From the reviews I have read, I do not think there are many who understand There Will Be Blood, or the portrayal of the central character, Daniel Plainview, a role acted with such consummate skill by Daniel Day-Lewis. Plainview and his all-consuming ambition drive the film, as do the various musical scores, which so brilliantly and deftly emphasize the simultaneous financial making and psychological unraveling of Daniel Plainview. The film is subtle enough that it never truly asks the question directly, but it is there within the film nonetheless: does Daniel Plainview simply lose his mind over time? Or does he instead lose his morality – his humanity, his moral compass?  By the film’s climax, Plainview has become a shell of the human being he once was. He is deadened to his deep love for his son – for HW was his son, despite the lack of blood relation. Daniel has become furious with his son’s betrayal, for that is how he sees HW’s desire to leave and start his own company, and has become so lost to alcoholism that he cannot stop himself not only from the basest cruelty to HW, but from acting on his rage and murdering Eli, who has come to him begging for money. 

This film depicts the ultimate modernist tragedy – whereby a man loses what is humanly closest to him even as he achieves the material “success” he has always craved.

Plainview despises Eli for what he sees as Eli’s base dishonesty: that is, for Eli’s portrayal of himself as a spiritual healer, a vessel of God, when in fact he is a mere charlatan – an actor. Eli is a very successful charlatan, at least within the confines of the Little Boston oil town; he even manages at one point to humiliate Plainview himself within his “church” in a scene that is utterly riveting in its irony, and that perhaps represents the moment which unhinges Plainview’s mind.  But this only serves to put Eli in competition with Daniel, and to make Eli into Daniel’s true enemy. Once Eli makes the mistake of coming to Daniel for money, and at that key moment of Daniel’s loss of HW, he seals his fate as Daniel’s victim. Eli does not even understand that Daniel is not a man who will suffer humiliation without extracting his price. It is obvious that, by the time Eli has returned broke first to ask for, and then to demand, money, he has suffered enough humiliations that he has no pride in himself left: he willingly renounces God in his bid for cash, unwittingly enraging Daniel all the more. Had Eli refused to renounce God and left immediately, he perhaps would not have died.

Not only do I disagree with the widely-held view that Daniel Plainview is a villain in this film from the outset, I also disagree that the main motivation behind Daniel’s drive to discover and claim the oil – to make his fortune – was solely to become wealthy.  Daniel may be many things, including a person who admits openly to the man he believes to be his brother Henry that he is a psychopath who hates people,  but he is also utterly determined, methodical, creative, cunning, relentlessly entrepreneurial, ruthless, fearless, and consistently direct much of the time: an individual utterly obsessed with gaining sole ownership and control of that “ocean of oil” under the Sunday ranch. Many reviewers see Plainview as a charlatan who cons people out of their oil and the “true” value of their land.  But perhaps what is more true is that Daniel Plainview sees himself, as Eli also sees himself at the outset of the film, as a liberator: he believes himself to be liberating these ranchers from a life of toil on the land, taking what no one else would want (their rocky, barren land), to create a viable and wealthy community. He knows the land is more valuable than what he offers them.  But he believes that this additional value can be perceived and acted upon only by those able to extract the oil, and that other oilmen would probably not pay more then he, and would perhaps do less for the community. He believes through his long and tough oilman apprenticeship, he has gained that right to take the land and extract its riches. Therefore, being pragmatic to his core, Daniel Plainview does not see what he is doing as dishonest; he is merely paying not oil prices, but quail prices. These ranchers do not have his hard-won knowledge and skills.

Is the oil itself evil? Or the man who soaks himself within the riches it brings? Or the culture oil feeds? Does evil come from a devil, or from earthly circumstances which prey on the primeval weaknesses of the human race?  All questions perhaps we could stand to ask ourselves at this moment in history.  All questions this film indirectly asks the viewer.

