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There Will Be Blood explained | Eli’s milkshake brings Daniel to the yard

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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


      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.

      • Chris – Thanks for the interview link and for bringing up the DotA concept.
        One correction on my original post: “familiar separation” was a typo; meant to say “familial separation”. I see the core elements of TWBB being Daniel’s relationships with his son, brother, and even those he built his business with. Yes, it’s a character study about a misanthrope on one level, but it makes a deeper statement about familial relationships, and more importantly, what constitutes a family. He was chasing for the “family he never had” but had it in front of him the entire time.
        We all know the proverb “blood is thicker than water” and its message about familial bonds. Some have suggested that the modern interpretation of this proverb gets it wrong, that the real message is the opposite–“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. The blood/water motif throughout TWBB seems to have a lot to say about this. “Do you understand, Eli? That’s more to the point? Do you understand? I drink your water. I drink it up, every day. I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy’s tract.”
        On the theory that TWBB is about greed and the corruption of religion and capitalism, I found the Fresh Air/Terry Gross interview you pointed out to be unconvincing. First, she leads the witness with how she directly asks about the corporate/religious power theme. He acknowledges the clear parallels (it’s the two main characters so couldn’t be more obvious) but he quickly moves on and gets into the relationship with the boy. A better interview IMO (where he is asked in a more open-ended way and where he dwells on it) is Marc Maron WTF podcast (2015, #565, around 1:15:00 mark). He jokes that it’s about “black gold!” but goes on to clarify that it’s about “family” and that when he reflects on it he think about “Daniel and his boy” and “creating families”. When Marc Maron pushes the capitalism/religion trope, PTA brushes off the interplay between Daniel and Eli by calling them “Tom and Jerry”.
        There are a million movies about greedy capitalists and corruption of religions but TWBB has nothing new or interesting to say about any of it. Is he saying capitalism is bad? If so, what does he want to replace it with? This theory falls apart immediately upon pulling this string. In the end, all institutes are corrupted, so not sure how useful that would be as a theme. TWBB is about family and has profound things to say about it. Or more precisely, what constitutes a family. Especially within the complexities of modern society, to perhaps include the institutions of capitalism and religion. But this story, this question of “what is family?”, would be just as relevant in an atheist, communist country at the height of the Cold War as it is in Christian, capitalist turn-of-the-century California.
        DotA doesn’t’ hold up here for a number of reasons. First, PTA directly highlights the significance of family as a theme in the WTF podcast and elsewhere. But we don’t even have to ask the great director. The work itself tells us the answer. And we don’t even have to rely on DotA and read between the lines. His relationships, mainly with his son and brother, are prominent parts of the story (PTA hits us over the head with it, so not subconscious at all). To me, this is what “focusing on the small things then the big things don’t need to be directly addressed” is all about. There’s a ton to unpack in his relationships. The Daniel/Eli, business/religion theme, on the other hand, is obnoxiously self-evident to the point where it’s almost funny. It doesn’t require any deep thought and doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtext.
        But I do agree with you that the setting and plot elements related to the oil industry and church are not insignificant. The characters, plot points, and setting should, ideally, work together, push and pull each other along, to arrive at a grand statement or theme. TWBB perfectly intertwines these things – one can’t exist without the other—but they boil down to a story about family. The importance of family. And what it means to be a family. It says a lot on these topics. But has very little to say about power and corruption in religion and business besides the typical cliches.
        Art is subjective. But I think there’s enough evidence here that you might want to consider updating your review to more directly address the family theme, as well as the blood/water motif.

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