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, determined to attain them and willing to steamroll over anything in the way. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson guides the film with precision and intensity, unfolding Plainview’s ugly and depressing view of the world with technical brilliance and control.
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 and Plainview begins making plans to buy up the land, drill it and get rich, but finds his progress at every point impeded by Eli Sunday (also played by Dano), the local preacher.
The purpose of Plainview’s existence 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 and the luxury of holding himself apart. “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 Francisco (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, blackmailing him into 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 darkly funny and the Plainview we see in the film's final scenes is someone now as physically twisted as he is mentally twisted.
There Will Be Blood is set in the recent past, but it has a lot to say about our present, particularly with respect to our reliance on oil and our embrace of money as a form of religion. There are parallels that can be drawn between this film and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that is similarly chilly and detached. Kubrick’s film is ultimately about the evolution of man, about discovering the key that will unlock the next level of existence, but it’s also a meditation on whether or not evolution is a good thing. In its Dawn of Man sequence, for example, it figures evolution as a transition to a more efficient and destructive form of violence, with one of the first things the newly enlightened apes discovering is that tools can not only be used to build things but can also be used as weapons. There Will Be Blood plays with similar ideas, pointing to evolution as the transition to a more efficient and destructive form of industry and capitalism, one which makes money and, ostensibly, benefits the world by opening up new avenues of possibilities, but also one which wreaks havoc on the environment and helps to widen the ever-growing gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” of the world.
The film is only four years old, and it's therefore a little difficult to predict its cultural longevity. But it seems likely that this will be one that will stand the test of time. Day-Lewis’ performance was instantly iconic and Anderson’s direction is masterful and assured. There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece on every level, a film that doesn’t necessarily play to the audience’s emotions but definitely takes root in the imagination.