Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 4. There Will Be Blood
“I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed; I hate most people,” says Daniel Day-Lewis’s increasingly unhinged oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Drilling into the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! for inspiration, Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificently mad meditation on the Southern California “black gold” rush of the early 20th century may be many things, but in its monstrous protagonist it offers as searing an indictment of the savage and predatory origins of modern corporate culture as it’s possible to get.
Driven by a singular desire to attain enough wealth to get away from the populace that he detests so much, Plainview – building an empire but relinquishing his soul – bristles, twitches and shudders with contempt every time he confronts someone or something that threatens to stand in his way. He may play the role of the benign corporate benefactor, his cute adoptive son HW (Dillon Freasier) an outward signifier of his commitment to family values, but when the film shows him maniacally watching oil gush from the ground instead of attending to his son after an explosion destroys the boy’s hearing, it’s clear where his priorities lie. Having spent years building up his hatred of humanity to better aid his sociopathic competitive streak, it’s why we see him walk away from a strike town in chaos early on in the film; why he refuses to sell out to Standard Oil – with its monopoly of the railroads and ability to control oil shipping costs – when it offers him a million dollars for his wells; and why he has such an almighty beef with the Almighty – the power of false prophets infringing on the promise of false profits when it comes to convincing the masses to fall in line.
It’s the last of these confrontations that Anderson builds the film around. The battle of wills that erupts between Daniel and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) – the evangelistic preacher upon whose family’s land Plainview makes his biggest strike – reflects not just a societal schism that will see money’s influence supersede religion’s in the coming century, it reflects the deleterious psychological effect of devoting one’s life to the devout worship of abstract concepts, be it God or, in Plainview’s case, wealth. By the end of the film – which concludes on the eve of the Great Depression – both Daniel and Eli are quite mad, the latter broke and bonkers, whining about God failing to alert him to the “panic in our economy”, the latter deranged and murderous, stomping around his private bowling alley, bellowing about “draaaaaaaainage” and milk-shakes, and revealing the true extent of his ruthlessness – both in business (his surreptitious acquisition of oil from beneath land he doesn’t own) and in life (breaking Eli psychologically before bashing his brains in with a bowling pin).
Plainview – his empathy long since dulled – is an extreme personification of what Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s 2003 documentary The Corporation identified as the psychopathic nature of these eponymous institutions, which enjoy the same legal rights as people without demonstrating any identifiable concern for the wellbeing of others. But as a character, Plainview also epitomises the alienating streak inherent in empire builders, his contemporary equivalent clearly evident in The Social Network’s depiction of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as the geek who didn’t so much inherit the Earth, as claim it for himself, wresting power away from the old guard with the same pitiless intent men like Plainview exhibited when they did the same to the robber barons of the Gilded Age. When it comes to big business, it seems, There Will Be Blood’s title isn’t a threat; it’s a promise.
Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 5 June 2014