Mark Overanalyses Film

There Will Be Blood

January 30, 2024 Season 4 Episode 8
There Will Be Blood
Mark Overanalyses Film
More Info
Mark Overanalyses Film
There Will Be Blood
Jan 30, 2024 Season 4 Episode 8

Ladies and Gentlemen, if Mark says he's an overanalyser, you will agree as he tries to figure out what makes There Will Be Blood feel so monumental, why Roger Ebert was right to describe it as "imperfect", and if anyone ever asked about the guys they definitely knew Daniel murdered.

Show Notes Transcript

Ladies and Gentlemen, if Mark says he's an overanalyser, you will agree as he tries to figure out what makes There Will Be Blood feel so monumental, why Roger Ebert was right to describe it as "imperfect", and if anyone ever asked about the guys they definitely knew Daniel murdered.

Hi everybody, and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! Today, for the 40th episode of the podcast, I will be overanalysing 2007’s monumental There Will Be Blood.

Before I begin, allow me to remind you that I am available for reading, script editing, and story coaching at And also, if you enjoy this podcast, please do share and/or recommend it. It really would be a great help. 

There Will Be Blood was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel Oil! written by Upton Sinclair. 

Now, there are lots of reasons to study There Will Be Blood, but I was especially interested in how it splits opinion and why that might be. Many people consider it to not only be great, but to be the greatest film of the century so far. But I’ve also often heard the question: “Is it a great film, or does it just have a great performance?” Quite apart from the fact that as a writer, the phrasing of that question triggers me a bit, I do understand where it’s coming from. And as is almost always the case, Roger Ebert put it best. In his review, he wrote: 

There Will Be Blood is the kind of film that is easily called great. I am not sure of its greatness. It was filmed in the same area of Texas used by "No Country for Old Men," and that is a great film, and a perfect one. But "There Will Be Blood" is not perfect, and in its imperfections (its unbending characters, its lack of women or any reflection of ordinary society, its ending, its relentlessness) we may see its reach exceeding its grasp. Which is not a dishonorable thing.”

Now, let me say this up top. This podcast is a week late, partially because of other commitments. But also partly because this film has been a pain to analyse, and, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to end up on the first side of that argument. I wanted to discover the underlying structure that made this film make total sense and reveal its majesty. But, in reality, the opposite happened. The more I analysed it, the more I agreed with Roger Ebert. Which, to be fair, is the best possible company to keep. 

So, before I get into the structural breakdown, let me just say: I’m especially interested in Ebert’s points that the characters are unbending, the narrative relentless, and the ending is, at the very least, imperfect. As far as I’m concerned, these three are very tightly interconnected. Really, my biggest beef is that: the more I think about, the less the ending works. And because the ending doesn’t really work, the whole thing is a bit flat actually. Ebert describes it as relentless, but I think that kind of comes from a lack of dynamic interplay between thematic arguments.  I’m aware that I’m coming for a film that many consider a perfect masterpiece, so I will try to justify everything I say here. And if I’ve missed something, feel free to get in touch, because I want to believe!

Anyways, keeping all that in mind as I go, first, I’ll look at the fundamental features of our iconic protagonist, Daniel Plainview. Then, I’ll go through the main story beats by looking at the sequences and stages of the film. Finally, with my straw reaching all the way across the room, I’ll talk about the main things I learned from this exercise.

So, let’s begin by defining our protagonist: Daniel Plainview. He is, in his own words, an oil man at the turn of the century in California, and his story is going to serve as a kind of parable for the rise of 20th century American capitalism. 

Now, other than these surface factors, there are really 3 ways that our story defines just who the protagonist really is: their life dream, their Want or tangible objective for the middle of the film, and their Need. 

Daniel’s Life Dream is basically what he wants when we first meet him and before the events of the story really get going. Now, the opening scenes are famous for how sparse yet evocative they are. And they really tell us one thing: Daniel wants to be rich, and he will do anything to get rich. 

Ok, so the next thing is the protagonist’s Capital W Want, or the tangible objective for the middle of our film. This gives the protagonist a goal to strive for, and therefore something to keep them busy while they’re growing as a character. It has to be both significant enough to last through the whole middle part of the film and tangible enough so that we can say whether it has been achieved or not. This gives the story its sense of beginning, middle, and end. Or, before, during, and after.

