Monday, February 11, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Acquisition, Ambition, and America

MOST REVIEWS OF THE new P. T. Anderson film, There Will Be Blood have, understandably, focused on the mesmerizing performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a scoundrel oil man and, to a lesser degree, Paul Dano, a self-important young evangelist preacher named Eli Sunday. With the exception of David Denby's smart reading of the film as an exploration of dueling frauds--entrepreneurism and evangelism--most have seen the movie as a character study of the ego-driven, misanthropic Plainview or as an allegory on America's consuming drive for oil. Each is a plausible, but I'd like to suggest an alternate.

The more precise drive that unites Plainview and Sunday--bitter rivals in the film--is their ambition, which gets plaid out through surprisingly similar needs for acquisition. In the case of Plainview, it's oil, which, naturally, leads to the vast acquisition of land. And acquiring land then leads to the accumulation of power through geographic surplus. The more land you own, the less land others own. Or, put another way, if you own a great deal of land, people have acquiesced, ceded. They lost; you won. They divulged; you acquired. Their loss; your gain.

Plainview collects parcels and mineral rights in much the same way Eli Sunday collects souls--as symbols of what can be taken. In his nearly WWF-like sermons, Sunday literally rips the devil out of an elderly woman, and in one of the best scenes in the film, he beats (or pretends to beat) sin out of Plainview. When potentially given money, he spends it on a larger church, not on the needs of his parishoners. His need to grandstand, to be the spewing derrick at the pulpit, is as overarching as Plainveiw's. For him, preaching is like drilling for oil. It is about drawing the commodity out of the vessel: the soul drilled from the sinner, the evil pumped dry.

For both men, identity is forged on the crucible of acquisition. It is how both arrive at power and how they keep it.

Denby is correct to see the film as a battle between capitalism and evangelism--two of the great shaping forces in American culture. The film does seem a kind of anti-morality play in which the forces of evil and evil pretend not to tussle and pretend not to be evil. Both capitalism and evangelism need acquisition to flourish. Neither does well with charity. Dramatizing the violent clashes of these forces underscores the intangible tensions that frame important institutions of American culture--social class and religious salvation.

Ultimately, the film asks to be read as a metaphor for Manifest Destiny, itself a twinning of acquisition and evangelism and the violence that ensues when both get out of hand.

We know what happens to the land when are too ambitious with one of the drives, but what happens to our collective soul when the ambitions of the other gets out of hand?


  1. I drink your blog, I drink it up!

  2. Thanks, Daniel. Hopefully, it will provide some meat, potatoes, and a little snacky for you as well . . .dr.