Few nations capture the best and worst of human ambition as the United States, with political, social, economic and religious frontiers massive enough to prove the old truism that behind every great fortune is a great crime. And America is a nation of many, many great fortunes. It’s a subject of much cinema, but few movies capture it in such truth and depravity as Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic of the early oil industry, There Will Be Blood.
Right at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, prospector Daniel Plainview, who has already defied death to stake a gold and silver ore claim, tries his hand at drilling oil in southern California. Over the years, he manages to build a prosperous oil business for himself, but not without great tribulation. After one of his crew dies in a workplace accident, Plainview adopts the man’s orphaned infant boy, but mainly to pass himself off as a family man to investors. He wrangles with Eli Sunday, a preacher from whose family Plainview bought his original oil parcel, and who remains a financial and spiritual thorn in Plainview’s side. An impostor emerges to make the fatal error of trying to pass himself off as Plainview’s half-brother, and pays the price once he is discovered. Plainview’s son burns their house down and is sent away in exile at a school for the deaf. Eli humiliates Plainview with a forced religious conversion. And Plainview, once wealthy and powerful, descends into alcoholism and abject misanthropy, destroying his every last meaningful tie with the human race.
There Will Be Blood was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! and paints a vivid picture of a particular time in American industry when the physical frontiers of the land were finally vanishing. But the last borders on the map had not been drawn so darkly to exclude the kind of wild and freewheeling enterprise that was the early oil business, a mixture of industrial production, hand-hewn prospecting, risk and exploitation. Every empire is at first built by those who simply tear it out for themselves with their own hands, marked by their willingness to get extremely dirty, and a refusal to let any man, law or custom stand in their way. This is the manner in which kings are born, but in America, there are no kings, just barons. The oil barons were some of the mightiest and cruelest of their breed. And none were mightier or more cruel than Daniel Plainview.
This is a movie that employs an epic canvas to tell a deeply intimate story of one man’s contest against the entire world. Plainview isn’t looking to establish a legacy or enjoy the fruits of his own labor. He suffers, by his own admission, from a kind of relentless need to compete, but against what or whom? Against his neighbor. Against the very earth. Against his own mortality. Against the weakness of fools. Against anything. Against everything. Oil is simply the perfect adversary for it because it’s a great enough challenge to tax his skills and demand his every faculty. Sure, it will require him to destroy most of the people he comes across, but in watching There Will Be Blood, we get the sense that Plainview is the sort of person who would have done this anyway. He just happened to be a person whose chosen avenue helped to build a vast enterprise and build a mind-boggling personal fortune along the way.
Of great interest here, of course, is Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview, with the kind of full-immersion performance that makes him such a legendary actor. One gets the notion while watching Day-Lewis inhabit Plainview that he is not so much playing a character as he is embodying an entire chapter of American history distilled into a single man. Much of the story plays out simply enough, in a series of biopic episodes that give us an opportunity to see Plainview’s inevitable transit from miserable son of a bitch to heartless monster. And yet, it is done with such virtuosity, we cannot help but watch without blinking.
Plainview’s life might have been framed by his conquest of oil, but it is marked by his three personal relationships, which he destroys, one by one. The first is his fraudulent parenthood of his adopted son, H.W., whom he deprives of real love, uses as a convenient pawn, and discards when it suits him. The second is his fraudulent reunion with a half-brother that is already dead and represented by an imposter that will soon join the real McCoy for committing the crime of making Plainview feel genuine affection. The third is his fraudulent bond with Eli Sunday, whose twin brother first sells the family plot to Plainview, leaving Plainview to resent younger Eli’s endless sermonizing. When we see how Plainview disposes of his son and his fake half-brother, we know that Eli and Plainview’s relationship can only end one way. And it does just that, in the movie’s moment of truth.
Much has been made of the movie’s climactic “milkshake” monologue, in which a besotted, twisted and triumphant Plainview brutally mocks the pathetic Eli, who has come begging for financial aid. Unable to resist kicking his nemesis while he is down, Plainview reveals to Eli that the land he has held onto for years has been made worthless by Plainview’s own ingenuity. But that is not enough. He can’t just destroy the man’s will. He must destroy his body as well. When Plainview is discovered after the deed, sitting next to his murderous handiwork, he utters “I’m finished,” but not in the way a condemned man might, aware that he has done something for which he must pay. No, it is said with the upwards lilt of a man who has finished one course of his meal, and however full he may be, is ready to begin another, for there is not enough food in the world to satisfy him. Daniel Plainview is America.