“There Will Be Blood” Makes Good on Its Promise, and Startles in its Depiction of Evil Manhood

Some of you who read this blog will know that I do not style myself a reviewer of movies. I do not have the credentials to do so, and I seek to avoid presenting myself as an expert regarding things for which I have no credentials or training. However, I do think it useful and fun to study cinema, as cinema is one of the primary ways our culture thinks about itself and its world. Movies are not just about entertaining–they are ways in which the culture tells its story, represents and thinks about itself, and thus it is worthy to think about them.

I will not attempt, then, to exhaustively review the film and its details but will instead make a few notes about things that interested me about There Will Be Blood. Made by Paul Thomas Anderson, a director of talent and varied focus, the film is, well, startling. It is directed with a bold hand, and it makes a strong impact on the viewer. It contains some objectionable content and is in itself disturbing, and thus some Christians will not wish to view it, and that is fine–we all have different levels of tolerance and stomach for negative content. The film, in my humble estimation, is primarily about men. This will surprise no one, as I’m constantly looking to discover how the culture thinks about gender, but I think I’m right here. The film is a study of manhood as it relates to temptation. The plot follows an oil prospector named Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who comes to a small Texas town and attempts to build his own impenetrable oil empire. Along the way, he runs up against a fervent country preacher named Eli Sunday (the name smacks of Billy Sunday; the actor is Paul Dano) who wishes to reap some of the oil money for himself and his congregation. The story also involves Plainview’s adopted son H.W., who wrestles as he grows up with an obviously difficult father and the life this father gives him. I won’t reveal much about the plot, but suffice it to say that it provides a platform by which to watch the strong personalities of the prospector and the preacher clash and display much ugliness.

The manhood evident in the film is raw and unadorned. Plainview is a hard, sharp-edged, calculating man–the only trait that occasionally supercedes his calculation is his explosive temper. This is a man who lives to compete and to win. He loads the odds against himself and then finds his greatest life pleasure in taking those odds on headfirst and defeating them. He shows flashes of humanity, most often toward his son, but in watching Plainview, we are watching a man consumed by himself and his lust for money. He is the antitype to the model of manhood set out by Christ. Christ was unfailingly others-centered; Plainview is unfailingly self-centered. A man at his best is a man living for the gospel-focused good of others–family, church, society, broader world. A man at his worst is a man living for the good of himself–his pockets, his reputation, his selfish dreams. A Christ-following man lives with an open hand, for he has been freed by the gospel to live generously and joyfully for the benefit of others. God smiles upon him, and he may smile upon others, and so he does, and all around bask in his goodness and kindness. A self-centered man lives with a clenched fist, his selfish interests running like slippery thread between his fingers. He is so consumed by himself that he cannot live for others; he is so driven by his own interests that he cannot even glimpse those borne by the people around him. Plainview shows very brief snatches of caring for others, but his masculinity, his psyche, is so dominated by himself that such snatches are quickly drowned out by a flood of selfish action or vicious anger directed at his competitors, whether real or imagined. As we watch this man play his depravity, we recoil, even as we study his character in all its complexity. Somehow, Day-Lewis manages to avoid an unnuanced character. He plays Plainview with such depth and subtlety that the word “masterful” does not suffice. When Day-Lewis discovers a great character, he burrows into it, until we cannot be sure if we are watching an actor or a man. Somehow, Plainview is both ogre and man, repulsive and endearing. This is the mark of great acting, and represents sinful humanity in its unredeemed essence.

Eli, for his part, cares not so much for his church as he cares for his reputation as a well-financed preacher. Eli wants to be around money, wishes desperately to distance himself from impoverished ministry, and so is willing to go to great lengths to do so. Eli’s character is interpreted and played rather harshly by Paul Dano, a strange and somehow affecting actor. Nonetheless, there is something for us to pick up from Sunday’s character. Do we crave cultural respectability and–forget the other urges–money so much that we sell our soul and our families and churches up the river? Do we lust after the world’s things so much that we forget that we have every treasure already in Christ? Eli Sunday does, and as a result, we are presented with a man who lives for himself just as Plainview does, although Sunday’s greed is disguised and covered up with showy piety where Plainview’s is naked and plainly malevolent. In the end, we’re not sure who to like more. I think I ended up liking Plainview more, which tells us something about how much damage a false godliness can do.

Paul Thomas Anderson often explores themes of manhood and fatherhood, and he does so eloquently here, though his is a rough eloquence. His characters are unvarnished, his relationships unpretty, his view of life rough and tumble. There Will Be Blood is beautifully shot, well-paced (and long, which allows for character and plot development), and ultimately quite revealing about the hearts of men. We are strange and powerful creatures, us men. We are capable of such good, as seen magnificently in the person of Christ, and we are capable of almost limitless evil. In the end, it is Plainview’s malevolence that most sticks with us. Though no Christian, Anderson understands that men are naturally evil, and his film plays out the evil self-centredness of one man. We are left repulsed, fascinated, and startled by what Plainview is able to do. Armed with masculine energy, ambition, and strength, he is able to do incredible things, to in effect attack the ground and wrest its fruit for himself. This is a triumph of masculine agency, and it is not evil in itself. And yet even as we affirm Plainview’s sense of masculine agency, at his strong hand, we recoil at his consuming greed, his tight-fisted grasp on all he has. We walk out of the theater startled by what man can do with his wit and his hands, and frightened by what he can do with his heart. We leave the theater thankful that though the world is filled with real-life Plainviews, flesh-and-blood men who live for themselves and wreak havoc upon their world, it is ruled by a Man who so lived for others that He bought them back from damnation by the very blood of His veins. That is a startling reality indeed.

  • tyler w.

    Owen, I’m glad to read your thoughts on this movie as I’ve been writing mine over the past week. I like your analysis, there was so much to be pulled from this film – a great one, no doubt. You brought out a unique perspective on it, I just wasn’t thinking about the masculinity on display in the film, but it’s there.

    keep it up bro.

  • Anonymous

    Its Interesting to cast Plainview as selfish. He clearly doesn’t like the fraudulent activities of the preacher/congregation and doesn’t want to be cheated by anybody nor held to ransom by either landowners nor oilo companies. Yes he is a self-made man and competitive. But he deals with each land owner rather more than fairly. The landowners are uneducated and unaspirational. They have done nothing to improve themselves, their land or society – not even dig a well. Yet he offers them a 1/6 of his profits – for which they have not had the skill nor ambition to produce. And you call HIM selfish. He build’s their school, their church, provide employment and increases their land value, and their crops. And you say he is un-chistlike.

    Sure he is a bad-tempered grizzly old alchoholic, with occasional boughts of pure madness – but apart from that I was totally with him – even most of the bad-tempered moments are entirely justifiable.