The triumph of reason over faith is brutal and not a triumph at all.
This is what I got from There Will Be Blood, which I saw last night at a tiny old style theater on Elm Street in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was a miserable two hours and forty minutes in my life, and yet here I am thinking about it still. Yet I wonder, is it that the film was thought-provoking, or is it that I am struggling to get something out of what might have otherwise been nearly three hours of time wasted in the dark, staring at darkness?
Plainview is a man of no faith. When we first see him, his existence is bound to the earth, and in fact, deeply tied to what lies below the surface of the earth. Nevertheless, it seems that more than anything else, it is those driven by faith that motivate Plainview and propel him forward in his life. This is because Plainview thrives on beating those who would compete with him, beating them into submission, beating them senseless, even beating their brains out.
Plainview’s greatest nemesis is a young man named Eli, a faith healer and preacher, whose own nemesis might be his brother, Paul (if Paul exists at all, as opposed to being Eli, himself), who is responsible for bringing Plainview to their little town. On a tip from “Paul”, for which “Paul” is financially compensated by Plainview, Plainview comes to Little Boston, as it is called, to suck the oil from the land, in return for a promise to move Little Boston into a prosperous future, where crops will grow and bread will no longer be a luxury, and where the Church of the Third Revelation will become the cultural center for the God fearing people of the region. Plainview’s business partner is his son, HW, whom Plainview took in as a baby when the baby’s father was killed working with/for Plainview on an early and rudimentary oil derrick. Plainview is tender with his son, but does not tell him the truth about his adoption.
From the moment Plainview arrives in Little Boston, there is no sign of Paul, only of Eli, who appears identical to Paul, but whose life is about God, not about money, except insofar as money will build and maintain his church. Eli goads Plainview, mocking him, implicitly, for his lack of faith, holding that lack of faith over him when things go wrong. Plainview stands for none of this, beating the crap out of Eli on a fairly regular basis throughout the film until in an abrupt turnaround, Plainview finds himself being slapped silly by Eli in a baptism that is forced upon him by one of Eli’s followers who has seen Plainview commit a (possibly justifiable) murder and seeks nothing from Plainview other than Plainview’s repentance in church.
During the baptism, Eli forces Plainview to say, “I have sinned; I have abandoned my child” (after a drilling accident, HW has gone deaf and has been sent away to boarding school), over and over and over again, screaming it like a zealot. Plainview feels nothing but contempt. Or does he? Immediately after this, he brings HW home from boarding school and resumes taking care of him, providing him with a full-time sign language interpretor and once again teaching him the oil business and treating him as a partner. Not long after, we see HW grow up and marry Eli’s sister, Mary, in a religious ceremony.
For that brief moment, it would seem that faith, as embodied by Eli, has triumphed over reason, as embodied by Plainview. But the end of the film provides a very different resolution, one which is a complete reversal of what happened in Plainview’s baptism. Plainview forces Eli to admit that he is a fake prophet. And as with Plainview’s admission of abandoning HW, Eli’s admission quickly shifts from insincere to heartwrenchingly authentic. Only unlike Plainview’s admission, which is followed by forgiveness for his sins, Eli’s admission is followed by his being bludgeoned to death with a bowling pin. Plainview stands over Eli’s dead body and tells his butler, “I’m finished now.”
And then the movie cuts to black. Credits roll. But rather than being left to wonder what happened next to Plainview, I felt that he had already answered the question. He was finished. His battle against faith was finished. And that was that. Reason won. But there was no great spoils to the victor. No great prize. Just the business, the mansion, a son who was by now disowned and no other family. Of course, there was the bowling alley in the basement and the butler who might or might not help him clean up the mess.
I wonder if anyone else who saw TWBB got this out of the movie.