There are numerous gods in Paul Thomas Anderson’s nihilistic nightmare rendering of the American Dream. Oil, Money and Power are the deities worshipped by both oil baron Daniel Plainview and his nemesis, the serpentine preacher Eli. Throughout the film, iconography and symbolism that can be attributed to the Almighty reveal the duplicity and manipulation at hand from both sides.
In one of the film’s most iconic sequences, Eli convinces Daniel to commit himself to the Lord and purge himself of his sins under the eyes of The Almighty – and at Eli’s feet upon the altar Daniel’s oil money has built. Eli beckons Daniel to speak to God but points to the rafters as a powerful beam of light bears down on them from behind. They speak of God, but they shun direct contact with the symbol carved to channel Him, and the charade is confirmed.
In the moment where Plainview hits pay dirt, almost literally, as the flames of the black gold he has summoned from the earth fill the night sky, the camera closes in on his sweating, gleeful face, scorched red from the fire’s reflection. The night around him oil black, his face floats free from his body, demonic.
Plainview is similarly depicted in a chilling scene that recalls Old Testament Cain and Abel as well as the New Testament parable of the prodigal son as he reveals his philosophical and ideological personality to a man claiming to be his brother. A seething, self-loathing capitalist, Plainview displays the polar opposite of Christian values in this moment. And lo, a jarring hypocrisy is writ large and the film leaves its early 20th Century milieu to set down a while in the free market, neo-liberal, 1% dominated present.
In the Bible, Daniel is a visionary who is thrown to the lions. These killers, these beasts, leave him unscathed. Is it purity or do they recognise their own? High Priest Eli grants Hannah a son and then takes him from her. Later, his children bring shame on him with their wickedness and corruption.