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There Will Be Blood
Terri Murray tells us about a Hollywood hero beyond good and evil.
If Hollywood genre movies can be depended upon to deliver one thing, it is a good hero pitted against an evil foe. Simplistic though it is, Hollywood cinema seduces us all with these Manichean conflicts that persuade us to side with the good guys. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood marked a rare exception to this rule, giving audiences an unconventional protagonist – one seemingly beyond good and evil.
There Will Be Oil
The narrative, a cinematic adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, centres on the epic rise, and ultimate decline, of oil magnate Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). But this is no typical tale of poor boy made good, for Plainview is far from good in any moral sense, despite his admirable characteristics. Instead Plainview is a thoroughly Nietzschean figure, and if one is seeking ways to vivify Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy – especially his attitude towards Christian morality – one can do no better than through this film. While Plainview embodies many aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy and personality, I will limit my focus to how the film illuminates Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity. The parallels go far beyond Plainview’s bushy moustache.
The central conflict of There Will Be Blood is between Plainview, who is a plain-speaking businessman with big ambitions in the burgeoning oil industry, and a hypocritical Christian preacher, Eli Sunday, who shares Plainview’s ambition for wealth but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty earning it. The film opens in 1898, when we see Plainview making his first discovery, and badly injuring his leg in the process.
There is no dialogue during the opening scenes, and our attention is drawn instead to the raw, uncivilized physicality of man as animal struggling against the elements. Several years pass, and again we see Plainview prospecting for oil, this time with a team of colleagues, one of whom is killed in an accident at a primitive drilling site, leaving a son. Plainview adopts the orphaned boy, who goes by the name ‘H.W.’. These early scenes of injury and death set the contours of what will follow: destruction, loss and injury is seen throughout the film as an integral part of all that is exceptional, energetic, life-affirming and productive, not as antithetical to it. It is a means to greatness, progress and flourishing.
It is not until 1911, some thirteen years after his first discovery, that we hear Plainview speak for the first time. He is by this time seeking to buy leases on plots of land where he wishes to drill for oil, offering a share of his profits to the owners. Before long, a young man comes to sell him information about the location of a plot of oil-rich land that can be bought cheaply. He wants $500 cash for the information. Eventually Plainview reaches an agreement with the shrewd young man, who introduces himself as Paul Sunday, from a poor family of goat farmers who can’t grow anything on their land, which is mostly dry rock. Plainview wastes no time going to the oil-rich town, Little Boston, with H.W., where they have ostensibly arrived to do some quail hunting. Plainview finds the barren Sunday farm, and meets Paul’s father Abel, who is so poor he cannot even offer Plainview and his son bread. While setting up camp near their home, Plainview and H.W. are greeted by a man who introduces himself as Eli, Paul’s brother. This is somewhat perplexing, as Eli appears to be the same young man who had previously introduced himself as Paul.
Soon afterwards H.W. and Plainview ascertain that the land is indeed as oil-rich as ‘Paul’ described it, and Plainview attempts to negotiate a price with Abel Sunday. Eli intercedes to raise the price, since he’s the only member of the family who knows the true worth of the lot. Plainview is inclined to pay Eli’s asking price of $5,000 plus a cash bonus of $5,000 more when the well starts to produce, although again there is some ambiguity about this. The oil man wants to build a pipeline through Abel’s land that could stretch to the ocean and make him very rich, since it would allow him to circumvent the railways and their exorbitant shipping costs. During the negotiation, Plainview asks Eli what he wants the money for and Eli replies “for my church.” Plainview looks at him in disbelief and replies, “That’s good. That’s a good one.”
This cynicism shows us parallels between Plainview and Nietzsche. Nietzsche, whose father was a Lutheran pastor, thought we would do better to study the motives that drive philosophers and preachers to their particular moral conclusions than to concern ourselves with their ‘truth’. Nietzsche thought that, like everything else, philosophy and religion were expressions of self-interest. Plainview too does not even entertain the possibility that Eli’s desire might be motivated by anything other than his will-to-power. There is no question in Plainview’s mind that Eli uses religion merely to rationalise his motives and dispositions.
