Technological Success, Emotional Failure: Civilization and Unhappiness in THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Happy is the man free of business cares,
who, like the men of olden days,
ploughs the family fields with his own oxen
and neither lends nor borrows.
— Horace, Beatus Ille[1]

In his essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud seeks to connect the unhappiness of man as an individual to civilization and society, exploring concepts such as the sexual and death instincts, the relationship between technological development and happiness, and, to some extent, the god-complex. Freud defines civilization as “the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors,” “protect men against nature,” and “adjust their mutual relations.”[2] He remarks especially upon the “exploitation of the earth by man,”[3] or the domination of nature in order to then wield it as a tool to aid human progress. Freud also claims that civilization requires the renunciation or limitation of the sexual and death instincts.[4] Thus, civilization becomes “largely responsible for [mankind’s] misery,” and man would be more satisfied in his primitive state.[5] Each of these key concepts from Freud’s essay is expertly demonstrated in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, particularly in the active protagonist Daniel Plainview, whose increasing wealth and developing oil business throughout the film are inversely proportional to his happiness and satisfaction.

The sexual and death instincts are psychoanalytical concepts that aim to categorize all base human instincts into one of those two classifications— the former being associated with life, sex drives, and survival, the latter more self-destructive, violent, and death-driven. Although often seen as conflicting or opposing groups, Parisi argues that while it is only the sexual instinct that seeks its goal through the “pleasure principle,” they both share the ultimate objective of “tension reduction,” or an attempt to return to an “Edenic state.”[6] In There Will Be Blood, however, Daniel Plainview seems utterly driven by the death instinct, lacking any sort of sexual motivation. Sight & Sound agrees, asserting that although the film was based off Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, it only “sketchily resembles” the book, with Plainview bearing closer resemblance to its author than its protagonist.[7] They then cite a New Yorker article written by David Denby on Sinclair, which proclaims that the Oil! author “seems to have felt a considerable antipathy toward sexual love.”[8] Similarly, writes Nick James, Daniel Day-Lewis’s character is “de-sexed and power-focused,” the film regarding the “unromantic and sexless rapacity of capital.”[9] Women and female relationships are notably absent from the film, especially in connection to Daniel Plainview. Anderson himself even jokes that “that would have been the sin— to tack a romance on top of the movie.”[10] H.W. is adopted, removing any certifiable romantic or even sexual backstory from Daniel, and the one time the protagonist is placed into a sexual scenario (the brothel), rather than joining Henry in his drunken revelries, he isolates himself, troubled by the man’s familial betrayal.[11]

So, if he seemingly lacks all sexual instinct, Daniel must then be wholly overcome by his death instinct, and Freud’s depiction of this concept certainly supports that characterization. He postulates that the greatest manifestation of the death instinct is aggression, and that in reality, contrary to the Christian ideal of treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated, the ‘neighbor’ is instead an outlet for aggressive energies:

[He becomes] someone who tempts [men] to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.[12]

To further develop this argument, Parisi contends that “Cruelty is to the death instinct as perversion is to the sex instinct.”[13] Daniel’s aggression and cruelty is evident again and again in There Will Be Blood, though it is perhaps most conspicuous between Daniel and Eli Sunday. From placidly robbing Eli of the right to bless the well, to publicly humiliating him by slapping him around in the mud, to finally literally beating him to death, Daniel consistently exhibits fiercely aggressive energies toward Eli. To sum, while Daniel Plainview inarguably shows little to no sexual instinct, this is compensated entirely by the death instinct. As Freud argues, these instincts show a desire to return to more idyllic times, and as man tends to be happier when he is freed from the constraints of civilization, the exhibition of Daniel’s cruelty is a simple attempt to reduce his neurotic tension. In developing his argument correlating civilization to dissatisfaction, Freud explains that man’s neuroticism is derived from the inability to “tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideals.”[14] In this regard, society’s “cultural ideals” would be the renunciation or repression of the death instinct, since, as previously stated, civilization cannot exist without constraining those base instincts. Thus, Daniel’s neurosis stems not only from his frustration with the technologically advanced society that he has created and into which he has integrated himself, but also from the conflict between society’s requirements of him and his personal desires as an individual.

