We might expect that the preacher would be the center of decency and morality over against Daniel’s greed and cruelty, but the film follows another path, showing how greed and a thirst for vengeance can corrupt a religious leader as well.
Adding to the artistic effect of the film is the stark music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Eschewing the usual lush melodies of films, Greenwood’s often ominous sounding chords in which tensions are not resolved create a sense of foreboding, and his staccato accompaniment to action scenes heighten the suspense. The editing too is superb, with little of the usual quick cuts between speakers, the editors often settling for unbroken long shots of the characters as if they wanted us to keep our distance from them or else to show their isolation amidst the desert backgrounds.
There is so much in this film for a group to explore, with plenty of applicable Scriptures for study—not only the ones quoted above, but also the stories of God creating male and female and that of Cain and Abel. This is not a film to “enjoy” (no more than one would say to a hell-fire and brimstone preacher that one enjoyed his sermon), but it is a character study to learn from. Like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the film shows us the dead-end street to which greed and cruelty lead. After watching this film, I felt the urge to return to the director/writer’s earlier film Magnolia, the message of which is the positive side of the same truth that Daniel Plainview denies—the absolute necessity for lonely human beings to connect with one another. Ignore or deny this at your peril.
This section contains spoilers, so beware if you have not seen the film.
1) How would you describe Daniel Plainview to someone who had not seen the film? Compare him to Cain in the Genesis story. Note how he bears this out in his words to Henry Brand: “There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.” 2) Compare Eli Sunday to Daniel: are they really so different? What seems to be Eli’s theology, especially his view of the nature of God? How does Eli use religion to exact vengeance upon Daniel? How does Daniel himself use religion—do you see any genuineness in his repentance?
3) Where do you think adopted son H.W. came from? Do you think that possibly he was the baby in the miner’s arms near the beginning of the film, and that the miner was the one killed in the accident? What did the boy mean to Daniel? How was he really just a tool, such as a drill or derrick, used by Daniel to extract oil? Why do you think that H.W. set a fire in their tent, as a result of his accident and being left alone while Daniel ran to contain the derrick fire? What does Daniel’s leaving the terrified boy reveal about his values? Why do you think Daniel left H.W. alone on the train? And yet how does Daniel show that he still has a little spark of decency in him?
4) What effect does Henry Brand have on Daniel? From their conversations how do we see that even a loner like Daniel needs at least a minimum of human contact? Were you surprised by Henry’s confession and then what Daniel did? How can such things that Daniel said (like “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” ) be seen as preparing us for his horrific deed?
4) Even if we did not know anything about the film’s inspiration, Upton Sinclair’s anti-business novel Oil, what in the film would make us see it as a strong critique of American capitalism? How was John D. Rockefeller similar to Daniel Plainview? How has American business improved its ethics since “the age of the robber barons,’ and yet how is it sill infected by greed and the exploitation of others? Two good films to see or discuss in connection: Wall Street and ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
5) Two other films that can be seen as “filling in the gaps” of Daniel’s descent into darkness are Treasure of the Sierra Madre and A Simple Plan. Indeed, it is reported on IMDB’s website for There Will Be Blood that Paul Thomas Anderson watched the former film for a number of nights before he began shooting his own film. Good preparation!
6) How do you think that Daniel’s misanthropic philosophy led to the adult H.W.’s decision to leave him? How do such persons as Daniel create their own hell? How could Daniel’s words, intended to hurt—” You have nothing of me in you!” —actually become a source of comfort for H.W.?
7) How is what Daniel finally does to Eli related to Eli’s earlier treatment of Daniel in the “conversion” and baptism scene? How is this one of the most sacrilegious baptisms ever put on film? Is there an ounce of sincerity in either the preacher or Daniel at this point? At what points does one character degrade and humiliate the other?
8) Is the scene in the bowling alley an example of sowing what we reap? Note the hymn sung in church when Daniel confesses his “faith” —how is this mirrored in this final confrontation between the two men? Thus what meanings do you see in the title of the film?
9) What are Daniel’s final words? Compare them to the final words of Christ upon the cross: how is there a world of difference despite their similarity? What irony do you see in Daniel’s last name? How is the story of Daniel like that of the man described by the Psalmist, or by Jesus in his parable of the men who built their houses on the rock and quicksand? (See Matt. 7:24-27. Also, an interesting exercise might be to scan Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to see how many of the teachings there that Daniel violates.)
10) For those who have not seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s more positive film Magnolia, I strongly recommend that they do so, as it dwells on the theme of our need to be connected with each other ( “It is not good that the man should be alone…” Gen. 2:18a). For how this works out in the case of a dying man and his estranged son see my book Praying the Movies II, Meditation 24 “Prodigal Son, Prodigal Father.” As you watch the film, look for the ones who are similar to Daniel Plainview and see what happens to them.