Monday, August 2, 2010

There Will Be Blood - A Shakespearean Analysis

This is an enormous thesis paper I wrote on Paul Thomas Anderson's epic masterpiece "There Will Be Blood" my freshman year at UT Austin. To this day, it's the singular piece of writing I am most proud of. Enjoy! Screenshots courtesy of and tumblr. Works cited coming soon when I find the original document file.


The opening titles begin to roll, accompanied by a void of silence. Then, a dissonant chord builds, the crescendo of the unnerving sound rising softly from the silence, building until it drowns out your own thoughts. Out of the darkness, an image slowly fades in with the music and finally becomes clear just as the volume reaches an almost unbearable level; a sweeping wide shot of the landscape of a rocky desert mountain range. But just as soon as the image fades in, the music goes into a decrescendo, and suddenly we are in a small cave in the ground, watching a lone man hammer away at the rock with his tools. He never speaks, and the music goes completely silent for the next eight minutes as we watch him dig for silver in this tiny hole in the ground. We hear nothing but the sound of whatever touches the dry and rocky surroundings; be it his pick-axe striking the stone walls of the cavern, his breathing and sighing through his nostrils, or just the sound of wind and footsteps against the desert ground. It isn’t until he drags himself to the assay workshop after accidentally falling into the hole and breaking his leg that we return to the wide open space that surrounds him; and thus return to the music that introduced us to this place.

The contrast between the environments in the opening scene sets us up for the larger exploration of the contradictory narrative elements of There Will Be Blood, and how this contrast between epic qualities and the claustrophobic narrative define the Shakespearean nature of the film.

What makes the film so unique is the way it has such a Shakespearean nature to it, yet maintains this Shakespearean nature through the paradox of epic filmmaking and a claustrophobic narrative. While the film may appear to have a large, episodic plot, given that it spans over several decades and involves a large number of characters, it has an entirely claustrophobic narrative. The large world and landscape that the film inhabits is never once meant to be understood, except sometimes perhaps through Daniel Plainview’s mono-maniacal mind. Just as well, for the more than two and a half hours we spend with him, we are never much privy into the past, motivations, or views of Daniel Plainview. These kinds of narrative characteristics all have roots in Shakespeare, especially in King Lear and The Merchant of Venice.

The opening scene of There Will Be Blood is only the beginning of the exploration of the nature of the story and Daniel Plainview. Any time something important occurs in those first twenty minutes, it always happens inside a closed space. Plainview discovers silver in the small cave, sets up dynamite to blow the silver loose, then falls and breaks his leg in the hole. However, when he is outside in the open terrain, nothing really happens. He sleeps, eats, and just lives. Even when he has set the dynamite in the cave and starts to pull the bucket of tools out of it, he is unable to get the bucket out in time, thus, accomplishing nothing while outside. While this may seem insignificant, it begins a pattern that continues throughout the entire film. Important events, interactions, or otherwise scenes that serve to advance the plot only occur indoors; while nothing of much impact ever happens outdoors or in wide open spaces, save for the derrick explosion. What really makes this pattern of contrast between indoor and outdoor setting fascinating is how it is a reflection of the contrast between the ways the film appears to be epic, yet subverts its own epic nature as the narrative becomes increasingly claustrophobic as it progresses.

Like in Lear, the story is set within a large world and society that is as much a key player to the narrative as any one of the central characters. But like in Lear, this society is never really meant to be understood or explained. Rather, the story stays centralized and focused on Daniel, leading to us only seeing the world through his eyes, much like how King Lear keeps a tight focus on Lear’s descent into madness. Ironically, like the narrative, Daniel shows very little interest in trying to see deep into people or society as a whole. After meeting his half “brother”, Daniel tells him precisely what he thinks of the people around him, explaining that “I see the worst in people, Henry. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need.” Here, we are given a rare look into Daniel’s view on things. Like his last name of Plainview suggests, Daniel does not feel that it is necessary to try to find the redeeming qualities of people or the inners workings of society in hopes of finding some way of rectifying their bad actions with good natures. Coincidentally, the fact that Daniel’s name is representative of his misanthropic outlook on the world around him is another Shakespearean quality of the film. During Shakespeare’s time, the names of characters were dominant traits of characters, and gave people an idea of what the character was like. However, with Daniel Plainview, this is one of the only glimpses into his psyche that we become privy to. In that sense, the relationship between the narrative’s centralization around the main character and the way it does not give us understanding of the society in which the film takes place is very much a complementary connection.

