There Will Be Syrup

Daniel Plainview and his madeleine.

Several loyal readers have written in to ask me to analyze the plot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterwork There Will Be Blood. This is a daunting task for your journeyman screenwriter, but, as Blood is obviously an important new movie and will inevitably be seen as a lodestar of the cinematic movement that will, no doubt, spring from it, I figured I would give it ago.

As this movie is still very much in theaters, I strongly caution the unlearned reader against advancing below the cut — vital spoilers are involved in every sentence.

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? What, indeed, does Daniel Plainview want? He’s a most undemonstrative chap who keeps his cards close to his vest. We can see his actions, we have a view plain enough for that. He digs in the earth, takes out valuable resources, then sells them to people to gain wealth. But why? What drives him? Digging up resources alone doesn’t make him happy, that becomes obvious. He never pursues a woman, although he does pursue familial love, in two forms. The first object of his love, his adopted son HW, he permanently deafens as a by-product of his pursuit for oil, and then disowns as a “bastard in a basket” and dismisses as a sales tool when HW tries to become his own man. His second stab at familial love, for the man who claims to be his his brother, goes poorly when he finds out the man isn’t really his brother after all; he brutally murders the man in the wilderness and buries him in a shallow grave (another hole dug, another resource used).

So Plainview is not driven by love; perhaps he is driven by hate. He says to his would-be brother that he dislikes people and wants to make enough money to separate himself from them, but surely if all he wanted was to be free of people there are easier, cheaper ways to go about it than creating a vast oil empire. One could, for instance, become a hermit, or a fisherman.

One could say that Plainview wants two things — great wealth, and solitude. But then what about God? God, or God’s agent on earth, anyway (Eli Sunday), hectors Plainview for the bulk of the movie about Plainview’s lack of proper attitude toward the almighty. So maybe Plainview wants to destroy God, or to bring God down to his level, so to speak. But by the end of the movie, it becomes clear that Plainview doesn’t believe in God and is sure that Eli is a fraud. So he doesn’t want to kill God, which is a fool’s errand, but only to kill a fraud, which is not only possible but could even be thought of as commendable.

What then, exactly, does Plainview want? Well, in the final scene of the movie (last warning — spoiler alert) he explains the oil business to Eli in terms any child can understand. “I drink your milkshake!” he exclaims, “I drink it up!” And then he bludgeons Eli to death with a bowling pin.

So there you have it — Daniel Plainview wants your milkshake. He wants to drink your milkshake, and if, by chance, you do not have a milkshake, Plainview will bludgeon you to death with a bowling pin.

This “milkshake” line has been getting a lot of press lately — there is, in fact, a whole website devoted to it — and the reason, of course, is that the line is the culmination of the movie’s narrative. Just as Scarface is the touching story of a man and his long-aborning friendship with his rocket-launching machine-gun, and Jerry Maguire is a rousing parable about a man who wants to be shown money, There Will Be Blood is a Proustian tale of a man denied milkshakes, and the terrible toll paid for his deprivation.

One can certainly see why Daniel Plainview wants a milkshake. The environs where he toils are hot and dusty and miles from refrigeration. When working in the oilfields of Southern California, he must have gone months or years without having a milkshake. I would, in fact, wager that even ice cream or phosphates would be unknown to the peoples of that dry region.

One must wonder, was there ever a milkshake in Plainview’s past, in his distant childhood perhaps? Did he once enjoy a cool, thirst-slaking milkshake at his mother’s knee, before she was, I don’t know, shot by Indians or something? Did his mother, in fact, die while he was drinking that long-ago milkshake, necessitating the need to abandon his unfinished milkshake like Kane’s sled in the Colorado snow? Does he dig mine shafts in the harsh desert soil because their shape reminds him of the classic tall, narrow milkshake glass? Is his drive to dig deeper and deeper an attempt to finally “finish” that childhood milkshake? (The last line of the movie is, of course, “I’m finished,” his sublimated milkshake finally consumed.)

Plainview starts by mining silver, but then switches to oil, no doubt because the black, bubbling oil spurting from the ground reminds him of the chocolate syrup dispensed into his milkshake at the soda counter of some long-shuttered San Francisco drugstore. Is he aware of the parallels? I would tend to doubt it — the desire for a milkshake, as Freud said, is often deeply latent and sometimes can only be expressed through oil drilling or, occasionally, murder.

But surely, you say, once Plainview has his millions, he could sit in his Los Angeles mansion and drink milkshakes to his heart’s content. Yes, but what if there was no long-ago childhood milkshake? What if, in fact, Daniel Plainview has never drunk a milkshake in his life? What if, in fact, he doesn’t know what a milkshake is, and is too proud to ask anyone? Think of the bitterness and rage that would build up in such a man, his whole life lived in the pursuit of an ice-cream treat of which he has no understanding. Was there a scene cut from the final picture where Plainview walks into, say, a library, or a hardware store, and asks for a milkshake, only to be laughed out of the establishment for his naive ways? Think of the anger such a man would carry around with him, that man would be determined to show everyone that he doesn’t need a milkshake at all, that he will become rich enough to buy — and drink — every milkshake in the world! But of course, he would, of necessity, keep that deep, dark secret to himself — how could he dare to order a milkshake when he still doesn’t know what one is?