And for a film this knotty, I am grateful to say that this is very straightforward, because Daniel explains it word for word to HW at the transition into Act II. He tells him if there’s anything here in Little Boston, they’re going to build a pipeline to the coast, make a deal with Union Oil, and circumvent Standard Oil and their extortionate shipping costs. 

So, the last and arguably most important thing we need to define for the protagonist is his Need. Now, normally, the Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom that the protagonist lacks at the beginning of our story but learns by its end. This isn’t necessarily a good or thing as such, it’s just a lesson that the protagonist learns or a thematic argument that they embrace. And this is unfortunately complicated by the fact that, as far as I’m concerned, the ending doesn’t really work. Because: the whole point is that the protagonist should express this thematic argument through action at the end of our story. So, in Casablanca, Rick goes from a man who says he sticks his neck out for no-one to a man who gives up a life with the woman he loves so that they can both fight the Nazis. One more point on this quickly, I said this is normally the human quality that the protagonist learns, because there is another kind of story, like Wall-E, where you have a Guardian Angel protagonist. In those stories, the hero already has this piece of human wisdom, or the thematic argument of the film, but the rest of the world lacks it.  

I raise this just in case I’ve missed something, but as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing in Daniel Plainview that isn’t plenty present in Eli Sunday and much of the rest of the world. So, I’m assuming that There Will Be Blood is this first kind of story, where the tension of the film comes from whether or not Daniel Plainview will change. And to my mind, if there is an inherent thematic tension within Daniel Plainview, it is based on this question: can the one truly loving relationship in Daniel’s life save him from embracing his flaw of believing that life and happiness is a zero sum game? Or will his obsession and his competition with adversaries overcome him? Basically, can his son save him, or will his hatred of others and his need to dominate them cause him to lose his soul?

One final note on this: There Will Be Blood is not a story about someone learning the piece of wisdom to overcome their flaw; it’s a downfall story about someone embracing that flaw. So, just for ease, where I would normally say “Need”, I will use the term “Flaw” here. 

Ok, finally, now that I’ve set everything up and defined our protagonist and our thematic tension, let’s finally have a look at the story stages of There Will Be Blood. 


The Sequences

There are traditionally, but not always, 8 sequences, or stages, in a film. A sequence is a combination of scenes that are tied together by having a single overriding dramatic question or tension, and they tend to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. A good way to think about it is that every 10-15 minutes, the audience should be on some level asking themselves a different dramatic question. Now, there’s actually more like 10 sequences in There Will Be Blood, but they still fit into these 8 traditional story stages as we’ll see. 

But also, these 10 sequences actually fit really well into a Shakespearean-esque 5 act structure, so I’m going to be using this as a framework as I go. Basically, it’s the same as a 3 act structure, but we split the long middle act into 3 separate acts. Looking at it this way, there are two sequences per act, each act is about 30 minutes long, they all feel quite different as we’ll see, and every 30 minutes, there’s a huge event that changes the direction of our story. So, as I go along, I’ll be using these points as yardsticks, and I’ll use them later to highlight some pretty cool elements of the structure. 

So, Act I has our first two sequences, and the first one is always pretty much “life as it is”. And so, we immediately join Daniel Plainview in a hole in the ground, hacking. Like any good film, There Will Be Blood introduces its protagonist by giving him a problem to solve and defining him by showing how he solves it. And so, Daniel is relentless in his pursuit of wealth. He hacks at rock until he finds a sliver of silver, then falls and breaks his leg, and somehow drags himself and his broken leg along a desert floor to a town miles away. This is a man to be reckoned with. 

We cut to some years later, and our inciting incident: or, the event without which our story as it is would not happen. Daniel is now digging for oil with a small crew, and a lethal accident kills a crewmember, orphaning a poor baby boy. And again we cut, this time to seven years later, and we see that Daniel is now using “his son and his partner” HW as a way to make him appear less like a shark in his bid to buy land. 