As I pointed out earlier, we pretty much spend the entire two and a half hour running time of the film with Plainview, yet we never know much about him other than what his actions tell us. We aren’t given any information about his life before the beginning of the film, nor are we allowed access into the inner workings of his mind. This lack of background information is a dominant characteristic of King Lear, which never gives a back-story to the characters of the play. Also, like Shakespeare’s characters (specifically Lear and Shylock), the narrative becomes increasingly claustrophobic as they become more and more mono-maniacal; getting to the point of being so focused on a single purpose that they lose sight of everything going on around them.

Daniel has only one thing on his mind; business. The more successful he becomes, the more isolated he finds himself from society. Interestingly enough, just as he strikes oil in the town he drills in, his relationship with his son begins to suffer because he cannot divide his focus between his son and his business. As much as he loves his son, he seems to love making money more. Because of this, he almost completely isolates himself from the one person he loves and trusts. But the mono-maniacal nature of Plainview is not something new at this point in the film. Everything leading up to the derrick explosion shows Plainview isolating himself from society as he becomes more and more focused on bringin in the well.

In that sense, the derrick exploding into an angry inferno is a sort of prelude to what will happen to him if he continues on this path. Not only does he denounce religion as being completely false and meaningless, but he begins to his fellow human beings as well.

This brings to our attention the relationship between his misanthropic views that isolate him from other people and his resentful views on religion. As the title of the film suggests when ambition meets faith, “There Will Be Blood”. The central battle between Daniel and Eli is a clear embodiment of the eternal conflict between religion and business, a conflict that is especially prominent in The Merchant of Venice. It also gives us an understanding of the claustrophobic life Plainview drives himself to. He refuses to embrace anything having to do with religion not only because he views it as having no real intrinsic or practical value, but also because it is promoted by truly fraudulent people. While Plainview may be somewhat fraudulent in his intentions on sharing the oil wealth with the people inhabiting the land he drills on, he acknowledges this fact and doesn’t try to hide it, and at the same time makes his real intentions known after buying the land. However, Plainview firmly believes that while he may sometimes be fraudulent about his motives as a businessman, Eli is spiritually fraudulent, which is far more ignoble than simply being a silver-tongued oil man. It isn’t until he is told that in order to build his pipeline, (which in a way is the final key to his success) he must be baptized and convert to Christianity, that he finds some sort of use for religion in regards to business.

The baptism scene is very much rooted within the conversion scene towards the latter part of the story in The Merchant of Venice, both involving a misanthropic man being coerced into converting to something they do not believe in. Also, both scenes feature incredible outbursts of emotional release by these men. The pious figures doing the conversion poke and prod at the two men, making them confess their sins over and over again. Whereas Shylock bursts out into a rage about what he really believes and wants, Daniel explodes into an emotional outburst and admits to leaving his son so that he could focus on his business, roaring out to the congregation “I have abandoned my child!!!!! I have abandoned my child!!! I have abandoned my boy!!!” However, Shylock’s conversion has no benefit for him other than an attempt at atonement. Despite the fact that the baptism in There Will Be Blood is a form of atonement for Daniel, he never once hides the fact that he is only pretending to embrace religion because it now has a use for him; to build his pipeline. And in a way, the baptism scene is a revelation of how the derrick explosion was a precursor to Daniel’s fate. Like the derrick, Daniel only erupted and let loose after being drilled, per se, by an antagonistic force.

