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329. Work on what has been spoiled (VII)

To pick up from where I left off yesterday, the other film which I find unenjoyable and yet compelling to watch is There Will Be Blood (2007). The film follows Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector, who builds himself a fortune from scratch in America during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Plainview is a Nietzschean character; we first meet him deep down an exploratory well. He works alone in the remote Western desert and, despite a broken leg from a fall in his shaft, brings in his first oil well and so begins his career as a tycoon. Subsequently, he acquires a young boy when one of his workers is killed in a drilling accident; Plainview’s decision to adopt the boy is partly opportunistic, he uses the boy to present his company as a “family firm” to those people whose land he wishes to develop for oil—and yet, later in the film, he shows genuine distress when the boy is deafened during an accident on the oil field.

I say this character is Nietzschean because he is totally self-reliant, realistic, and Machiavellian; he has no belief in the old Christian God, except insofar as it serves his interests. When a man arrives who claims to be his half-brother he initially gives him a cautious welcome, but, later, when he finds the man was a con artist and completely unrelated to him Plainview does not hesitate to kill him. This would not be such a risky proposition as it sounds in such a marginal frontier society; overall, Plainview is a drifting man—he has wandered across America searching for oil and his fortune, and he is ruthless about its acquisition. He is tough, practical, and unsentimental; in many ways he is an American ideal.

His foe in the film is the young preacher Eli Sunday, a poor preacher of the Pentecostal variety whose family has oil on their land. Plainview tries to snap up the land as cheaply as possible and this leads to a tussle between him and Sunday. Eli is the perfect foil to Plainview’s Nietzschean overman because he is a thin, weak, and feminine man who makes his way in the world through hysterical preaching to his ignorant congregation; he gulls gullible old women with spirits and the like.

Plainview sees his game and despises it: Eli Sunday represents slave morality, and as Plainview’s influence grows he seeks to reduce Eli’s hold on his sisters and his flock—the two come to blows, and Plainview humiliates the boy. Indeed, he declines to have his well on the Sunday land blessed by Eli and it is this well that explodes and deafens Plainview’s adopted son.

Unfortunately for Plainview, a member of Eli’s congregation discovers the man he murdered. So Plainview is now in Eli’s power and is forced to be baptised in his church, an act he agrees to for Machiavellian reasons but really represents Eli’s revenge for his earlier humiliation at Plainview’s hands. At the film’s conclusion, Plainview lives in a mansion and is visited by Eli, who has graduated, thanks to the oil revenue, to be an early Hollywood radio preacher—and yet all is not well, for his oil wells have run dry. As it turns out, Plainview had been stealing Eli’s oil for years; he drilled in at an angle and took it. Eli collapses in tears at his ruin, still an impotent boy at heart though now in a man-child parasite’s body. Plainview then beats him to death with a bowling pin; so concludes the saga.

Although Plainview is often described as a villain, I maintain that his tough and practical outlook—a very realistic outlook—cannot be called villainous; he just gets things done. The story is not didactic; but if there is a villain, in Nietzschean terms, it is the ineffective and feminised Eli, whose parasitic preaching and feminine blackmail reject reality and lead to his ultimate ruin—as well as being plain unattractive to look at.


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