Now, there’s some important foreshadowing here that is probably really obvious, but I somehow missed it for ages. When we first join Plainview in 1909, he’s pitching to a room full of people to let him drill for oil. When the room erupts into argument, he walks out. But rather than give up the oil, he moves further north and convinces a family to let him get to the oil from their property. Which is exactly what he’s going to do throughout the rest of the film with the Bandy tract. Anyways, Daniel Plainview is now a successful oilman, and so an unknown young man approaches him, and we’re left to wonder “Can Daniel Plainview trust Paul Sunday?”. And this is interesting, because this for all the world feels like a 2nd inciting incident. Now, normally I wouldn’t really pay too much attention to that, but I think here it’s quite telling. Because, as we’ll see, we do almost have two separate stories taking turns throughout this film: Daniel and HW, and Daniel and Eli Sunday.

Now, Paul Sunday is a strange character in all of this. He comes and goes quickly, but still hangs over a lot of the film. Anyways, Daniel and HW soon hit for Little Boston, lie to the Sunday family about hunting for quail, and discover oil. So, our sequence tension has been answered, and we’re about ready to end our first act. So, here is where we have our “What’s the plan?” scene. This is a scene at the transition between the first and second act that tells the audience what they can expect to come. And so, at minute 31, Daniel sits down, looks at the vista, and explains to his son that they’re going to buy the land, build a pipeline, and make a deal with Union. Daniel now has his Want or tangible objective, and so at minute 32, we end Act I and we enter Act II. 

Act II is all about getting to the oil and developing the open rivalry with Eli. But also, in a 5 act structure, Act II is defined by what we can term the refusal of the call before then ending with the “acceptance of the call”, or the protagonist’s first unconscious move towards their Flaw. So, basically, what that means is: in this act, the protagonist will initially try to fight where they’re headed before taking a big step towards it. Now, this is of special interest here, because this sequence often really clarifies a character’s arc. In Casablanca, for example, Rick begins this sequence by being cool, calm, and dead inside while saying he sticks his neck out for nobody. But at the end of the sequence, he is clearly bothered and upset as he buys drinks for Ilsa, her hero husband Viktor, and the table. The direction of travel is crystal clear. Here, it’s a little more complicated.

 So, Act II begins with Sequence III: the first attempts to solve the problem. Our first tension here is “Can Daniel buy all the land that he needs in Little Boston?” This is where we see Daniel buy the Sunday ranch, and where he first starts to come up against Eli as a real adversary []. With this initial success, Daniel begins aggressively buying up local land. But, of course, there is one hold out: Bandy. The old homesteader wants to meet the buyer directly, and Daniel — to his future detriment — dismisses this. Now, you could argue that all of this is a refusal of the call. Daniel has to play nice at this point, at least to a certain degree. But again, it feels a bit external or shallow. Is he playing nice because he believes in fairness, or because he’s not rich and powerful enough yet to run roughshod over these people, especially Eli? It won’t surprise you that I think it’s the latter.

Anyways, I’ll come back to this in a moment. The story starts to complicate as Eli visits the well, preaches to the workers, and insists that Daniel allow him to bless the derrick before it starts. And Daniel appears to agree. But this is Eli trying to compete with, or even dominate, him, and that will not stand. As a result, at minute 48, rather than introduce Eli as a “son of these hills”, he names the derrick after Eli’s little sister Mary, a “daughter of these hills”. It is a sublimely petulant “fuck you”, and our first real glimpse of where this is all going. So, this could be the acceptance of the call, or the protagonist’s first unconscious move toward’s his flaw. It certainly feels like that for the Daniel / Eli plot. But again, I mean, Daniel would have always done this, so it doesn’t feel like a big character movement.

Anyways, Daniel now has his land, his active derrick, and his burgeoning rivalry with Eli is beginning to really take shape. We now wonder our new tension: “Can Daniel find oil here?” and so at minute 49, we enter sequence IV: the greater attempts to solve the problem.

And things do start getting harder. That night, a man dies in the hole. So, against his better judgement, Daniel is now forced to go and request the help of Eli in addressing the spiritual needs of the bereavement process. And fortunately for us, he arrives in time to see Eli acting like a fucking lunatic and a sheister at the same time in his small church. Once outside, Daniel’s mask really begins to slip.

