As his name suggests, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a man of singular purpose, and There Will Be Blood follows him towards the end in a similar fashion. The film and its protagonist are unapologetic and unrepentant in pursuit of their goals. This is a film devoid of warmth; it’s characters are isolated, somehow, from each other. They know each other, but there’s no real human connection that binds them to each other – they’re not unlike characters from an Ayn Rand novel that way. What we're presented with here is an ugly and depressing view of the world, but one shown to us with such technical brilliance that in the end it’s as excellent as it is gloomy.
The film opens with Plainview mining for silver by himself in the middle of nowhere. He falls down the shaft and breaks his leg and manages not only to haul himself out, but to drag himself to the nearest settlement. This opening section tells you everything you need to know about the character’s relentlessness and tenacity. He is a man who simply will not stop. The film then flashes forward four years. Plainview is now working with other men to mine for silver, accidentally finding oil. One of the men dies and Plainview takes it on himself to care for the man’s infant son, whom he will raise as his own. Ten years later, he and the boy (whom he calls H.W., played wonderfully by Dillon Freasier) are looking to expand their enterprise and find more land to drill on. Plainview is approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who informs him that his family’s land and the surrounding area is rich in oil. Plainview and H.W. go there and find that oil is literally bleeding out of the land. Plainview begins making plans to buy up the land, drill it and get rich, and finds his progress at every point impeded somehow by Eli Sunday (also played by Dano), the local preacher.
Plainview’s purpose isn’t getting rich. He does want that, but only as a means of isolating himself further from other people, whom he sees as weak and detestable. What Plainview really wants is not necessarily his own success, but rather the failure of the people around him. “I have a competition in me,” he says, “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people… I want to rule and never, ever explain myself. I’ve built up my hatreds over the years, little by little.” The performance by Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as he embodies this absolutely hateful and demonic character. This is a man who ultimately feels nothing for other people, even the boy he calls his son. There is an accident early in the film which leaves H.W. deaf. Plainview is quick to run out to save him from further harm, but just as quickly abandons him to get back to the business at hand – his oil. His right hand man, Fletcher (Ciaran Hinds) stands beside him, watching an oil derrick burn, and asks if H.W. is all right. “No,” Plainview replies without emotion. Fletcher disappears to see to H.W., but Plainview stays where he is. Later, a man claiming to be Plainview’s brother (Kevin O’Connor) shows up. Plainview sends H.W. away to San Fransisco (doing so by abandoning him on a train) and sets the brother up in H.W.’s place as his companion and witness. His interactions with H.W. and Henry, the brother, show us that he’s not so much lonely and in need of companionship, but rather desirous of an audience.
Plainview’s best interactions are with Eli, a preacher of incredible fervour who is not exactly what he seems. Their relationship is always shifting, always on the verge of erupting. Eli finds a way to make Plainview bend to his will by submitting to be baptized by Eli in his church, which involves Eli slapping the sin out of Plainview before he’s officially “saved.” Eli thinks he’s won, but really this is nothing to Plainview other than one more perfectly surmountable obstacle to his ultimate goal. Years later, Eli and Plainview will meet again for the last time, and Plainview will show him how completely and utterly he’s “won” and then will delight in destroying what's left of Eli. The last scene of this film is alternately frightening, gruesome, and kind of funny (personally, I will never look at a milkshake the same way again). The Plainview we see in the film's final scenes is someone now as physically twisted as he is mentally twisted.
What’s startling about this film is the way that it defies expectations. We don’t expect a character like Plainview to “win” and live happily (which he does, in so far as his goal was to separate himself from the world and he ends the film master of a cavernous and forbidding mansion). One of my favourite shots in the film plays on audience expectation: in the center of the shot are railroad tracks leading into the distance. The expectation is that we’ll see a train coming along them but instead, off to the right, a car emerges down an unpaved road and the camera turns from the tracks to follow it. It’s a simple thing, but also brilliant.
There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece on every level. The cinematography and score are excellent, the pacing is brisk (it clocks in at about two and half hours but doesn’t feel like it), and the direction is masterful. The acting, too, is excellent, especially the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. If he doesn’t win an Oscar for this role, something is very, very wrong.