In February 2008, I had the opportunity to go to my local movie theater to see an arthouse film that was playing there because it was nominated for several Academy Awards, which, at that particular theater in the suburb where I lived, was a rare occurrence. That film was “There Will Be Blood”, and my father and I watched the film and left the theater feeling very shaken. Well, at least I did; I had never witnessed that ends so ambiguously. But I can safely say now that that night, I was able to see an American film masterpiece, and as time went on, I was able to uncover more and more about it that says a lot about hypocrisy in faith.
The film focuses on a miner in the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century named Daniel Plainview (played by a phenomenal Daniel Day-Lewis), who one day strikes oil and becomes an oil prospector. Through a series of events, he “inherits” a baby boy from a co-worker killed in a prospecting accident, and that boy becomes H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Daniel’s son/business partner, and after a silent montage of Daniel’s discovery of oil, we find Daniel and H.W. making deals all over California and beyond to drill for oil. Daniel is already pretty rich by now, and he is also pretty irritable. Believe it, he gets worse as we go along.
One day, a preacher’s son named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to Daniel and tells him that his father’s ranch in Little Boston, California, has a huge amount of oil under it. Paul Sunday is never seen again as Daniel and H.W. head to the Sunday ranch, where they meet Paul’s twin brother Eli (Dano), also a preacher, who seems to be eager to negotiate a price for the land with Daniel. After they make a deal, Eli tells Daniel that he wants to (which really means he will) bless the well, for suspicious reasons. Daniel prevents Eli from even saying a word as he opens the derrick and his team begins drilling.
There is already a good amount of tension between these two men, and it only increases when things start going wrong. For a few days, no oil is struck. One night, a man is hit by equipment in the well and dies. And when they finally find oil, the gases cause an explosion and eventually a fire, which not only destroys the derrick but also deafens H.W. In a later scene, Eli comes to Daniel to ask for his payment, and Daniel proceeds to smack Eli to the ground and practically bury him in a nearby puddle of mud, as Daniel calls Eli out on his false religion and Eli tells Daniel that none of these misfortunes would have happened if he had been able to bless the well.
Daniel starts analyzing himself a little more when a man shows up at his doorstep: Henry Plainview (Kevin J. O’Connor), Daniel’s half-brother. Henry tells him that their father has passed away, and the two of them start working together and spending more time with each other than Daniel does with H.W., prompting H.W. to set fire to Daniel’s house, which Daniel and Henry put out before Daniel tricks H.W. into going on a train to boarding school.
This acts as a turning point for Daniel’s emotional state. In a deal he makes later on, when the client makes a comment about his son, Daniel threatens the man violently and leaves with Henry, and the two men continue to look for areas to drill. One night, as they try to contact William Bandy (Hans Howes), one of the few men in Little Boston who has not sold his land, Henry confesses to the suspecting Daniel that he is not actually Henry Plainview but merely a friend of the real Henry. The real Henry died of tuberculosis, and this man took his story looking for Daniel and a job. Daniel shoots and kills him, burying his body nearby, and he wakes up the next morning to find Bandy and his grandson in front of him. Bandy agrees to sell his land if Daniel will do one thing for him.
That one thing is the last thing Daniel wants to do: get baptized at Bandy’s church, which happens to be the church led by Eli Sunday. The vengeful Eli tries to humiliate Daniel in front of the congregation, and Daniel simply plays along, hoping to get the land to build a pipeline over and eventually see the end of Eli Sunday. Soon, H.W. returns from school, and it seems that Daniel uses his son for further humiliation toward his clients. H.W., unable to speak or hear, looks toward his father blankly. In a montage, we watch as H.W. learns sign language, as does his childhood sweetheart Mary Sunday (Sydney McAllister), who he eventually marries.
In the film’s third act, we find Daniel Plainview living in a mansion, complete with shooting gallery and bowling alley. But H.W., who himself has become an oil prospector, tells Daniel that he and Mary are moving to Mexico to drill. Daniel chooses this moment to tell H.W. that they are not actually related, and Daniel looks not the least bit remorse about it. Disowning him, H.W. leaves, and soon, in walks Eli Sunday trying to make another drilling deal—because it seems that amidst the threat of the Great Depression, he has gone broke and helpless. Does Daniel care? Heck no. And the film basically ends with Daniel chasing Eli through the bowling alley, ending with him knocking Eli out with a bowling pin and then hitting him in the head three times, killing him. And again, Daniel isn’t remorseful in the slightest.
Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on “The Master”, a film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson about the consequences of false religion. That film is a little more anti-climactic than “There Will Be Blood”, but both films deal explicitly and powerfully with the results of hypocritical worshippers. I still don’t know really anything about Anderson’s views on it all, but I do know this: they serve as warnings to believers about what would happen if we lose track of the purpose of our faith. If we lose sight of God’s will and instead focus on using religion to make ourselves famous or earn wealth, we will be lost, lonely, and potentially dead—spiritually and even, in Eli Sunday’s case, physically.
In Scripture, we see throughout the Old Testament how the people of God were led astray by idols and immorality, which led to God’s wrath on their cities. But similar warnings to the church are found in the New Testament, including strong words found in 2 John: “Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.” (1:8-11)
It’s pretty scary stuff, but who knows what might happen if we do not stay true to God’s Word. We can see what happened to Eli Sunday, but we also see in “There Will Be Blood” what happened to Daniel Plainview: instead of being drawn to the church, he was discouraged from it because of the greed he saw in it, and thus he let the greed inside himself take him over. My prayer for all of us is that we would not let false religion take over our lives, but that our sole source of wisdom would be the Word of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be pure witnesses for our Christ.