Things are really gathering steam now, so just as Eli’s church is growing, Daniel’s derrick blows. Unfortunately, when it does so, HW is lying above it. The blast deafens him, and while Daniel rushes to manage the explosion of oil, we wonder some version of the question “Can Daniel find some kind of solution to HW’s needs?”. Things are never going to be the same again, so at minute 59, we not only enter sequence V, but we also end Act II and enter Act III.

Before I go on though, I’d like to note something else about the refusal and acceptance of the call. In Act II, Daniel is relatively engaged and tight with HW. And that is not superficial. HW tells him that Mary is beaten by her father when she doesn’t pray, and Daniel soon makes a point of telling Mary this isn’t to happen anymore in front of her father, Abel. So you could consider this as a refusal of the call, or an attempt by Daniel to resist his flaw. 

But, all that ends with the end of our second act, and Daniel’s “acceptance of the call”, or “his first unconscious move towards his flaw”. So, the striking of oil deafens HW, and given the choice to stay with his panic-stricken son or manage his oil concerns, Daniel chooses the oil. This feels more like a significant change and like a first unconscious move because it feels like it’s the first death knell for his relationship with his son. Also, like so many first unconscious moves, it’s quick, in reaction to something else, and a choice that reveals something deep within the character… perhaps both to us and to themselves. []  

Anyways, we’re now in Act III. And this one is all about basking in the discovery of the oil. But this Act is also the middle of our story and is split in two by the story’s midpoint, so we can really see the protagonist experimenting with their flaw here either side of a kind of thematic breakthrough. Finally, this act almost always closely foreshadows our climax. 

And we can certainly see this last aspect in There Will Be Blood. When HW is deafened, Daniel makes sure he’s alive, then rushes off to take care of the oil. Just like in our final act, Daniel chooses oil over his son. And once he has done as much as he can, Daniel stays squatting and watching the burning fire like a maniac when he could return to HW. Grading this narcissist on a pretty generous curve though, he does — in his own fashion — really try to look after HW once the derrick is taken care of. Eventually, when HW’s hearing appears not to be coming back, Daniel asks his associate Fletcher to inquire about getting his son a teacher. 

Now, there’s another scene in the screenplay here which did not make the film but I kinda wish it did. In the script, a teacher comes to Little Boston, and Daniel offers her a lot of money to set up her own school here rather than take HW back to San Francisco with her. He even offers to move all the children and their families in her current school. But, when she refuses, Daniel becomes irate and won’t even let her see HW. During this conversation, she tells Daniel: “Building a school here may be better for you, but it’s not better for your boy.” So, I think it’s pretty inarguable that Daniel does love his son, at least in the way that he can. But he is also so incapable of giving any ground whatsoever to any other person that he won’t even let this teacher see his son if she won’t move here to teach him. So, again, to my mind, this feels more thematically interesting and on point to me than a lot of stuff that is in the film. 

But still, at this point, there’s no real need for Daniel to end up as a raving drunken lunatic all on his own in a mansion taking pot shots at furniture. So I guess, at minute 73 into a 151 minute runtime — almost exactly halfway — that means it’s time for There Will Be Blood’s midpoint.

Now, a midpoint generally does a few different things. Most importantly to my mind, it is the protagonist’s first conscious move towards their flaw. So, it builds on the first unconscious move, but also, as the description suggests, it should be more determined or clear to the protagonist what they are doing. Second, the midpoint foreshadows our eventual climax. Third, it ups the stakes of our story. 

So: Eli comes to Daniel looking for money and Daniel suggests he’s a fake and beats the crap out of him as Eli tries to crawl away. [] And this is all going to seem awfully familiar later on. So, ya, Daniel is more openly competitive and aggressive with Eli because he’s upset by an inability to communicate with his son. And he’s just introduced violence into the story, foreshadowing our climactic action and raising the stakes. So, on the surface, this looks like a textbook midpoint, and in many ways it is. But, because the midpoint and the climax are so closely linked, and because I don’t think the climax really works, I think this is where the story really starts to get a little muddled. Again, if you look back to Act II, there is a general build of antipathy between Daniel and Eli, and this is upping the ante on it a bit. But that’s all, and it’s pretty flat. So far, the story of Daniel and his son I think is way more rich and dynamic. So, basically, the way I feel is that the film is really about that but it’s lacking a clear focus. So, instead of having a midpoint and a climax based around the more important plot of Daniel and his son, the film’s midpoint and climax is about the far less dynamic, complex, and thematically rich plot of two narcissistic maniacs fighting each other.  