Plainview quickly brings wealth and progress to the people of Little Boston. Where once bread was scarce, now they will have it in abundance – along with water wells, irrigation, education, employment and new roads. However, Plainview’s form of advancement has a distinctly Nietzschean flavour. In Beyond Good and Evil (Aph. 258) Nietzsche asserts that a “good and healthy aristocracy” must be founded on the belief that society does not exist for its own sake, but as a scaffolding upon which a select kind of being can raise itself to a higher existence, much as a climbing vine wraps its tendrils around an oak tree to ascend until it emerges into the sunlight and unfold its coronas. Nietzsche felt that when an aristocratic society tosses away its privileges, and from an excess of moral feeling begins to try to justify itself in terms of what the nobility do for society, it gets things the wrong way round. He identified this inversion of the power relationship as a symptom of ‘democratic’ decadence and corruption. While Daniel Plainview’s oil drilling enterprise can improve living conditions for the townspeople, he clearly sees these benefits as means to his own success and wealth. Plainview is first and foremost an entrepreneur, not a philanthropist.
This is consistent with Nietzsche’s view of leadership. The noble person, he says, feels himself as determining value. He does not need the approval of others, or of God. He creates values: he knows that he is the one who causes things to be revered, so does not need approval. He feels a kind of fullness, of overflowing power, so that if he helps the unfortunate it is not out of pity but out of an urgency created by an abundance of power: “The noble person reveres the power in himself, and also his power over himself, his ability to speak and to be silent, to enjoy the practice of severity and harshness towards himself and to respect everything that is severe and harsh.” (BGE Aph. p.260, trans Marion Faber, Oxford World Classics, 1998.) The fundamental principle of Nietzsche’s ‘master morality’ is that we have duties only towards our peers, and we may treat those of lower rank as we think best. Aimed as it was at containing, diminishing and moderating the natural passions, European morality was, in Nietzsche’s view, leading to a decline into mediocrity. Nietzsche thought moral codes a tyranny against nature. He saw in contemporary European society a kind of levelling that was making people ‘equal’, to be sure, but at the price of elevating “those who can’t do much harm any more” while suppressing the power of their natural masters.
Beyond Good and Evil
Eli Sunday sets about trying to make converts of the new arrivals to Little Boston but is met with indifference. He seems to have nothing to offer men and women whose bellies are full of bread and whose days are filled with productive work. He attempts to siphon off some religious currency from the new oil well by requesting that Plainview allow him to give a blessing at the public opening of the new well. Plainview appears to give his assent, but when the townspeople are gathered in front of the well, he gives his own ‘blessing’:
“Let’s forget the speech; I’m better at digging holes in the ground than making speeches, so let’s forget the speech for this evening. Just make it a simple blessing. You see, one man doesn’t prospect from the ground, it takes a whole community of good people such as yourselves, and uh, this is good – we stay together. We pray together, we work together, and if the good Lord smiles kindly on our endeavour, we share the wealth together.”
At this juncture he says, “God bless you all, Amen,” the well is opened, and drilling commences. Eli has been rendered impotent and silent. Plainview has demonstrated that he knows the true source of power in Little Boston, and that any religiosity to be drawn from the well will be under his authority, not Eli’s.
Plainview is not against the use of religion as a means to power; and neither was Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the responsibility of the ‘free spirit’ is to his own development. For this, the free spirit may use religion, in the same way that that he might exploit political or economic circumstances. Those who are strong, independent and of a noble nature can use religion to remove obstacles. Nietzsche also saw that religion tends to make the drudgery of life bearable for those powerless to change their circumstances. It gives meaning to their suffering and allows them to remain content with the circumstances of their lives by assuring them that they have a place in an illusory higher order. But to Nietzsche, religion goes wrong when seen as an end in itself, or when it celebrates or exalts what is weak and ought to die out. He thought that Christianity was nihilistic to the core, sacrificing everything of value in others and ourselves, ultimately even God himself. Christianity sacrifices everything real – life – for a non-existent future. But for the church, Nietzsche’s life-affirming values are sins.