The derrick scene is filled with examples of how mono-maniacal Plainview really is. Though he saves his son from the explosion itself, he leaves H.W. to deal with the burning derrick. When asked by his associate Fletcher Hamilton if H.W. was okay, he replies “No, he isn’t” with apparent flippancy, all the while keeping his focus on the blaze in front of him. In fact, Plainview doesn’t even stay with his son through the night, and instead watches the derrick burn until morning when his men use dynamite to put out the fire. It is only after he has taken care of the derrick that he spends time comforting his son, who was rendered deaf in the explosion. After learning the nature of his son’s condition, Daniel spends less and less time with him, seeing to his business before seeing to H.W. Coincidentally, the arrival of Daniel’s “brother”, which signals a huge turning pointing the story, allows Daniel to have someone he thinks he can trust and confide in at his side. After his “brother” shows up, Daniel even begins to isolate himself from his right-hand man, Fletcher Hamilton. To further the way he cuts himself off from humanity, he kills his “brother” when he learns that this man is not his real brother and was lying to him all along. This kind of descent into alienation of oneself from everyone else is seen very clearly in characters like Lear, whose obsession with asserting authority leads to his own exile. It isn’t until the return of H.W. after being sent to boarding school that Daniel finally reaches out to his child and holds him in his arms, saying “Ah… that does me good, that does me good. Welcome home son, welcome home.” This embrace upon being reunited bears a striking resemblance to the reunion between Lear and Cordelia. In both scenes, the two men embrace their children eagerly and hold them close for some time. In a way, the return of H.W. and Cordelia and the way the two fathers greet the children is a way for those fathers to finally reconnect with humanity.


The relationship between children and fathers is a key element not only shared between There Will Be Blood and King Lear, but a dominant narrative element in many other plays, such as The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. Throughout There Will Be Blood, the theme of family is brought to the attention of the audience repeatedly. In the opening monologue of the film, Plainview says “I’m a family man. I run a family business. This is my son and partner H.W. Plainview. We offer you the bond of family that very few oil men can understand.” Not only does he put great emphasis on this part of his speech, he also makes sure to repeat the word “family” three times, enunciating the word more each time. In his second major monologue, Plainview again stresses the importance of family in his business to the townspeople he looks to buy land from, discussing how he encourages his workers to move their families to the worksite, and that he intends to build a school in the town so as to educate the children of Little Boston. In ways, one could infer that Plainview is just as obsessed with the idea of primogeniture as he is with his oil business. In fact, his obsessions with family and business are deeply intertwined; that is, he is somewhat obsessed with being successful and powerful, but more so with running a family business and passing on his legacy to his son. This desire to pass on a legacy to children is the very definition of primogeniture, and it almost overwhelms any other Shakespearean qualities of the film due to its heavy prominence in the story.

The film again shows evidence of having roots in King Lear and The Merchant of Venice through the prominent aspect of primogeniture. In King Lear, not only is Lear obsessed with power, but he is also obsessed with passing on his kingdom to his daughters. In fact, the parallel between Plainview’s obsession with primogeniture and Lear’s obsession with passing on his legacy culminates in both stories when Plainview and Lear essentially disown their children for not complying with their wishes to have their children inherit their throne. Ironically, the point at which these two scenes take place within their respective stories is completely opposite; whereas Lear banishes Cordelia in the beginning of the play, Plainview disowns H.W. at the end of the film. The parallels between these scenes don’t stop there. Although both Plainview and Lear disown their children for somewhat different reasons, it all comes down to both characters having a completely distorted view on what is evidence of their children’s’ love for them. Lear banishes Cordelia not only because she will not comply with his wishes on how to pass down the kingdom, but also because she refuses to verbally declare her love for him, which he interprets as hatred for him. Likewise, Plainview misinterprets his son’s desire to start his own company as an act of defiance and hate. Plainview then not only denounces H.W. as his son by revealing how H.W. was an orphan he adopted, but at the same time disowning him and telling him that now he is nothing more than his competitor. H.W. leaves and just like Lear, Plainview curses him as he departs, roaring out that H.W. is “…just a bastard from a basket...bastard from a basket! You’re bastard from a basket!!!” No knife could even begin to cut a deeper wound than Plainview’s words.