The next relationship Freud explores in Civilization and Its Discontents is that between technology and happiness. Since he defines civilization as constituting of “all activities and resources which are useful to men for making the earth serviceable to them,” he thus argues that mankind heightens its civilized state as it exploits Earth’s resources.[15] However, this “subjugation of the forces of nature” has not led to a correlated increase in the “amount of pleasurable satisfaction” in life. Developing technologies rather raise expectations of a better life, and as they do not manage to practically provide that improved quality of life, this then merely increases man’s disappointment and discontent.[16] The progression of technology in There Will Be Blood in order to rape the Earth for its oil once again reflects and supports this argument, right from the opening montage. It is 1898: Daniel Plainview mines alone, with rudimentary means— he singlehandedly hoists his tools up with a coarse rope. It is 1902: he has now a small team of men and a larger, functional pulley system. This scene also shows the protagonist sketching plans for another, more improved edition, effectively demonstrating, as the film will continue to do, that the character is consistently active in his role in the development of civilization. Rather than passively joining an existing rigging team, he starts from nothing and builds his own empire. By the time he is drilling on the Sundays’ land, the operation has become massive and automatic, and he has a substantial team of men. Nevertheless, each of these rigs experiences failures— they collapse, they catch on fire, his men are injured or killed. Although the technology advances, disappointment always seems to follow. Later, the pipeline becomes the most colossal signifier of Daniel’s construction of civilization, and finally, at the film’s conclusion, the man inhabits an enormous mansion, complete with its own bowling alley. Yet, alongside the increasingly bigger steps toward monetary success runs Daniel’s growing dissatisfaction and emotional destruction. The inverse relationship between financial success and human happiness, between technological and cultural advancements and personal satisfaction, is directly aligned with Freud’s argument that civilization is at the root of discontent. Certainly, the 1898 Daniel Plainview, although covered in sweat and dirt and sporting a broken leg, seemed much more pleased with his sliver of silver than the older Daniel Plainview at the conclusion of the film, kneeling over Eli’s dead body in his bowling alley.

Even the score, composed by Jonny Greenwood, reflects this conflict between the old and the new. In an interview with James Bell, the artist explicates his decision to integrate the sounds of an Ondes Martenot into the score. The instrument, he says, was invented in the 1920s, and is an early example of making a musical instrument with electricity. “It’s magical and it’s not jarringly modern, despite using electricity,” he explains.[17] This instrument, Greenwood goes on, parallels There Will Be Blood’s story of the gradual mechanization of Daniel’s world, of the transition between Plainview the silver-miner and Plainview the oil tycoon.

In an interview published in Sight & Sound, Anderson discusses the historical inspiration for Plainview’s character:

The oilmen of that time… made this leap into the 20th century and they didn’t do very well with it… They did what they needed to survive and got a set of tools to fulfill their ambitions but they were completely unable to stop that part of themselves from working when they’d got what they wanted. They were cannibals of their own souls.[18]

While the opening shot of the film shows Daniel climbing out of a deep and dark hole, the rest of the film follows him spinning down a deeper, darker hole: avarice, capitalism, desire. These vices pull him away from human relationships and happiness and into the gritty muck of aggression and greed. While in 1898 he was pleased with the small chunk of silver he discovered, his hunger grows insatiable throughout the film, and he is no longer able to be satisfied with what he has, constantly wanting to go bigger, to get more, to obtain and keep the most amount of money to himself rather than share with any of the men around him— as seen through Eli’s requests for the church, Henry’s pleas to spare his life, and the conflict with Standard Oil. Again, this accurately mirrors Freud’s argument purporting that as civilization increases, so too does man’s unhappiness.

In describing sources of suffering in man, Freud claims the most painful source is the interpersonal relationships with other men.[19] He goes on to explain that “voluntary isolation, keeping oneself aloof from other people” is the “readiest safeguard” against that source of suffering.[20]  Daniel Plainview seems to heed these words: in addition to the corrupting nature of money that destroys Daniel’s life, he also ruins and thus is ruined by the failed familial relationships with H.W., Henry, and Eli. It is interesting to note that in each of these cases, the relationship is never truly of blood— a negatory allusion to the title’s second meaning. Similar to how his death instinct is best shown through his interactions with Eli, Daniel’s unhappiness and failure with relationships is best explicated by the broken one with his adopted son. At the outset of the film, Daniel takes the infant H.W. under his wing and raises him as his own, later presenting his growing company as a father-son partnership, a family business. Then, in a pivotal scene, Daniel abandons his recently deafened boy, gazing instead at his flaming oil rig. Here lies the first instance in which Daniel chooses technology or his business over family— this choice will soon be repeated when he jettisons H.W. on the train. At the end, in his monstrous mansion, the broken man cruelly terminates the already-failed relationship upon learning that H.W. wishes to go his own way, thus becoming a competitor rather than a partner. Daniel always seems to value his oil rig and himself far more than other human relationships, yet throughout his life he never manages to grasp that it is only those relationships that ever provided him with any semblance of happiness. A somewhat tragic scene that reflects this idea is when Daniel confesses to the man he believes to be his brother that he hates most men, but is glad to have Henry by his side. “To have you here gives me a second breath,” he professes.[21] Despite this, he is struck with suspicion regarding Henry’s true intentions when he discovers they do not share blood after all, and murders the man with whom he had quickly grown so close.