One evening there is a fatal accident at the well, and Plainview is forced to shut down until the middle of the next day. When he learns that the deceased was a devout Christian, he feels obliged to visit Eli to ask whether he would give the man a Christian burial. When he arrives at the Church of the Third Revelation, he finds Eli in the throes of a ‘healing’. Eli Sunday is transparently false, and we are positioned to identify with Plainview’s point of view on his disingenuous antics, which swing between extremes of saccharine sweetness and uncontrollable rage. This also fits Nietzsche’s description of the religious disposition. Nietzsche noted that repression and denial of the will leads to “spasms” of “extravagant voluptuousness” followed by penitence and “denial of the world” (Aph. 47 in BGE). Nietzsche diagnosed this tendency to swing back and forth between extremes as a kind of ‘neurosis’.
When Eli Sunday has finished the ‘healing’, Plainview says, “That was one Goddamn hell of a show.” Eli launches into a diatribe about how the accident could have been avoided if Plainview had only let him bless the well – suggesting that not only Eli but divine providence had been displaced from the well. He continues to taunt Plainview with accusations, but the older man interrupts him with a reminder that the well cannot “blow gold all over the place” if the men are too tired from listening to Eli’s gospel. At last this silences Eli, whose bluff has been called by Plainview’s acute discernment of where his true motives lie.
Both men are ambitious for wealth and power, they have simply chosen different means of getting it. Like Nietzsche, Plainview knows that the will-to-power works in many ways, but is always the underlying explanation for men’s actions and thinking. Nietzsche observed that the saint is a fascinating riddle to us because we wonder at how anyone can have such strength of will. Surely the asceticism must be being endured for a reason? Nietzsche suggests that the ascetic is also exercising his will-to-power, but simply using an indirect means, and that is why powerful people sense a “strange unconquered enemy” when he approaches.
Not long after the first accident, an equally horrible one occurs at the well, leaving the young H.W. deaf. In the midst of the tragedy, with H.W. still lying injured, oil shooting out of the ground and raining down on everything, and fires burning the rig, Plainview says to his assistant, “What are you looking so miserable about? There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet. No one can get at it except for me!” There’s a stunning close-up of Plainview’s face covered with slick black oil, his eyes glowing with passion in the light of the fire. With chaos and devastation all around, he sees the vast potential that lies within this raw power. Yet when his assistant asks, “H.W. okay?” Plainview replies matter-of-factly, “No he is not.” While obviously unhappy about what has happened to his adoptive son, it is as though Plainview accepts the fact that great achievement cannot be had painlessly, nor without the shedding of blood.
This is why Eli Sunday is particularly annoying to Plainview. When Eli comes to collect his family’s $5,000 land bonus from him, the viewer can hardly help but share the oilman’s disdain for this preacher who has shed no blood, no sweat, and no tears for the wealth the well has produced. By contrast, Plainview knows that his adoptive son’s loss of hearing is his responsibility, and he bears the full weight of this knowledge with great difficulty – but not with regret, and without resentment. Plainview knows that his choices have exacted their toll, but this is the price of being decisive, ambitious and ultimately successful. He will not give up his enterprising spirit just because it is sometimes costs more than the average man can bear. So when Eli Sunday, a man who has neither ventured nor lost anything, confronts Plainview with a demand for his cash bonus, Plainview loses his temper, throwing him into a pool of oily mud, slapping mud on his face and even forcing it into his mouth, saying, “I’m gonna bury you underground, Eli. Oooooh. I’m gonna bury you underground.”
