There Will Be Blood (2007) is by far, my absolute favorite movie. Of course it has many virtues as far as films go, despite winning far too few Oscars in my non-expert opinion (only 2, including Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis). Yet what draws me in above all else is its central storyline, the clash of two men’s monumental ambitions — on the one side, Daniel Plainview, the tenacious oil man, and on the other side, Eli Sunday, the frail (but fiery) founder of a new church. And indeed, things do get bloody.
I’ve watched this movie many times over the years. It’s a beautiful, fascinating study of two things near and dear to my deepest interests: human beings, together in what might be called their natural environment. As weird as it may sound, this movie has truly enriched my understanding of political life, and continues to inspire me as a political theorist.
Take for example Eli Sunday, the poor farmer and upstart founder of the “Church of the Third Revelation.” Eli is just as Daniel sees him, an utterly false prophet. To paraphrase one of the movie’s major scenes, he is a ghost-gumming, arthritis healing, ostentatious fraud. What is so exciting about Eli, however, lies behind all that in his long-term, entrepreneurial vision — his desire to create, to compete, and to thrive.
And this being so, no one better arouses Daniel’s competitive spirit, or his hatred, more than Eli Sunday. He hates Eli so much, in fact, that he almost seems to appreciate him as a worthy adversary. You might say that underneath it all, Daniel is in some kind of perverse love with Eli. He is infatuated with him, with beating him. They are essentially brothers — kindred liars taking advantage of as many people as they can, in a world they resent, surrounded by people they despise. And they each unconsciously do God’s work in the process. We see how Daniel’s oil wells “blow gold all over the place,” bringing roads and schools and churches to the communities he comes to. Eli’s church, on the other hand, prompts one of the most powerful scenes in the entire movie, Daniel’s volcanic admission before his Lord and fellow man that “I have abandoned my child! I have abandoned my boy!” The terrible, spiritual pain of this scene prompts my soul to scream out: What truth! What justice!
What is this, if not a deep meditation on political society? Here we see the distilled human energies that are, for better or worse, the essential life blood of that society. To see them (and are they not real?) laid this bare certainly is challenging. Yet how can politics be fully understood, without not only acknowledging the vices of these energies, but appreciating their virtues? Or their enduring necessity?