While this is Daniel’s way of once again alienating himself from the person that loves him, the final scene of the film is the culmination of the claustrophobia of the narrative. Eli visits Plainview and offers him business partnership and in a way, one final chance at having some sort of connection to humanity. However, Daniel has other plans. Now that he has all the wealth he could ask for, his only unfinished goal is that of finally beating his rival; which is revealed to have been accomplished without Daniel having to lift a finger after Eli tells him that he has no money or friends in the aftermath of the panic in the U.S. economy. After this revelation, the audience is witness to one final monologue from Plainview; the now famous and iconic “I drink your milkshake!” scene. After humiliating and emotionally destroying Eli, Daniel finally fulfills his promise to Eli and the audience that there will be blood, and in doing so, completes his journey into madness and abandonment of any connection with humanity. His world has finally closed in on him and after accomplishing everything he swore to do, he proclaims “I’m finished!” Then the credits roll.

What makes There Will be Blood not only a consummate work of art, but also a historic journey into madness deeply rooted in Shakespeare, is how the film executes this journey. By appearing epic, the film almost completely fools you into thinking of it as epic. But just as the film itself appears to be larger than life, so does its central driving force; Daniel Plainview. His towering presence is so misrepresentative of the true nature of the character and the inner workings of his mind that one would have to get past initial awe and discomfort with him in order to see the claustrophobia that we have been subjected to and that Plainview has brought upon himself. And it isn’t until the very end of the film that we realize that just like how Daniel has completely shut himself out of humanity by being the only person left in his life, he is the only person left with us when all is said and done. It would seem that just like Lear; Daniel’s world has finally closed in around him, leaving only a feeble old man with nothing left to live for. This is what truly defines the film as Shakespearean, because while the story may have begun in a vast and epic manner, it descended into such a claustrophobic place that can only be understood as a journey into and within the claustrophobia of Daniel’s own mind.

That the film has Shakespearean roots is a huge part of what makes the film so fascinating. Shakespeare’s works have survived mostly because the full experience of the film comes from more than just seeing or reading the play, but the discussion and exploration afterwards. The presences of a Shakespearean structure allows for a greater discussion and analysis of There Will Be Blood. Because the claustrophobic narrative leaves so many subjects of the film in an ambiguous light, they are presented for larger interpretation and analysis, justifying long essays such as this one. Like all of Shakespeare’s works, once you get over the initial awe at the incredible masterpiece you’ve witnessed, you find all the little details in the piece that make it so incredible and so open for discussion afterwards. It is this very aspect of the film that truly makes it a masterpiece.


Sales on Film said...

Ok, I read it. But I don't know if you really want my opinion because...I don't actually buy your analysis. It's an ambitious paper topic, but you haven't convinced me. There may indeed be connections between the works of Shakespeare and There Will Be Blood but either they are different from what you've posited here, or they require a deeper and more specific scenic analysis than this essay offers.

A couple insights into Plainview's character I disagreed with outright:

1) "As much as he loves his son, he seems to love making money more." Plainview doesn't care about money; he cares about fulfilling his ambition, which is to carve out a role for himself as an oilman, to work himself from the ground up. Simply put: to do what he wants the way to wants to do it. The money is an inconsequential result. Recall the scene where Union Oil is trying to buy him out and Plainview's response, "What else would I do with myself?" Daniel takes offense to the suggestion that his business ambitions are not compatible with raising his son. It's not that Daniel chooses oil or H.W., one over the other, but rather stakes his entire belief system on the compatibility of both.

2) The baptism scene is not any kind of atonement for Daniel. It's a farce and he knows it and we know it. Plainview has no respect for any religion headed by a man as deceitful as Eli Sunday, so there's no harm in perpetrating a deception against him towards his own ends.

Also, if I was your professor, I would have needed you to define your terms more specifically. What do you mean by "Shakespearean"? Give me specific physical (or psychological) examples of "claustrophobia" in each text. Define "epic" in both a literary scene for Shakespeare and a filmic sense for There Will Be Blood.

Quotes and dialogue from King Lear, Merchant of Venice, et al. would also have strengthened your case.

I think you have a good seed of an idea here and this is kind of a first draft. If you made each point more specific and maybe the essay longer, you could have something really great.