Another source of suffering Freud describes comes from the “feebleness of our own bodies,” which man attempts to combat with the construction of tools, and thus the development of civilization.[22] He says that in the past, man created an ideal to which he attributed “omnipotence and omniscience.”[23] These ideals became his cultural gods, but as advancements in technology have allowed man to achieve objectives previously believed to be out of reach, man has thus made himself into a “prosthetic God.”[24] Yet in spite these new capabilities, Freud explains, man remains unhappy as this godlike figure— again underlining the connection between civilization or technological advancements and unhappiness. There Will Be Blood certainly constructs Daniel as a character with a fairly severe god-complex, reinforced numerous times throughout the film, especially in juxtaposition to Eli, the film’s representation of evangelical Christianity and God. At the film’s inception, when Paul Sunday asks Daniel what church he belongs to, Daniel replies, “I enjoy all faiths.”[25] It is clear from this response that Daniel actually rejects faith and organized religion, and it is the first building block to understanding his god-complex that continues to grow throughout the film. Daniel’s neurosis prevents him from bending to anyone else’s will: he must control all aspects of his life and of those around him. It is in the same scenes in which Daniel humiliates Eli out of the aggression of his death instinct that he also demonstrates his god-complex. For example, the scene in which Daniel “blesses” the well himself instead of allowing Eli to, although he had previously given him his word that he could do so, looking the boy straight in the eye all the while, is nothing more than a show of power, an exhibition that his decree will not be compromised. Furthermore, the fact that he was never held accountable for the murder of Henry reinforces his belief that he is above man and morality. His god-complex peaks during the climactic finale, in the violent confrontation between Daniel and Eli. Daniel forces Eli to proclaim that God is a superstition, then physically attacks him, all the while screaming “I am the Third Revelation!”[26] In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud briefly discusses the inevitable failures with using this godlike neuroticism as an attempt to combat the suffering that reality brings:

…one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion.[27]

There lies Daniel Plainview, crouched over Eli’s corpse, splattered in the other man’s blood. His attempts throughout the thirty or so years of his life that the film documents to control his surroundings and create a new world have come to naught. Insane, alone, and broken, Daniel, although at the peak of his financial success, has lost everything. He is, as he says, finished.

Overall, Freud claims there are three sources of suffering: the human body, the external world, and interpersonal relationships. Through technological advancements, Daniel Plainview attempts to overcome the limitations of his mortal body, leading to his god-complex. It is also through these advancements that he seeks to exploit and control earth and its natural resources, taking control of the land. Finally, these technologies additionally lead to the greed that causes him to hold them in higher esteem than his relationships with H.W., Henry, and Eli. In the end, all failures in Daniel’s life can be attributed to the cultural developments he himself implements in the land around him; while Freud argues that it is civilization that is responsible for man’s unhappiness, a concept that is certainly true and demonstrated well in Anderson’s film, it is also Daniel that is greatly responsible for creating that civilization. Thus, his actions throughout the film are what ultimately create the shell of a man seen at the end, alone and utterly unhappy.


[1] Horace, and Elizabeth Jones. “Beatus Ille,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 13, no. 2 (2005): 117-20,

[2] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), 36.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4]Thomas Parisi, Civilization and Its Discontents: An Anthropology for the Future? (New York: Twayne, 1999), 44.

[5] Freud, 33.

[6] Parisi, 42.

[7] Nick James, Ben Walters, and James Bell, “Black Gold,” Sight & Sound 18, no. 2 (2008): 31.

[8] David Denby, “Uppie Redux?: Upton Sinclair’s losses and triumphs.” The New Yorker, August 28, 2006,

[9] James, 31.

[10] Ibid., 33.

[11] There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2007; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Vantage, 2008), DVD.

[12] Freud, 58.

[13] Parisi, 42.

[14] Freud, 34.

[15] Ibid., 37.

[16] Ibid., 34-5.

[17] James, 34.

[18] Ibid., 33.

[19] Freud, 24.

[20] Ibid.

[21] There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2007; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Vantage, 2008), DVD.

[22] Freud, 33.

[23] Ibid., 38.

[24] Ibid., 39.

[25] There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2007; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Vantage, 2008), DVD.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Freud, 28.