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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

There Will Indeed Be A Morally Unambiguous Ending

There Will Be Blood had my love as soon as the credits rolled, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.  (For those that haven’t seen it, I’ve noted where spoilers begin.)  I wanted to see it again before trying to put why I liked it so much into words, and in the mean time read what reviews I could find, to perhaps get a few clues.  Most of them, though, reduce the movie to little more than big ol’ Big-Business vs. little ol’ (Big-)Religion, and end up with a luke-warm if not negative review.  Those I’ve read that liked the movie seemed to be in the same predicament I am— not quite sure if there’s a coherent reason why they like the movie, but by golly they do.  I got the chance to see it again, though, following its DVD release, and think I can say more clearly just why I enjoyed it so much.

Those that boil the movie down to Business vs. Religion do so because they see the movie as a comment, basically, on American history; this in turn makes the movie little more than a tirade against the Big-ness of both religion and business in America, with all their hucksters and conmen, throwing in perhaps a little bit of sympathy for poor religion getting trampled by mean ol’ business.  The one thing this gets right is that There Will Be Blood is an unflinching glare at what America has made of itself.  It ignores, though, exactly on what grounds the two main characters of Eli and Daniel are facing off: the American Myth of the self-made man.


Two points are immediately raised by this, the first of which hasn’t received much thought that I’ve seen and the second which has been blown hugely out of proportion.  Firstly, the tense of the title, there will be blood, which appears at the end of the movie between the final scene and the credits. This title is as much a warning ( to us who will leave the theatre and walk back out into the America it is about) as it is a preface to the movie, if not more-so. As a preface is how I’ve seen it almost universally taken, and Anderson admittedly seems to encourage it, what with his joke that he could’ve titled it “There Will Be A Morally Unambiguous Ending”; and though the ending is indeed morally unambiguous, I think there’s more to it than “Murder/Business/Religion/etc. are bad!” Secondly, the lack of women included in the plot. The first point becomes more salient and the second justified if the subject is the self-made man, how he goes about making himself, and the inherent problems that this myth entails (including, for example, its sexism).

Taking this myth as the movie’s theme provides the possibility of an interpretation that accounts for some of the outliers I’ve noticed other reviewers either exclude from discussion or throw their hands up over (such as why Anderson chooses to allow mud, oil, and water to land on the lens or to have the audience experience H.W.’s ailment), as well as some of the aspects I’ve seen people notice and try to make the sole theme (such as family or money).  The key is the breadth of this myth, which includes family and origins, the pursuit of wealth and happiness, and, what I think is the the most prevalent aspect if any is more so than the others, self-presentation and appropriation.

It is both an unfortunate blemish and a point of pride that the historical self-made man of America is famous for finding a way, at any cost, to get what he wants, be it land or freedom of speech, and usually on his own terms.  Anybody who has seen the Charlie Rose interview with Anderson and Day-Lewis probably experienced the same shudder I did, when both of these men emphasized that they actually liked Plainview, and wondered how exactly one can justify liking such a despicable man.  Plainview is, though, the archetype.  He is built into the fabric of the American dream, the very ideal of it in many ways, but we, as Americans, flinch at an unflattering depiction that includes greed, malice, lies, and a plethora of other sins.

Much has been made of the movie’s first fifteen minutes, containing little more than music and Plainview’s Gollum-esque mutterings, “Yes… There you are…”  The first speech the audience hears is Plainview, some years after these opening scenes of near-silence, with a remarkably more refined and overpoweringly confident demeanor, adressing an audience.  This speech, every sonorous note and rolling sentence of it, along with its counterpart made to the residents of Little Boston later on, promising education, food, and jobs, is a gem designed to light the way to self-making, the very model of which sits before you, as evinced by all his talk of being a “famly business,” doing his own work, and personally knowing his workers, as opposed to all those dastardly oil barons and their big bad businesses.  What happens here is a succinct introduction to the myth of the man itself.  When the camera fades to Plainview in his chair, H.W. by his side, it is quite a surprise, being such a stark difference from the dingy man digging by himself in a well, lying on the floor with his leg in a splint, or, still dirty, heading by train into the great unknown.  In one short speech the audience, both of them, is made aware that Plainview has not only made himself, that is, his own image, but has made his family and his business, all of which are a success to marvel over, and all of which are the founding tenets of the self-made man.

[Serious spoilers begin here.]

Now the reason I think appropriation and self-representation are the most prominent themes is that these are the focii around which Eli and Daniel’s relationship develops, which, despite the second act, is the movie’s main drive.  Each man has something the other wants.  Eli has untapped land and oil in a prime location, which could serve to make Daniel successful beyond his wildest dreams; Daniel has resources, both money and men, to help grow Eli’s church to the same extent.  Each man also understands the other in a way no one else in the movie does, seeing beyond the veneer they present (Henry is the anomaly, here, but his role for Plainview, and the understanding between them, is a bit more complex, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment).  Both men have the drive to be self-made, both have a disdain for other people (split equally between those who lack the drive to be self-made and those who compete in the same territory to be self-made), and both know that it is presentation that matters most in getting what you want.

The issue of representation, though it appears in their first encounter with Plainview’s irritation at finding someone who can play his game to an extent and who sees his presentation as a presentation (“Ah, something you don’t know.”  “Yes…”), first comes to the fore when Sunday suggests he bless the well before it begins production.  Plainview, however, in spite of having agreed during their meeting to let him bless the well, steals the almost exact words Sunday used as his example blessing and pronounces it himself.  To steal someone’s words, by either depriving him of them or by turning them against him, Plainview knows is one of the most devastating things you can do to a person.  It happens here, more prominently with the one-liner “That was one goddamn helluva show,” and more devastatingly if less obviously when Plainview spits into Eli’s face in the final scene “I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy’s tract!”  Here, he is stealing Sunday’s very idea of salvation— it is not the blood of Christ, as Sunday forced Plainview to confess earlier, but the oil-money his church was built by.  Sunday counts it a success for this same reason when he forces Daniel to join his church, whether or not he explicitly knows this.  It is forcing Plainview to submit to Sunday’s language, a language Sunday knows defies Plainview’s own.  (I am reminded here of Rorty’s discussion of torture in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and his idea of the pursuit of a final vocabulary; there is an affinity between the ideal of the self-made man and the ideal of Rorty’s ironist, with both willing to give up their foundational pasts, though the sacrifice is for different purposes.)

