Tuesday, February 12, 2008

There Will Be Blood: On Oil, Despair and Kierkegaard

If there were an Oscar category for "Best Theological Portrayal of the Consequential Effects of Sin and Despair on the Self and its Relations to God, to Oneself, and to Others," There Will Be Blood would win it hands-down. Well, it might have some stiff competition from the Cohen brothers' recent masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, but since I haven't seen it I have to guess it would go to Blood. Last time I checked, though, the Oscars don't have that category, so it may have to settle for best picture, best actor, best cinematography, or some other lame, mundane award.

In any case, this stunning portrayal of the rise and fall of a turn of the 20th-century self-made millionaire oil tycoon puts you in a slight but steady choke-hold from the opening scene and kicks you in the gut at the end. The pain is well-worth the eight bucks. The film correlates Daniel Plainview's business and financial rise with his emotional and relational demise. As one reviewer has pointed out, it's a fascinating study of the dark underside of the American experiment and of the so-called "American dream."

I am most interested, though, in how the film captures and portrays that theological slippery snake called "sin." Fifty years or so before the fictitious Daniel Plainview struck silver and then an ocean of oil under western soil, S. Kierkegaard wrote that despair is the psychological side of sin. The life of sin begins with its innocent stage as anxiety, but eventually bubbles up, like the black soupy oil of Plainview's prosperity, as despair. For Kierkegaard, despair is the breakdown of the self, when a person cannot relate rightly to God, to oneself (what one is supposed to be), or to others. Sin (and despair) is primarily for Kierkegaard a relational category. It disrupts our humanity by disordering and destroying our relationships. Despair may at first be "hidden"-- that is, not recognized for what it is. Many of us are brilliantly skilled at hiding despair. We go along in life pretending that we like people, that we are comfortable with ourselves, and when the suspicion rises in us that we're living a lie, we squelch the sensation and fill up the gaps with entertainment. We simply amuse ourselves to apathy, and divulge in enough lighthearted pleasantries that it seems like all is well-enough with the world, with ourselves, and with our fellow human beings.

Plainview cuts through all of that as his hidden despair becomes increasingly revealed. In one of his more vulnerable moments, he says, "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking." Other than his son H.W., the only person he comes close to liking he kills. For the hardened oil man, relationships are merely instrumental in his rise to the top and people merely pawns in his game. Plainview is the "Uber-Mensch" whose power over others destroys even himself. The closest he comes to authentic relationality is in the context of his psychological war with the imposter-preacher Eli Sunday. In the end (spoiler alert), all Plainview wants is authenticity from Sunday. Just admit you're a crook and that God is a fantasy for weak minds. What Plainview doesn't realize is that, as straightforwardly authentic as he appears to be, he is not living a fully human life, because he has cut himself off from God and from others. Thus, while he is true to himself, he is not a true self. Not only has his despair destroyed his relationships with the people who want to love him (e.g. his son H.W.), but it has killed his spirit and turned him away from life altogether.

If there would be a sequel, one would hope that the despair which is no longer hidden is healed somehow through the very blood he spills. In a powerful nod to the Christ-event of the Gospels, Plainview exhales in exhaustion at the end: "It is finished." The shedding of blood has long signified within Christianity the chance at new life. Could despair turn to salvation? Could the "sickness that leads to death" (Kierkegaard) be healed through an ironic and tragic culmination of the depth of despair? When despair runs its full course it either leads to death (spiritual) or it reaches the end of the rope and grasps for help. From the Christian point of view, humanity's source for hope lies in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. There we find the potential restoration of authentic relationality: to God, to oneself (what one is supposed to be), and to others.


Craig Gordon said...

Did you write this for me?

You should now read "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality" and write a response to what that book purports.

Kyle A. Roberts said...


I didn't have you in mind, but if the glove fits...

Who wrote "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality"?

gcullen161 said...

I'm really glad someone else thought of Kierkegaard while watching this movie! My friend thought I was being too philosophical when I mentioned it (though you were much more in depth than I was, so bravo to you).

Kyle A. Roberts said...

I'm also relieved to know that I am not alone in seeing his footprints. Of course, as my friends might say, I trace most everything back to Kierkegaard somehow, so I suppose it's not surprising.

Matthew said...

well said! wish we could have discussed this in person after we saw the movie. Amazingly, or tragically (depending on your perspective), i have been imaging the picture in the same manner. (minus the Kerkegaard since I have zero knowledge of his thoughts)
The key addition was your take on "it is finished". I missed that key and pointed phrase. In hindsight, it was perferctly placed.
i found the final dialogue between plainview and hw to paint a vivd picture of our deafness and blindness to the pits of independence or "dis"-relationality. H.W was deaf but actually heard and expereinced life and truth. Plainview thought he had seen, heard and experienced all but found himself completely unable to communicate with the other side. thanks for your thoughts.
P.S. i have never actually had the opportunity to read anything of yours. You write very well! It is is a great mix of insight, transparency and engagement. I also have my first Kierkegaard books to read when this quarter is over.

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Thanks for the comment, Matt. Good point re. the "foil" of H.W.'s healthy relationality juxtaposed to his father. I wonder, too, if the source of much of Daniel's anger toward H.W. lay in the fact that he could sense that his son, while hearing-impaired, possessed what he lacked: love for fellow human beings and a healthy "self."

Yes, it would have been fun to talk about this in person. Thanks for your comments re. the writing.