The Personification of Oil and Religion: Daniel Versus Eli in ‘There Will Be Blood’

​The central conflict in There Will Be Blood (2007) is found in the relationship between the two main characters, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Daniel’s plain-speaking oilman customs and Eli’s archaic spiritual beliefs represent the overall struggle between oil and religion. Paul Thomas Anderson depicts oil as the factor that draws the line between Daniel and Eli and ultimately causes them to build a deep-rooted hatred for each other. They each represent a side of the juxtaposition: Daniel as oil and Eli as religion. This juxtaposition of oil and religion builds tension and drama by highlighting the parallels between the two main individuals and alluding to religious events and narratives found in the Bible.

Daniel and Eli’s characters are perceived as “shadow selves” of one another. They are overcompensating for their spiritual emptiness by making their fair share of empty promises to the people, each other, and themselves. In the beginning of the film, Daniel agrees to give money to the church in addition to the money he was already giving to the Sunday family for their land. Eli continually pesters Daniel for the money that he owes the church, however, each time that Eli asks for the money, Daniel finds an excuse not to give it to him. Eli’s constant nagging on Daniel contributes to the buildup of Daniel’s outburst of anger in the final scene. In addition to failing to pay the money he promised to the church, Daniel also breaks his promise to allow Eli to bless the well. By blessing the well himself rather than allowing Eli to give the blessing he prepared, “Plainview has demonstrated that he knows the true source of power in Little Boston, and that any religiosity to be drawn from the well will be under his authority, not Eli’s” (Murray). Daniel wants the success of the well to be linked to his name rather than to Eli’s religion.

Eli made his share of empty promises, but his were predominantly geared towards his congregation and himself. He strived to appear to be a holy figure but barely lived up to the title. He was hypocritical in his treatment of Daniel and misused the sacrament of baptism. In the final scene, he admits to lusting after women and embezzling the funds of the church. Eli seems to be aware of these similarities between himself and Daniel. As we see in the last scene Eli’s final words are, “We’re family! We’re brothers! We’re brothers! Daniel please forgive me, I beg you—”. Eli was referring to the fact that him and Daniel were made brothers by the marriage of H.W. (Dillon Freasier) and Mary Sunday (Colleen Foy) but, whether Eli realized it or not, he was also alluding to the fact that their similarities in character should have been the factor that brought them closer together instead of creating a divide between them.

In addition to using Eli and Daniel as “shadow selves” of each other, the film contains different imagery and allusions to signify the struggle between oil and religion. In the scene following the blessing of the well, Eli confronts Daniel about his debt to the Church of the Third Revelation and Daniel responds by harassing Eli with rude remarks and physical blows. He pushes Eli into the oil puddle, shoves oil on his face, and then proceeds to mock his credibility as a pastor. This is a foreshadowing for the actual baptism of Daniel in which Eli takes the opportunity to openly mock and physically hit Daniel in front of his congregation. They use the baptisms to bring shame and humiliation to the other in hopes that it would draw the attention away from their own inadequacies.

There Will Be Blood is an oilman’s story integrated with Biblical allusions that create the basis for the struggle between oil and religion. The phrase “bastard from a basket” that Daniel coins to describe H.W. could be interpreted as a Biblical allusion to the story of Moses. The similarities start with the fact that H.W. goes to his father asking for freedom from the family business in the same way that Moses goes to the Pharaoh asking for freedom from captivity in Egypt. Both men were rescued from a basket and fought for freedom from oppression. H.W. wished to be free from his father so that he could start his own company; the Hebrews wished to be free from Egypt so that they could build their own nation.

​The usage of Biblical names for the two main characters allowed religion to be integrated into every aspect of the film alongside the ever-present theme of oil. Just like Eli in the Bible, Eli Sunday was a high priest in his time. However, the Eli in the film is corrupt and fails to meet the standards of the Biblical Eli. His last name “Sunday” could be an allusion to the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is a holy day and is meant to be kept holy, however, Eli doesn’t seem to respect this aspect in the church. He abuses his position in the church and takes advantage of the congregation for its money. The name “Daniel” means “God is my judge”. This is significant because Daniel Plainview is under judgement from almost everyone else in the film because of the ways in which he goes about making his wealth. He receives judgement for being an oilman and critiques on how to raise his son, run his business, and live his life.

​The film’s juxtaposition of oil and religion is demonstrated through the relationship of Daniel and Eli and is further expressed through Biblical allusions. By using characters to represent each of the aspects of oil and religion Paul Thomas Anderson was able to create a film that related to a present struggle in society. Daniel and Eli bring the controversial topics to life through representing the essence of oil and religion.

Works Cited

Murray, Terri. “There Will Be Blood.” Philosophy Now: a Magazine of Ideas, philosophynow.org/issues/74/There_Will_Be_Blood.

Anderson, Paul T, Daniel Lupi, Joanne Sellar, Jonny Greenwood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Sherman B. Del, Paul F. Tompkins, and Upton Sinclair. There Will Be Blood. Hollywood, Calif: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2007.