Plainview himself is a man who has emerged from the depths of the earth. We saw him injured in the opening sequence while digging in a deep hole. We have seen his filthy hands and his face covered in dirt and oil, and we know that his power comes from the same source. The metaphor is one of evolution – of man the species who has emerged from dust, from lower forms of life, and who survived through his adaptation and overcoming of adversity. By contrast, Sunday is a soft, effete, solicitous fellow who in Nietzschean terms is unfit for survival. He is an embodiment of everything Nietzsche despised about Christianity. In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity exalts the meek, the lowly, the oppressed, the poor – in other words, that which naturally ought to die out. It elevates what is ignoble, making it an object of praise, while stigmatizing the ‘manly’ virtues, labelling them ‘sins’. Indeed, Sunday attempts to do this by trying to make Plainview ashamed of the very character traits – independence, will, ambition, fearlessness, strength, decisiveness – that make the viewer admire him. But Plainview feels no moral guilt.
There is a distinct flavour of social Darwinism in Nietzsche’s outlook. He described the liberal dream of social conditions of equality and justice as the invention of a life form that has lost all its organic functions. Nietzsche was convinced that human life devoid of its exploitative nature is not worthy of being called ‘life’ at all. To Nietzsche, Christianity originated from what he called ‘slave morality’: that is, it emerged amongst oppressed groups who resented their more powerful masters. Yet because they were unable to throw off their chains and overpower their natural superiors, they invented religion to invert the masters’ values of conquest, domination, strength and creativity. And it is precisely out of resentment – because he cannot fight back against the stronger, more influential oilman – that Eli Sunday goes home from his embarrassing run-in with Plainview to abuse his frail and defenceless father. Eli beats Abel violently, calling him “stupid” for having sold the plot in the first place. Of course, we know that it was not Abel who made the decision, but Eli himself. He had little choice in selling, since the only choice was between getting some of Plainview’s wealth or nothing at all, and his attempt to assert his claim to the money as though it were his ‘right’ is dismissed by Plainview’s swift slap. Plainview understands only one kind of ‘right’, and it is might. To Nietzsche, the ideals of ‘rights’ and ‘equality’ so venerated by 18th century American and French revolutionaries were concocted to allay people’s fears of domination and abuse. According to Nietzsche, what’s needed in order to improve humans is not rights, but self-discipline and a master morality which accepts life in its essence – which for Nietzsche meant “appropriating, injuring, overpowering those who are foreign and weaker; oppression, harshness, forcing one’s own forms on others, incorporation, and at the very least, at the very mildest, exploitation…” (BGE, pp.152-3)
There Will Be Blood presents Plainview’s acts of violence from a Nietzschean perspective – done not from resentment or sadism but from the need to eliminate the obstacles that obstruct his projects. Seen in this way, Plainview’s later murder of his (pseudo-) brother Henry takes on a post-moral kind of neutrality that we associate more with animal survival instincts than with an evil intent. The worry for Nietzsche, as for Plainview, was that the necessary violence done in the course of life-affirming projects (what is merely ‘bad’) would be misinterpreted within a Christian context as ‘evil’. Indeed, it is only when the Bible-toting William Bandy learns of Plainview’s murder of ‘Henry’ that Plainview is forced to repent for his ‘sin’. Bandy owns the last plot of land that prevents the building of the pipeline, and the only thing that will make Bandy sell is Plainview’s public baptism at the hands of Eli Sunday:
BANDY: God… God has told me what you must do.
PLAINVIEW: What is that?
BANDY: You should be washed in the blood of Jesus Christ.
The resulting scene is probably the best in the film. Plainview arrives at the Church of the Third Revelation for his baptism. In a direct reference to the film’s title, and with absurd irony, in front of the congregation Eli announces to Plainview, “You will never be saved if you… reject the blood.” The absurdity is that Plainview never eschewed real blood. From a Nietzschean perspective it is Eli who rejects the blood – the blood of life with all of its cruelty; the bloodshed that comes from the strong expressing their strength, and conquering, exploiting, injuring and being injured.
