Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies:There Will Be Blood

Thank God, I have known very few mean people in my life. In my formative years, I had friends and teachers who always wanted the best for me. My college instructors, in particular, modeled sensitivity and grace, and took pleasure in my accomplishments over the years. I never sensed a tinge of jealousy. They were big-hearted people who regarded me as their son in the academic sense. I was their student and they took joy in my achievements. This kind of positive symbiotic relationship between mentor and acolyte does not exist in the dark drama There Will Be Blood.

The film opens in 1898 in a remote area in New Mexico where Daniel Plainview is searching for oil. He sees himself as an “oil man,” totally devoted to finding oil and becoming rich. He possesses both the expertise to identify promising drilling sites and the knowledge to construct and manage the drilling apparatus that is necessary to bring the oil to market.

After some modest success, he travels around to purchase drilling rights to privately owned land. He postures himself as a family man, even adopting an orphan baby boy whose father was killed in a drilling incident while working for Plainview. After several years pass, he introduces the boy as his partner, creating an aura of decency around him, which obscures his nefarious plans to accumulate wealth at any human cost.

One day, a young man, Paul Sunday, visits Plainview and tells him about his family’s ranch in California that has an ocean of oil beneath it. Plainview travels there and strikes a deal with the boy’s father, Abel, and twin brother, Eli, to buy the property for $10,000, part of which will be used for the building of a new church as Eli wishes. Underneath the cordial negotiations, Plainview is discomforted by the earnest and ethereal Eli, who asks that the arrangement agreed upon be concluded with a solemn prayer. Plainview, not religious at all and abhorring religious coercion, refuses to participate. And so begins an increasingly tense and unstable relationship between the materialistic Plainview and the spiritual Eli Sunday, who fashions himself a charismatic preacher and faith healer. Both Plainview and Eli Sunday are zealots, radically opposed to one another’s world view.

In a conversation with a long lost relative, Plainview reveals the depth of his misanthropy. He states unequivocally: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people….There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.” His outlook towards others and his selfish actions are extreme. There is no moderation in his life.

When his adopted son informs him that he wants to start his own oil business in Mexico, Plainview does not wish him well as a normal father would do. Instead, he disowns him and calls him a “competitor.” It is an unbalanced and destructive message to a young man who has called Plainview his father and loved him for the bulk of his life.

In contrast to this cynical and egoistic way of looking at people is the Jewish view of human relationships. The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic text of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us to judge every man favorably. Always look for the good in other human beings. Don’t separate yourself from the broader community, for isolation breeds emotional instability and selfishness. Strive for the golden mean in every area of human behavior. Avoid extremes. Seek balance between work and family obligations.

There Will Be Blood, a grim, cautionary tale about the perils of isolation and monomania, reminds us to see life steadily and to see it whole.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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