And on the note of added plots, a new arrival now lands in town. And so, at minute 77, we have a new tension, as we wonder “Will Daniel accept that this man Henry is his brother?”. At that, we enter sequence VI: There Will Be Blood’s honeymoon sequence.

The honeymoon sequence is so called as the protagonist has made their first conscious move towards embracing this flaw, and they generally act in accordance with the lesson they are beginning to embrace for a time. So, following from our midpoint, in this case: Daniel should be embracing this zero-sum, take-it-all approach to life, right? 

And, well, as much as I like the story of Daniel’s brother Henry and the events in and of themselves, it’s a bit messy and it feels like an example of the biggest issue here: that this story just gets distracted from itself. 

So, on the one hand, you could argue that Daniel is oddly accepting of the idea that this Henry guy is his brother. It might be the most generous thing he does all film. On the other hand, Daniel is so willing to accept this guy that it feels like he’s filling a need that HW’s deafness has left him with. In addition, Henry gives Daniel the freedom to express something dark deep within himself, the real core of this character and this story []. It is no coincidence that this famous, iconic speech is delivered here, at the heart of our film in the honeymoon sequence.

And once again, Daniel foreshadows what he’s going to do: he wants to earn enough money to get away from everyone. But, he says, having Henry here gives him a second breath of life. So, it does appear that there is a thematic push-pull here, right? It’s just not quite in the right place or something! Anyways, Daniel has firmly accepted that this man is his brother… for some reason. Unfortunately, It appears HW is less accepting, so he tries to light Henry on fire in the middle of the night. Now, why HW does this is hard to say exactly. We’ve seen him go through Henry’s things, including his journal. But, the script makes it clear that HW is actually illiterate. So, maybe he’s suspicious, or maybe he’s jealous, confused, and angry — so he acts up. By setting fire to his competitor. And to think Daniel says HW has none of him in him… Anyways, likely as a result of his attempted arson, we have arguably the hardest scene of the film to watch, and a real breaking point: Daniel Plainview lying to and abandoning his boy. And again, I have to say: I think it’s pretty clear here that Daniel Plainview might be a narcissist and a broken man, but he does love HW. He not only clearly feels shame for what he’s doing, he feels real hurt. Again, it’s so much richer than the other plot going on! So, Daniel has now lost the one person who really loves him, and it’s pretty clear things aren’t going well anymore. And so, at minute 90, it’s time we left the honeymoon sequence, and our Act III, and enter Sequence VII: the first of two sequences in Act IV — our bridge from the honeymoon to the lowpoint.

So, the basking period is over, and now Daniel needs to get on with completing the plan. He’s got an ocean of oil all to himself, but he has to get it out of Little Boston somehow. If he can do that, he’ll have accomplished his tangible objective. So, this, along with his collapsing personal life, is what our 4th act is all about. 

 To begin our act, Daniel meets with Standard Oil, and it doesn’t go great. He threatens to cut Tilford’s throat for suggesting that he could look after his child better if he had loads of money and free time. And Tilford, child-rearing advice aside, makes the point that for all his success, Daniel will have a job on his hands to build a pipeline and make a deal with Union, so there’s a real tension here. But hey, at least the meeting didn’t run over. Anyways, this is when our unaddressed sequence III problem hits: Daniel never met with old Bandy, and as a result never got his tract. And now we wonder: can he buy Bandy’s lot and build his pipeline? 