Eli Sunday relishes this chance to humiliate and take revenge. The tension between the two mounts as Plainview is made to get on his knees and confess over and over that he is a sinner to prove his worthiness for ‘God’s’ (Eli’s) forgiveness while Eli exhorts him to “Beg for the blood [of Christ]!” Yet as his baptism ordeal draws to a close, Plainview can already taste sweet victory. No sooner has Eli taken his impotent revenge than Plainview’s dream is achieved and his pipeline will be a reality. This oil pipeline is likened to a vein, supplying the lifeblood of the industrial revolution and powering a whole planet towards prosperity (and as we now know, possible destruction).
There Is Blood
The final scene resolves the conflict between Plainview and Eli Sunday. After several years Eli comes to Plainview’s home to announce that William Bandy has passed away, leaving the leased land to his son, a very good member of Eli’s congregation. This gives Eli the leverage he needs to suggest that Plainview develop and drill for the oil on the plot, for which privilege? Eli wants a $100,000 bonus, plus the $5,000 Plainview ‘owes’ him, with interest. Plainview agrees to the terms on the condition that Eli confesses that he is a false prophet and that God is a superstition. The tables are turned. Eli is desperate for money, and he now has to endure the ordeal of humiliation that Plainview underwent at his ‘baptism’. The scene is a reversal of the baptism, except that it is not public. When Eli has finished making his excruciating confession, Plainview tells him the bad news: the areas Eli is offering for development have already been drained by Plainview, who owns all the surrounding land and has simply sucked the oil underneath the Bandy plot as it seeped out into the surrounding areas. Now it is Plainview who revels in his revenge:
“You’re not the chosen brother, Eli. It was Paul who was chosen. He found me and told me about your land. I broke you and I beat you. It was Paul told me about you. He’s the prophet. He’s the smart one. He knew what was there and he found me to take it out of the ground. I paid him $10,000 cash in hand.”
Once more, this leaves the audience to ponder whether there was indeed another brother – or whether ‘Paul’ is simply Eli’s alter ego, the man he should have been – the man who would have successfully held Plainview to his agreement to pay $10,000 for the land. At this point, Plainview begins chasing Eli around his private bowling alley with a bowling pin as the latter begs him to stop. Finally Plainview beats Eli Sunday with the pin, leaving him dead in a pool of blood. As he collapses beside his prey, Daniel Plainview appears to have gone mad.
This leaves us with a question that’s equally relevant considering Nietzsche’s descent into madness and demise – what do we do with this ‘madman’ who has liberated us from the lowest constraints on our nature? Should we condemn his ideas and acts as immoral? Or should we too question whether our own system of morality hasn’t lead us to madness and self-destruction?
Modern liberals accept moral constraints in the class of ‘other-regarding’ behaviours – limiting the liberty of individuals so that all can be free to live without constant fear. The price of constraining those whose power would otherwise allow them to oppress and exploit weaker people, is that the most powerful have to give up some of their natural advantage. The question is whether these constraints on the ‘fittest’ are a price worth paying for the freedom of all. Nietzsche felt that it would be better to constrain no one and let nature weed out the weak. The problem with this is that power left unchecked soon turns into tyranny, with the consequence that only a few powerful ‘masters’ have any degree of real freedom. Liberals think giving everyone relative freedom is preferable to giving an elite minority absolute freedom. But There Will Be Blood is post-liberal, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions.
It is virtually de rigeur that there will be blood in Hollywood movies – but seldom is it shed by such an amoral protagonist, and seldom does it leave us with no feeling of moral indignation. One may accept Nietzsche’s view, as I do, that orthodox Christianity reeks of hypocrisy, fully supporting in its very doctrines the abdication of personal moral responsibility, and yet deny the Nietzschean idea that moral responsibility ought to be abandoned altogether.
© Terri Murray 2009
Terri Murray teaches film studies and philosophy at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities in London. She is also a post-grad research student at Oxford Brookes University.