I saw There Will Be Blood back when it opened in 2007 and it’s a movie I still think about every few weeks or so. It’s grown into one my all-time favorite films and I think Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one of the most memorable characters in cinema history. He is the perfect distillation of 20th century capitalism and its raw, transactional view of the world coupled with voracious greed. His one thread back to humanity is his son, HW Plainview (Dillon Freasier), and eventually he even cuts that so that he’s left with only one real connection: his arch-nemesis, fraudulent preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).
The climactic confrontation the two have in Daniel’s home bowling alley is magnificent. The setup of the scene is that Eli, who is technically now part of Daniel’s family since Eli’s sister Mary has married HW, has come to ask Daniel for money. Eli believes that there’s oil underneath the Bandy land and since Daniel never built an oil derrick there, they can sell it. Daniel pretends to agree, but only if Eli admits that he is a false prophet and that God is a superstition. Eli, who has predicated his church on his ability to commune with the Holy Spirit, desperate for money, willingly shouts out that he is a false prophet and God is a superstition. Daniel then reveals that the oil has already been drained because of the pipeline he built. “I drink your milkshake!” Daniel exclaims, and then he throws Eli across the room shouting, “I am the third revelation!” Eli frantically shouts back, “We’re brothers!” but it’s too late. Daniel beats Eli to death with a bowling pin and then tells his butler, “I’m finished!”
So what does all of this mean? Why does Daniel shout, “I am the third revelation!” Daniel and Eli are both rich, interesting characters given life by their terrific actors, but they’re also symbols. Earlier in the film, Eli proclaims that he’s the third revelation. The first revelation was God’s commandments handed down to Moses, the second revelation is Jesus’ teachings to man, and the third revelation is any man filled with the holy spirit and says he is imbued with the powers and teachings of God. We see this when Eli uses his “healing powers” to “cure” an old woman of her arthritis.
The conflict between Eli and Daniel isn’t just between two men who don’t like each other very much because of their own egos. We have to look at the scope of the film. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson starts his movie in 1898 not just because it’s the start of the oil boom, but because the story needs to begin in the 19th century. That’s the war Anderson wants to depict. Eli and Daniel are both capitalists, but Eli does it under the guise of religion, which is the past. Daniel is a capitalist who has basically taken on the power of God and discarded with the pomp and circumstance of religion because he doesn’t need it. In the 20th century, people will need oil more than they’ll need religion, and so Daniel is the prophet of that movement.
There Will Be Blood isn’t so much about the death of religion or God as much as what has subsumed these cultural institutions as America moves from the 19th to the 20th century. Eli, unlike his brother Paul (also Dano), looks to the past and sees his racket as pretending he can commune with the Holy Spirit, which Daniel knows is a fraud and sees it as nothing more than “One goddamn hell of a show.” Paul, meanwhile, looked forward and saw that the future was in oil (capitalism and resource extraction). The future belongs to the industrial revolution, not the Great Awakening movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. What’s terrifying about Daniel, avaricious and sociopathic, is that he really is the “third revelation”, not Eli.
When Daniel shouts, “I am the third revelation,” what he means is that God now speaks through him (you can also see this acknowledged in Anderson using biblical-style font for the film’s title). Anderson, in the context of this movie, views God as a transactional exchange on par with capitalism. That capitalism used to belong to the religious movements even though they don’t offer what they’re selling, much like Eli at the end of the movie. Eli believes he has oil to sell, but that oil now belongs to Daniel. Daniel, as repulsive and as amoral as he is, does have something real to sell. His oil will fuel the 20th century and beyond. He controls the blood of the land and now, far more than Eli, represents what Americans will worship: wealth and power, not religious healing.
There Will Be Blood is a movie about a lot of things, but it’s primarily about a country in transition and where we are today. Sure, the Eli Sundays of this world didn’t vanish, but there’s not a single televangelist who has a fraction of the power of an oil executive. You can go your entire life without ever turning on The 700 Club. Try going a day without using plastics or requiring something that didn’t require oil to reach you. The world belongs to Daniel Plainview. He’s the third revelation.