There Will Be Blood (IMDB) finally made it to Fayetteville this week, and like a lot of people, I found it to be an impressive film, possibly my favorite in this year’s Oscars race. I’m not prepared to talk about it as an adaptation, as Miriam did so effectively, but I found the film’s bleak characterization of the oilman, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the religious huckster, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), to be a pretty compelling critique of the seemingly intertwined politics of oil and religion. Based on my relatively limited experience with Upton Sinclair, I have no doubt that the source novel, Oil!, is an overtly didactic attack on the exploitation and destruction caused by the pursuit of oil and the wealth that it offers. [[Spoilers follow]].
As Miriam reports, Anderson essentially turns Sinclair’s novel inside-out, eliminating the socialist turn taken by Plainview’s son (in the novel, his name is J. Arnold “Bunny” Ross, Jr) and by Eli’s brother Paul. In fact, the renaming of characters suggests the degree to which Anderson seems to want to distance himself from the original novel’s characterization of the oilman, Ross, who is described by Miriam as “ruthless, corrupt yet relatively mild-mannered and even fair-minded,” while the renaming of Eli Watkins seems to be a nod to the turn-of-the-century evangelist Billy Sunday, leading Miriam to argue that the film places emphasis on psychology rather than politics, on Plainview and Sunday’s emptiness and greed rather than on the more corrosive effects of capitalism.
To a great extent, I’m inclined to agree. And Plainview’s violent outbursts, including his brutal beating of Eli during the film’s final scene, certainly suggest an unchecked desire (as OGIC puts it, Plainview “wants something”). I had initially hoped to defend the film in part as a commentary on our current political moment, on the ways in which Sinclair’s novel can be recycled to comment on the ongoing relationship between the politics of oil and religion, but I think that Miriam is right to suggest that Anderson more or less closes off the most interesting political readings. It was impossible for me to watch a film about an oilman and a preacher without thinking about the current administration and its use of religious rhetoric to gain votes while passing legislation friendly to major corporations and ensuring that oil companies continue to accumulate record profits. In the film, both Plainview and Sunday cynically manipulate stagecraft, performance, rhetoric to convince their congregations or audiences to bend to their will. In fact, here is where the name change of Eli’s character worked for me, connecting him to some of the excesses associated with Billy Sunday, who prospered incredibly, taking in millions of dollars and taking conservative political positions in the pulpit, while his listeners struggled financially. At the same time, Plainview’s loathing of other humans–he never marries and adopts an orphan son largely to manipulate customers into regarding him more sympathetically–and his unquenchable thirst (“I drink your milkshake”) suggests that the true capitalist will never be satisfied. Despite the physical dangers of the wells and the emotional destruction of his family, the Plainviews of the world will continue to drink up, to consume, until there’s nothing left.
That being said, this more “psychological” approach also leaves us with few alternatives. Plainview’s soon leaves his father not to become a socialist fighting back against capitalism but to compete with his father, moving his practices of exploitation and destruction across the border to Mexico. The corrupt preacher, Eli, is gone, but his socialist brother, Paul, is simply his double, yet another capitalist bent on making a buck. Thus, even in a year where voters are clamoring for change, in a moment when the environmental destruction caused by the pursuit and consumption of oil is now indisputable, Anderson can offer no alternatives to the status quo. In fact, his film goes well out of its way to eliminate socialism–and any other political and economic alternative–from the story.