There Will Be Blood (2007) | The Definitive Explanation

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  1. Thanks for reviewing TWBB. I always enjoy your reviews and learn something new, so was excited to read this one since it’s one of my favorite films. Candidly, I was surprised your review focused so much on the capitalism vs. religion motif. PTA has nothing to really say on these subjects. TWBB is no more about capitalism and religion as Raging Bull (1980) is about boxing. While I love TWBB, plot-wise it’s a predictable and cliched story about a misanthope, albeit a very well done version. PTA films tend to be more character studies than they are statements on overarching philosophical themes and political allegories like capitalism vs religion, which is a grossly reductive interpretation of this film. TWBB isn’t about greed or power. It’s the story of an alienated man suffering from familiar separation, wrestling with his past, and his ill-fated and self sabotaging attempts to avoid repeating past trauma.

    There’s been intense debate about the film since 2007. Linked in the website field is a reddit comment that is one of the better explanations IMO.

    • Hey, Gregory! Appreciate you coming back and continuing to read the content. Honestly, we don’t hear feedback like that often. So it’s actually really nice haha. You hope you’re putting out stuff that people want to return to. But it’s hard to know if they are.

      So I have a lot of thoughts on this. But I wanted to bring you something concrete. I actually spent over an hour listening to various interviews PTA did so I could point to something that confirmed an intentional reference to religion and capitalism. I finally found it

      https://freshairarchive.org/segments/there-will-be-blood-director-paul-thomas-anderson

      It happens around 8:45. The interviewer mentions the two themes of business and religion. PTA acknowledges that did indeed have those in mind but wanted to explore them through these characters rather than more directly and obviously. Which is something he hinted at in other interviews. He would say things like, “You focus on the little things and hope the big things fall into place.” So he was very invested in who Daniel Plainview was as a person. Which is the alienation stuff you mention and all the stuff mentioned in the reddit comment you linked to. If you read some of the responses to that comment, they do a good job of saying some of the things I would say, namely that the character details you’re highlighting don’t mean the film isn’t also developing a more macro, global thematic statement.

      I’d go back to what PTA himself said in that he likes to operate with the idea that if you focus on the small things then the big things don’t need to be directly addressed. Magnolia is very much a character study but it’s still making a larger statement about loneliness and parent-child dynamics and coincidence. The Master is a character study but it’s still making a statement about the human condition and the tension between our human side and our animal side and the idea of self-discipline.

      There’s also a whole discussion about “Death of the Author”. From that perspective, it doesn’t necessarily matter what PTA tends to or says. It’s about the text and internal context and the subtext they create. For example, say your friend asks you to read their short story. It’s a girl who goes to the beach with her grandfather. When she gets home, she realizes she left her favorite shovel. The end. You say it’s nice, poignant. The friend says, “Did you pick up on how the shovel represents the missing grandmother?” You’d probably blink at your friend a few times then say no.

      Death of the Author means that even if that’s what your friend intended, you can only go by what’s there. If the story never mentions the grandmother, then there’s no way anyone could draw that connection. It would have to give us context to make that connection. Like the granddaughter mentions how she misses the grandmother and how it was the grandmother who would take her to the beach, not the grandfather. And how the grandmother actually gifted the girl the shovel. That establishes context. So when she leaves the shovel and is upset about it, we know the subtext—-she’s actually upset about her grandmother.

      It works the opposite way, too. Your friend asks how you liked the story and you say it broke your heart how your friend connected the shovel to the grandmother. Your friend blinks at you. Then says how they didn’t mean for the shovel to represent the grandmother. It was just a shovel.

      Death of the Author argues that the author can’t account for their subconscious. That sometimes the author might not even be aware of their own feelings and how they shape a story. So intentionality goes out the window.

      I’m not a firm believer in DotA. I believe in a healthy balance. When you look at TWBB, the ingredients for the conversation about religion and capitalism are unavoidable. Whether intended by PTA or not (and we do know they were intended), they’re there. That doesn’t mean the character study isn’t also happening. Or that every aspect of Daniel’s character is a metaphor for capitalism. There is a degree of separation. A level where Daniel is just a character and nothing more. But that’s not all the movie is.

      With the Raging Bull example. Jake LaMotta is a boxer. Boxing is the medium through which Raging Bull explores themes related to masculinity, vocation, emotional vocabulary, self-destruction, etc. It’s not like boxing is a completely coincidental profession for the character or something Scorsese included only because Jake was a real person. In so many ways, the movie is about boxing, because, according to Scorsese, boxing is “an allegory for whatever you do in life.”

      Daniel is an oilman and being an oilman is the medium through which TWBB explores themes related to capitalism. Likewise, Eli is a preacher, etc. etc. Those professions aren’t coincidental or unimportant to the overall point. But neither do they erase the very human, character-driven aspects that you mentioned.

      In short, I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m just saying we’re both right.

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