There is one scene where Plainview is seen ordering a drink in a restaurant, and the writer/director, with an obviousness bordering on overstatement, pointedly makes that drink order not a milkshake. Plainview orders whiskey, and then, on second thought, orders goat’s milk, and one can sense the dread and wonder in that order — Plainview, so close to achieving his goal of drinking a milkshake, cannot bring himself to order the treat by its proper name. He gets the “milk” part right, but “goat?” What is the “goat” doing in there? Is there something about a milkshake that Plainview sees as being of “the devil’s work?” Or is it that, with his millions secured, he cannot quite bring himself to order that thing that has driven him all this time? Finally, is milkshake-drinking a metaphor for the theft inherent in capitalism, or is the theft inherent in capitalism a metaphor for milkshake-drinking?

(All this is made more complicated by the fact that, in the time Daniel Plainview came of age, a milkshake was an alcoholic treat made with ice cream, eggs and — you guessed it — whiskey. So when he orders his whiskey and goat’s milk in the restaurant, he is so close to his goal of a milkshake that he can, literally, almost taste it.)

Next, I will compare and contrast Daniel Plainview’s and Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski’s approaches to bowling. hit counter html code


23 Responses to “There Will Be Syrup”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Now I’m dying for a frosty, creamy, mocha frappe.

  2. urbaniak says:

    Vincent Vega, on the other hand, by achieving satiety seals his fate. Jules Winnfield, not tempted into complacency, lives.

    • Todd says:

      Vincent Vega has his milkshake and dies, Daniel Plainview is denied his milkshake and kills. Both are damned, both their fates must be laid at the feet of milkshakes.

  3. popebuck1 says:

    Brilliant analysis! Compare and contrast to “Notorious,” where not just the subtext but the ENTIRE plot revolves around the beverages that Ingrid Bergman is drinking (or not drinking) at any given time.

  4. laminator_x says:

    The Sting tells tale of how two grifter’s love for Scott Joplin music brings them revenge and fortune.

  5. mr_noy says:

    I need to see it again but I like that Plainview is never given an obvious, single motive. Amassing wealth to impress a woman, to provide for his family, to win his father’s love, etc. would have humanized him too much. Even his misanthropic desire to earn enough money to get away from people doesn’t really explain his actions. When Standard Oil offers to buy him out his answer is “what would I do with myself?” All Plainview has is the oil business and his unquenchable desire to succeed. That he wants to succeed without any of the stock human motivations for doing so is what makes him monstrous.

    That being said, I was a little disappointed by the ending. With a portentous title like There Will Be Blood I was expecting a bloody conclusion with a body count of Elizabethan proportions. Instead, you get a pathetic man killing an even more pathetic man in a bowling alley that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Overlook Hotel.

    • Todd says:

      You were disappointed by the ending for the same reason Plainview was disappointed by life — because there wasn’t a milkshake, there was only blood.

      • mr_noy says:

        You just jarred my memory. There *was* a milkshake – an Alamo Drafthouse Guinness Milk Shake, to be exact. I had almost forgotten that’s what I had ordered while watching TWBB. I might have remembered it if I hadn’t finished it an hour before the “I drink your milkshake” scene. How different Plainview’s life might have been had he known such sweet and readily available satisfaction.

        Hopefully, the Alamo staff will add a There Will Be Syrup Shake to their menu.

        • Todd says:

          Just think — all Plainview would need to do is burst through the movie screen and he could have drunk your milkshake.

          In the future, PT Anderson will do a 3D version of There Will Be Blood and Plainview will be able to do just that.

  6. polsvoice says:

    Wasn’t there a scene in which he gives a milk-and-whiskey concoction to his son to put him to sleep? And, in fact, makes him drink it up? Perhaps this is even closer to the mythical milkshake ideal.

    • Todd says:

      Holy crap, you’re right! HW drinks his milkshake!

      Wheels within wheels.

      • I have only just watched TWBB, hence this very late replying thing.

        Before I saw the film, I was already aware of some soon-to-be-notorious line related to milkshakes, and so when I saw the scene with him putting HW to sleep, I was convinced – convinced! – that there would be a showdown at the end between father and son where Daniel would exclaim something along the lines of “You drink my milkshake… you drink my milkshake for all these years and this is how you repay me! YOU DRINK MY MILKSHAKE?”

        I was half right. Well, maybe a third right.

  7. I always thought of the milkshake as a sign of resignation and waiting for the hitman after Andy Garcia’s performance in “What to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”….

  8. adam_0oo says:

    “I drink your milkshake!” he exclaims, “I drink it up!”

    Thank you, I will now start quoting this, doing my best to make it a pop culture catch phrase. People will look at me funny and assume I am a movie snob or a big fan of Kelis, but it will be worth it. Worth it because I am getting in on the ground floor.

    The only other time I got in on the ground floor on a catch phrase was when Dave Chapelle did his Lil John impression and honestly, that was tired by the end of the night. This milkshake thing has some potential. And honestly, doing an impression of DDL voice in Blood? Good times.

  9. kornleaf says:

    “i’m drinking your milkshake!”

  10. bigmikeyj says:

    What does the protagonist want?

    Yknow, I hate most blogs, and usually I don’t have to look past them to know I’ve seen enough.
    But this analysis.

    Flipping brilliant.
    Consider me a habitual reader.

    I am awaiting your comparison with baited breath

  11. Anonymous says:

    I had wondered what the hell this amusing list of “Presidential Milkshakes” was all about. Now I know, and maybe you’ll get a kick out of it, too.