So, Daniel and Henry take off through Bandy’s land and on to the Pacific. Making their deal with Union, the brothers go for a swim on the beach, and what follows is just an incredible scene with some incredible acting from Daniel Day Lewis. Making a joke about getting liquored up and taking some women to the Peach Tree Dance, it’s pretty clear that Henry doesn’t pick up on something. And the way Daniel Day Lewis is able to convey his slow realisation is just mesmerising. And it’s worth noting: he really looks hurt, like he feels genuinely betrayed. And of course, that hurt soon turns to, y’know, murderous rage. But when the time comes to do the deed, it does feel thematically important that the fake Henry says that he would never want to hurt Daniel, he’s just trying to survive. With thematic resonance like that, it sure would be nice if we could have a similar question but with raised stakes for a climax! Anyways, for now, so long fake Henry. 

Now, I might be reading too much into this, but I do think this is when Daniel really starts to come apart. His drinking takes on a different quality than we’ve seen before as well. He’s clearly always been a big drinker, but this is the “drinking for oblivion” kind of drinking that will look familiar in our final act. 

Anyways, from here, Bandy wakes him, having discovered his evil deed, and tells Daniel that he can build his pipeline if he gets baptised by Eli. Which feels like a pretty light penance for murder all in all. And I do have to wonder if anyone ever brought up Henry ever again, or did everyone take one look at Daniel and say: “Hey, remember that guy who said he was the boss’s brother? Because I sure don’t.” 

Anyways, Eli is totally cool about the baptism thing and it’s a chill ceremony. Except that he smacks Daniel around the place, reminds everyone that he owes the church 5 grand, and makes Daniel repeatedly declare that he has abandoned his child. But there’s an interesting note at the end of the scene, clarified in the screenplay. It says: “There is warmth from everyone here … that Daniel begins to feel ... they TOUCH THE BACK OF HIS HEAD AND HIS SHOULDERS AND GIVE HIM LOVE. Eli notices this.” Eli then tells the others to let him take in the spirit on his own. So, even at the moment of his zenith, there’s still this sense that Eli is losing. Now, that is kind of interesting, but I think it’s further evidence of an issue. Eli is just not enough of an antagonist.

Regardless, Daniel has his pipeline, so we have just enough time for one last sequence (sequence XIII now) before we end our long middle of the film. At minute 116, HW returns, and we wonder if Daniel can truly make amends with his child. But it doesn’t start out well, because HW is understandably angry. And it doesn’t continue so well either over a meal. Now, this scene here is not as iconic as the climax of the film, but it’s pretty famous, and rightly so. It comes right near the end of the second act, and it feels like the film in a nutshell. At one table, Daniel Plainview has his son beside him. And at the next table over, he has a competitor: Tilford. And Daniel cannot stay at his table. He can’t help but be distracted from his son because he has to put it up to Tilford and the Standard Oil delegation. Now, there’s a lot going on here. For one thing, Daniel makes a show of being tender with his boy, but we end the scene with HW clearly looking uncomfortable and like he’d rather be anywhere else. For another, Daniel makes great play of the fact that he told Tilford what he was going to do and he did it. And he wants Tilford to be crushed and decimated, to look like a fool. But Tilford doesn’t, Daniel does. He looks like a drunken, unhinged, petty, petulant, small mess of a man. [] Additionally, we soon see that Eli is leaving on a mission, perhaps with the money that Daniel was finally forced to cough up. 

So… Daniel has won, right? He has his company. He’s rich. He’s brought his son home. One nemesis has been outdone and the other is leaving. But Daniel’s success has left him feeling as unsatisfied as ever. He did all of this, and yet Tilford, Standard Oil, and Eli Sunday still feel undiminished and his son still feels somewhat removed. 

And so, this is our thematic low point, where generally the protagonist no longer believes the counterargument, but the argument feels impossible. And while the story itself has this feeling, it doesn’t feel to me like it’s fully invested in its protagonist. Daniel probably should realise that striving for total domination over your fellow man is not the answer, but it seems he doesn’t have the emotional capacity for that kind of thought. Anyways, after a brief montage of HW and Mary getting closer and closer, at minute 126, with 25 minutes left to go: we end Act IV and we enter our final Act: Act V.