This use and misuse of language and the complication of self-representation also ties into the issue of family.  Some of the reviews I’ve read have said that Plainview’s desire for a family is part of, if not all of his main motivation.  The basis for this is his acceptance of Henry, despite suspicion, and his adoption of H.W.  However, Daniel’s motivation for accepting Henry is more complex than a simple desire to have a family.  Henry, who I think lays the groundwork for the interpretation of H.W., approaches Plainview out of the blue, claiming to be his long lost brother.  Daniel is obviously suspicious of Henry at first, not-so-sublty asking for proof that he is who he says.  But for a man with as much wherewithal as Daniel, I find it hard to believe he would accept his story so easily without other motivations.  In truth, I think, Daniel sees a business proposition, and thus the possibility of having greater success in being self-made, as well as a possible brother.  Either way, Daniel thinks Henry is an ideal match.  He is either a conman like himself with the prowess to use Daniel as a leg up (which Daniel doesn’t mind as long as he is advantaged as well), or his brother, which means, as Daniel puts it, “if it’s in me, it’s in you.”  It is a strange, counterintuitive chiasmus:  If he has the drive and the cunning, he is my brother (whether or not he really is); if he is my brother, he has the drive and the cunning (whether or not he really has).  Daniel seeks a family, yes, but not because he longs to have one; only because a family is good business, and his is, after all, a family business— and he suspects he has just lost his first partner, H.W.  His use of H.W. is the most obvious aspect of this “family business” dynamic, as we hear more than enough comments from other characters about what a sweet face H.W. has, the boon he ought to be for business, etc.   Once Henry is in the picture, though, H.W. gets jealous and sets fire to the house, because Daniel has filled his role in the business, with Henry, and begun ignoring him due to his deafness.  (I grant that family, whether made or not, is perhaps offered as a salve by that fleeting flashback after H.W. leaves, but by that point in the film it is so near irrelevance that I don’t find it that important of a point.  At most, it is a last plea for sympathy before Plainview finishes himself.)

Language comes into play here in two ways.  First, with Henry.  Plainview kills Henry because he confesses two things.  The first, that he “just took [Daniel’s real brother’s] story, used his diary…” and the second, that he’s trying to “just survive.”  These are coevally the worst sins against Plainview, though the first is made unpalatable to him by the second, I think.  Henry wants nothing more than to survive, not to be self-made (however aided), and thus his appropriation, his theft of words, isn’t in pursuit of self-making.  He is not his brother, and has neither drive nor cunning.

Secondly, H.W. is arguably saved from the corruption of Plainview by his deafness, by his inability to be caught in Plainview’s language.  H.W.’s rejection of Daniel’s game is made most apparent to Daniel by H.W.’s deafness; thus, H.W. through his interpreter, “I’d rather keep you as my father than my business partner,” and Daniel’s response, “Then say it! … I’d like to hear you speak instead of your little dog woof woof woof woof woof!”  But what H.W. says, and him saying it, “is killing my image of you as my son.”  And thus Plainview reveals the previously unspoken secret, taunting him with the phrase “bastard in a basket” even though he cannot hear it.  H.W. is, perhaps, hope that we will heed the warning of the title, but it is only through some great catastrophe that we will escape it.  This separation from Daniel’s self-made language is why Anderson submerges the audience in H.W.’s deafness, as well as why he allows things to lands on the lens.  It is a reminder that we, too, can escape Plainview’s self-destructive game of self-making, and a spur to do so.  Most poignantly, water lands on the lens as Daniel is chasing Eli down the bowling alley, just before killing him: a last reminder of the opportunity to change course while we can.  (An off the wall theory here, but might one make that leap, which is worn out for sure and thus I am trepidatious of using it, from the flaming gusher to 9/11, and perhaps the deafening impact that simultaneously supposedly broke off post-modernism and revealed the means to an ocean of oil?  Too tenuous a link to affirm, certainly not an explicit metaphor, and more overtly political than this movie feels, but it might be interesting to consider…)

Which brings me to the final scene, with that already famous line and with what is now one of my favorite ending lines in cinema history (and the more deserving of fame).  Plainview appropriates, or to put it less politely steals, Sunday’s life-blood first (his oil and his hope in the face of the crashing economy), his self-image (as a preacher and a Christian), his language (the aforementioned “blood of lamb”), and finally his life.  In vanquishing Sunday he has completed his self-making by appropriating all he possibly could from his last link to his most successful source.  That final line, with such peculiar delivery, “I’m finished,” is marvelous in its multiplicity, what he has finished being everything from the mundane to the grandiose, his dinner to his life’s work.  It is said with both resignation and affirmation— that he has completely made himself, finally, and in doing so has risked everything for which he worked.

There Will Be Blood as a whole, and that final line specifically, are an admonition, delivered from within the myth itself, to be aware of what one must and will sacrifice in order to succeed at making oneself, at becoming a self-made man fully and finally.

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Filed under: Analysis, Film, There Will Be Blood, , , , ,

One Response

  1. Richard says:

    Great post! I was definitely one of those people who couldn’t quite explain what I loved about this movie, but I think you did an excellent job of exploring what was going on in it.

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