John Ford taught us to regard every Western as an allegorical comment on America. And most of them are in some way. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is so abstract, primal, and fundamentally ambiguous that it lends itself to any number of readings. Which is maybe why cinebloggers can’t stop writing about it. If it doesn’t work for you as a Western, try looking at it as a horror film.
Certainly, the film’s central character, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), is a monster. He rises from the dark earth that surrounds him when we first see him like Murnau’s Nosferatu (above). And his obsessive thirst for oil is like a vampire’s thirst for blood. This is even reflected in the title change from book to film – Upton Sinclair’s Oil! becomes Anderson’s Blood. The film conflates all liquids. Oil is the blood of the earth which becomes the metaphorical milkshake that Plainview describes in the film’s climactic scene – “I drink your milkshake. I drink it up!” – while making appropriate sucking sounds. Larry Cohen previously drew an analogy between vampires and capitalists in his Return to Salem’s Lot.
It’s not that Plainview sees other human beings as his victims. He sees them as rival vampires competing for the same limited supply of precious fluid. There can be no mercy or fellowship among such monsters. The film ends in the vampire’s moldering castle, in this case, the real-life mansion of oilman Edward Doheny, where Plainview confronts his personal Van Helsing, holyman Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Usually in confrontations of this kind (see, e.g., Hammer’s vampire films, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula) it is the Man of God who wields the phallic symbols of power, the crucifix and the wooden stake. In Anderson’s film, vampire Plainview wields the phallic weapon, a wooden bowling pin.
So this is one of those horror films where the monster survives. Think of the end of John Badham’s 1979 Dracula where the vampire (Frank Langella) is carried away by the breeze leaving the Man of God (Laurence Olivier) behind, shaking his fist impotently at the empty air.