Kevin K. said...

1. Perhaps my wording was off, as I pretty much meant exactly what you said right there.

2. As far as the baptism scene goes, as far as I'm concerned it's both a facade to get what he wants but also cathartic for him. He's admitting to something that is clearly eating away at him with guilt, as is evidenced by the scene where he kills Henry. After burying him, Daniel weeps while looking at the photo of the boy, and it's pretty clear in the way he erupts when screaming "I have abandoned my child!" that he feels something. So it's entirely possible the scene serves as both a way for him to get what he wants and experience this catharsis.

To address concerns about the definitions of the words "Shakespearean" and "epic", these were terms defined early on in the class I was taking, so they were self evident definitions in the paper. But I can see why that might be confusing to someone who was not in the class. I honestly don't even remember precisely how my professor defined them, as it's been about 4 years, but if I ever remember them I will pass it along. This, as far as I know, was the final draft, but I can't be certain, as I no longer have the original document file. In any case, this is as definitive a draft of this essay as we'll get, and I appreciate varying analysis/takes on a film as much as anyone else. In fact, I very much welcome it.

Sales on Film said...

"To address concerns about the definitions of the words "Shakespearean" and "epic", these were terms defined early on in the class I was taking, so they were self evident definitions in the paper."

Ah, I suspected as much. But just as a layman, coming upon your blog, I wouldn't understand what you meant by some of those terms, so the essay wouldn't quite gel. That's why when I post essays from school, I always have to edit them so they make sense to someone who hadn't taken the class with me.

elizagolightly said...

I get what Kevin is saying in the Baptism scene. A Baptism represents atonement, even though we know that Plainview never believed in it. It was a farce to him, but the symbolism of the action is what I think Kevin was talking about.

I agree with Sales, that if there had been equal quotes from both texts when comparing, it would have been driven home more soundly, but I got every point Kevin was trying to make. I thought they were mostly all good points and had a lot of evidence to back them up. I believe that you can argue most any interpretation of literature if you have the ability to argue with text that it's possible. So this essay is promising, and I am really impressed that you did this your freshman year of college. Bravo!

Kevin K. said...

Out of curiosity, which essay had a better reception from you two? This one? Or my Batman: The Long Halloween essay?

Cobrien1977 said...

@Sales on Film:

This film is ambigious. Its not meant to be black and white. Hence, your arguments about Daniel's character aren't solid (not saying I disagree with you).

(1) No, Daniel didn't reject Union because he didn't care about money and wanted to fulfill some ambitious goal as an oilman. He did it because HE WOULDNT GET ENOUGH MONEY FROM THEM. "Are you going to change your shipping costs???" he says to Standard Oil. Then earlier to his son "Then we build a pipeline. We make a deal with Union Oil. This is what we do. THEN WE'RE MAKING THE REAL MONEY, NOT JUST THROWING IT AWAY ON SHIPPING COSTS."

Like I said: You can argue he only cared about Oil too. My Point? We don't know 100%

(2) The ceremony wasn't a pure farce (another example of the genius ambiguity of this film). How? Why? (a) He was noticeably emotional on the altar when his son was mentioned, (b) He was noticeably emotional after walking away from Eli and getting embraced by Mary, and (c) MOST IMPORTANT: What did Daniel do RIGHT AFTER the ceremony? He calls his son back home!!!

TO anyone who thinks the religious ceremony was a pure farce, I would love to know your answer to: WHY DID HE COINCIDENTALLY HAVE HIS SON RETURN RIGHT AFTER THE "FARCE" CEREMONY?

Ben Malone said...

The baptism scene most definitely is all farce. Daniel doesn't believe in any of it. During it, he gets really annoyed with Eli and at one point says (which comes after the "I abandoned my child!" part) "just let me get out of here, Eli." And then right after they pour the holy water over him he simply says "there's a pipeline."
To him, it was all ridiculous, and embarrassing. The only thing that did come out of it was him realizing that he shouldn't have shipped his HW away. Other than that, he virtually got nothing out of it. You could also argue that he only brought HW back for show...but that's a whole other thing

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