Act V is made up of a false resolution and a true resolution. Now, obviously I have a lot to say here, but There Will Be Blood is particularly interesting on this note, because both these sequences are really dominated by one scene each. And you’ll notice that the false resolution is spent with HW, while the true resolution is with Eli. So again, I think externally, the story seems to have this thematic argument in place. In the false resolution, Daniel is dealing with the personification of his better nature, or only hope. In the true resolution, he’s dealing with… fucking Eli.

So, we skip forward to 1927, and our false resolution begins with a now grown up HW marrying his childhood sweetheart Mary. Then, we see what has become of his father. And Daniel Plainview is drunkenly shooting furniture down a long corridor in his mansion and then checking his shot with a magnifying glass. So, living his best life? Anyways, his son soon arrives to meet him, and it’s apparent that they have been drifting apart due to business practices. Once again, the screenplay makes this clearer. Daniel has been voraciously buying new land while reneging on his existing contracts. In response to this, HW has tapped up Fletcher to come with him on his new endeavour. But Daniel was never one to understand the concept of “friendly competition”, so he immediately categorises HW as an enemy, and declares that he is not his son. So, HW walks out as Daniel shouts after him. For all this wealth and sway, Daniel seems to feel somewhat powerless and frustrated. So, you can see how this is a continuation and expression of the low point. A recollection of happier times comes before a sad drunken stupor down some steps. Now, it probably won’t surprise you to know at this point, that I think this is pretty great! I think with some tweaking, this could easily be the end of our film! But of course, it’s not. And so, at that, with 15 minutes left, we enter There Will Be Blood’s true resolution. 

And there are few more iconic true resolutions in the 21st century so far. Eli comes to ask Daniel for money in exchange for the Bandy tract, and as the scene starts, it’s the younger man who seems to have the advantage. But then, well, Daniel drinks his milkshake, bullies him, and — declaring himself to be the 3rd revelation — murders Eli Sunday with a bowling pin. And at that, enigmatically, he’s finished.


Ok, so There Will Be Blood drove me a little insane trying to deconstruct it. So, what I’d like to do here is talk about how cool some of the structuring is, and also what really drove me a little crazy with it!

So first, I’m a massive fan of the book Into The Woods by John Yorke. And there are two aspects raised in that that I find interesting here. So, 1: the idea of fractal structure. Now that basically means that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. But within that beginning, you also have a smaller beginning, smaller middle, and smaller end. And this can go on and on and on down to individual scenes. So basically the idea is that the part should reflect the whole, and the other way around. What I find interesting looking at the 5 act structure of There Will Be Blood is that every one of these acts has its own mini-midpoint which foreshadows its own mini-climax. So, in Act I, Daniel adopts HW at minute 14 to use him to buy land to drill for oil. At minute 29, HW finds the oil on the Sunday ranch and Daniel tells him the plan. In Act II, at minute 49, Daniel screws over Eli and tells HW to turn on the derrick. At the end of the act, Daniel and Eli outright argue over whose work is more important right before the oil bursts forth deafening HW. In Act III, the film’s midpoint is with Eli, but the third act’s own mini-midpoint is arguably the moment Henry arrives. The climax is when HW is packed off, presumably because he attacked Henry for replacing him. Now Act IV is a bit wonky, because Sequence VII is so much longer than Sequence VIII. So you could argue that at the end of sequence VII, HW comes back, and then at the end of Sequence VIII, he’s moved beyond Daniel. Or, you could argue that going by timing, Daniel kills Henry at the mini-midpoint, before confronting Standard Oil and vanquishing Eli at the climax. Finally, Act V’s midpoint sees Daniel piteously descend some stairs blind drunk. This feels like both a literal and figurative descent that will end with him murdering Eli down there. 