This film is a study in the moral disintegration of a human soul. Daniel Plainview is a man so driven to succeed that he pushes himself on his back with a broken leg through miles of desert to make his claim on his silver mine in New Mexico. He labors in the fumes of an oil well, digging until he can no longer breathe, and witnesses the sudden death of a man who clearly has some affection for him (helps to steady him as he loses his breath). The viewer witnesses Plainview as he decides to become a father, and claim that man’s child – an infant – his own. Is this kindness or merely some emotional need of his own? Or bald exploitation of a child for his own ambitions? We are never sure, but despite the hideously cruel words to his adopted son at the end of the film, there is no doubt, as the film unravels their relationship, that he does love HW as a son when he is a boy, even as he uses HW also to gain his own ends (land contracts with the ranchers). Perhaps what is Daniel’s undoing as a human being is that he tends to forget too often the emotional needs of his son, in favor of treating him as a piece of property that he has claimed – like a land tract. Or simply as a partner rather than as a true son – as HW himself says when he states his desire to leave–he wants to keep his father as a father, and not as a partner.  

Plainview “abandons his child” three times within the film – notably when the Sunday oil well comes “in”– deafening HW – and the boy watches his father jubilantly dancing in the firelight: a figure of satanic proportions – the oil on his features evidence of his inner demons of greed all the more horrible in light of his neglect of the deep emotional needs of his son at that terrible moment when HW’s world is rendered silent forever. HW will never again hear his father’s voice, but will now begin to judge his father solely by his actions and not his words.

Plainview abandons HW a second time when he sends him away to study ASL (American Sign Language), largely because he cannot endure the fact that he can no longer communicate with his son.  He does not understand his son’s motivations (i.e. HW setting fire to the cabin), when in fact HW is merely jealous of the charlatan brother Henry in replacing himself in the affections and communications with his father–something Daniel himself would likely have felt if he were in the same situation. Perhaps it was best for Plainview to send HW to school, but when he does so by conning his son into believing he also is going with him and then gets off the train, leaving Fletcher (his henchman) to hold the boy by force, this is emotional treason committed by a father who is too cowardly to admit his true intentions to his deaf son.  

But the film does show that Daniel feels anguish about this decision–as depicted in the later critical scene with Eli in the Church of the 3rd Revelation. Curiously, though, Daniel seems to show no remorse for the first betrayal, nor the ensuing brutality he demonstrates towards the boy (alcohol in the milk et al) after HW has lost his hearing. His love for his son, however, is depicted no more clearly than when he holds HW after finally returning from the oil rig, when the Sunday well delivers, and HW is moaning/humming to himself. His father holds him closely on the bed and strokes his head. There is so much tenderness here in Daniel Plainview that much of the time he squelches completely in his tense relationship with Mother Earth. His sexual self is embedded in his desires to screw the earth with his bit – his auger – to produce and free her bountiful offspring – the oil itself.

This feature art film, with its long-range slow binding images, haunting scores, its intensely appropriate subject matter (for our times) and its focus on facets of human morality, particularly in the face of great wealth and opportunity, is a masterpiece. An American masterpiece that may well be a telling allegory of our times.   The central character is a charismatic figure brought to a “finish,” in much the same way as Citizen Kane. There Will Be Blood ought to have won the Oscar for best movie of the year, for it will be in time, I believe, acknowledged for its brilliance in a way that No Country for Old Men never will, I am equally certain.  And just as Daniel Plainview states in the film – one man does not prospect from the ground – it takes a whole community of good people, so it is also true of a movie. While Day-Lewis gives a virtuoso performance, as does Paul Dano who depicts both Sunday brothers, Eli and Paul, and Paul Thomas Anderson is undoubtedly a director with profound vision, something happened in the making of this film that is rare, and impossible to achieve by force or by craft alone. There Will Be Blood has all the characteristics of a true epic – a classic American Gothic with plenty of depth, breadth, scope, all less easily understood than the Sunday oil well at its center. Or religion and its ecstatic heights and sad limitations. Is business and wealth – OIL – our new and corrupt religion? Certainly, many are dying and have died in oil’s name and in its worship, in their very real human blood. 

Time to read the book this film was adapted from, at least in part – Oil, by Upton Sinclair (1927).  I haven’t yet even begun to unravel this film – and that is what makes it great.

by Kate Orland Bere 

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