(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)
I can’t help but feel as if, after exiting the Arclight in Hollywood, I have just witnessed a masterpiece.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s work has always intrigued me. I have yet to see “Boogie Nights”, but “Magnolia” utterly floored me the first time I saw it. “Punch Drunk Love” is also a personal favorite of mine (any director that can turn Adam Sandler into a serious actor is worthy of attention). So when I started hearing the buzz about TWBB a few months ago, I was immediately interested.
Now, it is the morning after, and I have had ample time to sort through the many images and themes that plagued my mind throughout the night. However, one thing stood out to me as an underlying ideology in the battle between the two main characters, Daniel Plainview (Daniel-Day Lewis) and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). This battle is a historic one – We’ve all heard it before. Plainview is an unashamed capitalist, adheres to no religion (but likes them all equally!), and will sacrifice anything, including family, for another dollar. On the other hand, Sunday, the pastor of the church of the Third Revelation, sees God’s hand in everything. When something goes wrong, God’s punishment for wrongdoing is the explanation; and subjugation to the church’s practice (i.e. Sunday’s control) is the end of the matter. At first, it seems as though two popular American themes are in place: the evils of indulgent capitalism on one side, and the corruption of power that exists in ecclesial politics on the other. Seems like nothing new.
In the final scene of the film we witness a final meeting between the two characters. Plainview is filthy rich, but troubled by his son’s lack of zeal for the family business. Sunday is impoverished; his church is needy and his evangelistic ministry has become tiresome during the era of the Great Depression. Sunday pleads with Plainview to pay him one last favor, for old time’s sake, and buy one last piece of land in order to dig for oil. In a twist of fate, Plainview forces Sunday to admit the he is a false prophet and that God is a myth or no deal will go down. Sunday eventually agrees and admits to his falsehood. Unfortunately for the evangelist, Plainview has tricked him. Sunday proceeds to break down only to be beaten to death by Plainview with a boiling pin. Plainview’s last words to his butler are haunting: As he sits on the ground near the bloodied corpse of pastor Sunday, he yells, “I’m Done!” (or “It is finished!”, if you prefer). There Will Be Blood. Fade to Black.
The thematic element here is brilliant. The classic battle in American culture between monetary indulgence and religious piety is a scene of pure pessimism. Both sides seem to be out only for themselves; a power struggle between two sides of the same devilish coin. When times get tough, however, and the people finally tend to stray from religious conviction, the secular ultimately wins. Religion is exposed as just another form of personal excess, and is therefore subsumed under the universal nature of capitalism. And so the end of history is achieved, as the secular has sublated the sacred underneath itself and has begun to take over the world. The allegiance of the people will now be One: The Almighty Dollar. The Madman’s cries are heard once again: God is dead… And we have killed him… who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
The most brilliant element of PTA’s newest film is the reaction provoked from the audience. As saliva drips from the crazed lips of a seemingly asylum-bound Daniel Plainview, those who cannot accept the triumph of the nihil are forced to snicker. Thus the Madman must continue his epilogue: I have come too early, he said then; my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.
Nietzsche’s greatest criticism of the church was that it refused to acknowledge its own cooperation in this catastrophic event, the historical Death of God. That is why they are still the tombs and sepulchers of God, even to this day. We ought to take a lesson from the parable and not chuckle.
Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887); Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.