But the second thing is this: John Yorke is a huge fan of the idea that the whole story is divided by the midpoint. Around this midpoint, the first half and the second half of the film are actually mirror images of each other. So, at the beginning of Act I, Daniel is underground, hacking. At the midpoint, Daniel buries Eli in mud and oil. At the end of Act V, he is once again underground, hacking. This time though, he’s hacking Eli. So there’s a clear connection there between our opening, midpoint, and climax. At the end of Act I, 30 minutes into our film, Daniel discovers oil and lays out his plan. At the start of Act V, with 26 minutes left in the film, his plan has succeeded and all the oil is his. At the end of Act II, 60 minutes in, the oil deafens HW. At the beginning of Act IV, with 60 minutes left, HW is sent away. But there’s more! This also works for the act midpoints. 15 minutes in, Daniel adopts HW. With 15 minutes left, he disowns him. 47 minutes into the film, Daniel refuses to let Eli bless the well. With 42 minutes left, Daniel agrees to be baptised by Eli. And the overall acts work this way as well. In Act I, Daniel begins with little but a burning ambition and purpose. In Act II, he’s trying to get to the oil in the ground. In Act III, he has the oil but can’t move it. In Act IV, he’s trying to get the oil out of the ground. In Act V, Daniel is rich but has no purpose. Side note here: if you are so minded, and I am, to think that oil works as a symbol for something dark deep inside of us, you can see the journey. It starts off deep within Daniel, and he looks to access it for personal benefit until it has fully emerged and subsumed him. 

Now, that’s the kind of thing I find pretty cool! Because, you know, I have a problem I guess. So, I can’t sit here and tell you that the story structure of There Will Be Blood is, I don’t know, underdeveloped or something. There is a lot to admire here. But, there is still this problem that nags at me more and more. And really it’s that it feels like there are two different plots here, they’re lacking in sufficient thematic unity, and the ending is for the wrong one. I find that There Will Be Blood is one of those films where you could ask someone what it’s about, and they might say it’s about capitalism vs religion, or the 20th century vs the 19th century, or it’s about America, or whatever. And you can see why, right? Our climax shows a capitalist beating a priest to death with an object that is an expression of his wealth. But none of those ideas mentioned are universal human thematic arguments. In Casablanca, when Rick gives up a life with the woman he loves to fight the Nazis, I understand what that choice means on a thematic or moral level. It’s about accepting a call to heroism and selflessness. You can strip everything else away; it works on that purely thematic or moral level. Now, you could argue that capitalism vs religion has some kind of inherent values within it, that it’s about something like individualism vs a more collective idea. Ok, but which of these ideas does Eli fucking Sunday represent?! Yes, on a superficial level, this is a capitalist beating a priest, but really it’s one selfish narcissist beating another. Which is what makes the Daniel / Eli plot or arc feel so thematically flat. Or, to jumble up some of Roger Ebert’s phrasing: a relentless plot with two unbending characters.

But what if HW and Eli represent different arguments? What if HW is a call to be loving and collaborative, and Eli is the opposite: a force of nature looking only to dominate? Well, you might look at how the false resolution is spent with one and the true resolution with the other and go “there you have it! There’s your thematic story shape!” But it doesn’t work, because Daniel is too flat and passive here. He doesn’t choose to see either of these, they both come to him. And he just doesn’t change. In a funny way, this reminds me of Groundhog Day.

When I was studying that film, I found that we could chart Phil’s changes so clearly because everything else stayed the same. So, if something was different, it was because Phil was different. And because Phil was different, everything was different. And despite all the scenes being repeated, you couldn’t switch any of them around or it would be really confusing and make no sense, because every scene was so in sync with Phil’s character arc. In There Will Be Blood, I think Daniel does change, but not a lot. And in the final act in particular, I think you could basically cut the final line, and switch the false and true resolutions. I mean, it would be a bit weird that he murdered Eli and nothing happened, but he’s already murdered Henry and nothing happened. This is because, this is the opposite of Groundhog Day. Daniel is the same, but the external situation has changed. HW is in one scene, and Eli in another. He can’t dominate HW cos he’s too decent, but he can dominate Eli because he’s… well, the opposite. But you could switch these two around because this is something external, and therefore shallow and superficial. Deep down, this ending in particular highlights that Daniel’s character arc is too unbending and too relentless. There’s just not the clarity and focus there to provide the depth required for this to be a “perfect” film. That’s not to say that There Will Be Blood is a bad film, but it might just be a flawed masterpiece. And that, to quote Roger Ebert, is not a dishonourable thing.

This has been Mark Overanalyses Film on There Will Be Blood! If you enjoyed this episode or like the podcast in general, please do recommend it to anyone you know who might like it too! It really would be a great help! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan who taught me everything I know about film, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.