There Will Be Blood – 2007
This was a strange movie with a really messed up ending. I’m not even sure of what it meant. What were the protagonist’s motivations? Why did he do what he did, and what did the final cryptic line mean? I did a little research on the internet, this time even going beyond Wikipedia, and found a reasonably understandable statement that seemed to sum up the movie. Rob Frank, on his website Film Analysis and Interpretation, says of the film, “The meaning of There Will Be Blood is that pursuit of wealth, without consideration for others, leads to personal downfall.”
That sounds pretty accurate to me. Daniel Day Lewis played Daniel Plainview, a hard-working oil man in the late 1800s. He is a terrible human being, a despicable character. By his own admission, he hates everyone and is perfectly willing to lie, cheat, steal, and murder to get what he wants, all of which he does over the course of the film. Early on in his career, a single father who is one of his employees, dies on the job. Daniel takes the child for his own for the sole purpose of being able to use the boy to charm investors and land-owners, calling his oil drilling operations a family business. The child actor playing his son, H.W., is Dillon Freasier.
As a young boy, H.W. is injured when a drilling operation has an accident. He suffers total hearing loss. Unable to communicate with his son, Daniel becomes distant and dismissive, even going so far as to send him away to a school for the deaf, in a most despicable way. He gets on a train with H.W., then tells him that he needs to speak to the conductor. Daniel then exits the train and abandons H.W. He gets in his car and leaves, letting the train carry the frightened boy away alone. H.W. is eventually recalled when Daniel can use him again. Eventually, when H.W. grows to a man, and is now played by deaf actor Russell Havard, he gets married and tells his father that he wants to leave home and start an oil drilling business of his own in another state. A drunk Daniel, through a sign language interpreter, drops the bomb on the boy that he isn’t his son, and that now he is his competition.
But believe it or not, all this is only a subplot. The movie is about Daniel’s competitive relationship with a religious fanatic. Fortune drops a virtual ocean of oil in Daniel’s lap. The owners of the land are Sunday family. Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano, is the local preacher who is so passionate about his work that he resembles a wild faith healer like the fictional Elmer Gantry. He delivers fiery sermons, claiming to cast demons out of arthritic hands, and other such miracles. Daniel swindles the Sunday family into a lease agreement. He even murders a con man claiming to be his long lost brother, Henry, played by Kevin J. O’Connor.
Daniel and Eli are constantly competing with each other over control of the town and its oil fields. At one point, in order to use the land of one of Eli’s parishioners, Daniel is forced to join Eli’s church. Under Eli’s revivalist faith healing theatrics, Daniel humiliates and debases himself in front of the congregation, shouting out his sin of abandoning his son, a confession that almost sounds sincere.
But years later, after Daniel has become wealthy and alone, Eli shows up on his doorstep. Daniel is drunk and in a stupor after his final confrontation with H.W. Eli has fallen on hard times and tries to sell Daniel the piece of land that caused him to humiliate himself earlier. But Daniel turns the tables and forces Eli to humiliate himself by shouting that he is a false prophet and that God is a superstition. Daniel tells a tearful Eli that the land in question is now worthless because the oil has all been drained. Then he brutally murders Eli with a bowling pin. As his butler arrives and sees the dead body, Daniel says, “I’m finished,” and the movie ends.
What the heck did that mean? The research I did went very deeply into how the movie was a metaphor of how blind ambition and heartless greed are turning Americans into killers. While this might have some truth to it, I tend to take a simpler look at it. It is the story of a man that shows us how pursuit of wealth, without consideration for others, leads to personal downfall. For me, it wasn’t about how corporate greed is killing religion. It was about a murderer getting revenge on someone for having stood in the way of his greed and humiliating him.
And what did “I’m Finished” mean? Did it mean, “You’ve caught me in the act of murder and my career is over.”? Or did it mean, “I’ve finally gotten the revenge I’ve longed for. I won.”? Or maybe it meant something else entirely. And the line was delivered with a tone of happiness, making it even more cryptic. Who knows? Either way, both Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano turned in some powerful performances, making this an interesting film to watch, no matter how you interpret its moral and philosophical ambiguities.