There Will Be Blood and Good Country People

*Not so much a review of the movie as an exploration of one of its main themes*

WARNING: There Will Be Spoilers

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” Manley Pointer first appears to be a harmless Bible salesman. In reality, however, he is ruthless, grotesque, and deceptive. He feigns interest in the ugly and disabled Hulga not because is infatuated with her, but rather because he has something of a fetish for other people’s personal belongings. Far from being “good country people,” Manley’s false and even evil nature enables him to identify the pretense and hypocrisy the individuals he meets hide behind.

A similar ability lives in Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “There Will Be Blood.” Plainview is an oilman who knows how to sweet-talk and grandstand his way to the most profitable deal (for him). Any enemies he makes or accidents that occur in his pursuit of profit are eliminated or ignored.

And yet, Plainview has an immovable moral compass, although it never points back at him.

The only character for whom Daniel seems to have any genuine affection is his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier, in his film debut). When the boy is injured in a drilling accident, though, Daniel leaves him behind to tend to his well. H.W. loses his hearing in the accident, and rather than adapting to living with a disabled boy, Daniel sends him away to live at a school for the deaf. Actually, as is revealed late in the film, Daniel’s motivation for leaving H.W. behind is financial more than anything else.

When a man claiming to be his long-lost half brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) shows up asking to work with him, Daniel takes the man on, even briefly treating him as a partner in the oil company. When Daniel discovers the man is an impostor, though, he shoots and kills him with hardly a second thought.

More than anyone else, though, Daniel sees hypocrisy in Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Eli preaches at the Church of the Third Revelation, a small congregation in the vicinity of one of Daniel’s wells. Daniel does not believe that Eli has been touched by God and called to be his prophet, as the young man claims; he thinks Eli is a con man, manipulating the emotions of his congregation for his own gain. (This is exactly what Daniel does when he convinces families and towns to let him buy their land and drill on it, but he either cannot see the similarity or simply does not want to.)

In a scene set more than a decade after the primary action of the film, Eli comes to visit Daniel–who now lives in a mansion paid for by his oil dealings–and asks him for money. He tells Daniel that the one landowner who refused to sell to Daniel earlier has died, and that with his help, Daniel can now acquire the land. Plainview sees and opportunity to finally expose the fiery preacher: He tells Eli that if he will admit, “I am a false prophet; religion is a superstition,” he will give him the money he needs.

Sensing that it is his only chance to get the money, Eli reluctantly obliges the request. Afterward, though, Daniel explains to Eli that the land is already dry because its oil has drained into the adjacent fields, which he already owns. Daniel then chases him around his bowling alley and bludgeons him to death with a bowling pin. With Eli’s blood flowing on the floor beneath him, Daniel exclaims, “It’s finished!”

Though he could be referring to the film’s close, I think that, in this climactic line, Anderson is alerting the audience to another aspect of Plainview’s character: He is (perhaps unconsciously) a corrupt, vengeful prophet of justice bent on exposing and destroying greed and deception wherever he comes across it. And like O’Connor’s character Manley Pointer, it is his intimate knowledge of greed and deception that enables him to find it so readily in the people he meets.

O’Connor once wrote that in evaluating the morality depicted in a story, a character making the “right choice” need not necessarily be present to show the reader how they should act; the reader’s own moral sensibility can sufficient to prove that there is a “right choice.” Having said that, however, are there any “good” characters in There Will Be Blood?

(For another example of this phenomenon, watch the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, in which chance appears to be the only determining factor between right and wrong.)

Just before the final scene between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, Daniel has a different sort of confrontation, this time with his estranged son. H.W. Plainview tells his father that he plans to move to Mexico and start a drilling company there; that is, he is going to be an oil man too. Details in this conversation, however, reveal just how different Daniel and his son are. While Daniel lied about having a family–H.W. was a foundling whom he took along because the boy’s innocent face would help him close deals–H.W. is married to a girl he loves and has known since childhood. Daniel offers H.W. a stake in his own company if he will stay, but H.W.’s primary motivation is not becoming rich; though he will make less money in Mexico, H.W. nevertheless wants to go there because it will get him as far away from his father as he can get. Even H.W.’s deafness and reliance on an interpreter denotes the difference between him and his smooth-talking father.

Thus, it is in H.W. Plainview, the boy who grew up seeing all of his father’s corruption but never became dissipated by it himself, that There Will Be Blood finds a moral hero.  

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2 Responses to “There Will Be Blood and Good Country People”

  1. Adam Petty Says:

    Actually, what Plainview says after he kills Eli is ´I´m finished now,´ which might change your reading of the last scene. I agree that there´s definitely room for your view of Plainview as an unwitting moral agent, or at least moral avenger, but I took the line to refer more to Plainview himself being finished, all alone in his enormous mansion. But there´s availability for interpretation.

  2. Hannah Says:

    I think I want to see this… do you have it?

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