It had been four years since Paul Thomas Anderson released Punch Drunk Love – his breezy, offbeat love story starring a brilliantly manic Adam Sandler – when he returned in 2007 with something that couldn’t be more unlike his previous film. As wonderful as Punch Drunk Love was, There Will Be Blood is a lynchpin of modern American epics, a broad, sweeping tale. The historical drama spans decades, features a morality battle between capitalism and religion, and it has Daniel Day-Lewis in one of the most engrossing, volcanic performances in the history of cinema.
Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Daniel Plainview, a self-made oil man who is eventually consumed by greed and a general disdain for humanity, feels so all-encompassing today. It’s a towering achievement, singular, and often misinterpreted as some sort of pure evil. A common read of There Will Be Blood is that it’s a story of a villain who destroys his own life and the lives of anyone who crosses his path. It might be partially true, but Anderson and Day-Lewis also make sure to show us he is, in fact, worthy of at least some of our sympathy.
We first meet Plainview alone, in the bottom of a silver mine, where he finds the precious metal and, despite breaking his leg in a fall, literally pulls himself to town to cash in. From the outset, this is a man who lives and operates as isolated as humanly possible, and is driven by nothing more than the dollar; only when he requires a team of men to pull “gold” out of the ground does he bring in partner and workers. And it is here when a deadly accident forces him to take in the newly-orphaned H.W.
The eventual unraveling between Daniel and H.W. is where it’s easy to tear apart any moral fabric Daniel may have ever had. He does treat H.W. as a prop in his business dealings, parading him out to prospective towns, and allowing him the exist under the illusion he is a family man. When H.W. is deafened by the rig explosion – the film’s incredible, and only, set piece – Daniel eventually sees him as a burden and sends him away to San Francisco.
Dismissing Daniel here is the quickest route to judgment, sure, but there are some factors and tells in the story to consider first. Moments both before and after the rig explosion indicate Daniel does love and care for H.W. In the moments after the fire is quelled, Daniel is trying to sooth the newly deafened young boy; he simply isn’t built with the proper emotional tools to handle H.W’s handicap. He is sent away, but not to some orphanage; he is taken to the best school possible for help Daniel never could have offered.
Later, in the baptism scene in Eli Sunday’s new church, the guilt he carries inside him for sending away H.W. boils to the surface in the film’s most telling moment of weakness. If there are to be clear-cut protagonists and antagonists here, the movie’s central villain is occupied by Paul Dano as Eli (and Paul Sunday), a grifter using religion as his method of disguise and, ultimately, attempted prosperity. Their paths are forged in hate in this baptism scene.
As one confidence man recognizes another, Daniel knows almost immediately what he’s up against with Eli Sunday. Here is a person using Daniel’s tricks of the trade, but he’s found an even more rock solid force field than a family business. Daniel may be bad, but is Eli not worse? One is manipulating the pockets of these frontier people, the other their hearts and minds and souls. At least there is a sort of tangible prosperity among the townsfolk when it comes to Daniel’s plan.
Most will point to the murder of Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), a nomadic swindler who finds Daniel’s name in the paper and poses as his long-lost brother, as the point where Daniel loses any chance for redemption – It’s interesting, then, that his baptism is shortly thereafter in Eli’s church. This is the moment where Daniel is ultimately lost, true, and he deteriorates from there. The final scenes of the film, an epilogue where we see him berate an adult H.W. and ultimately destroy Eli, his rival, show a man whose gluttonous impulses and money addiction have crushed an already hardened exterior.
Daniel Plainview’s ultimate fate in There Will Be Blood, falling into that pool of Eli Sunday’s blood collecting in the bowling lane, is of his own doing. He may be a deeply-flawed and ultimately poisonous man, but the villain in There Will Be Blood he is not. He wanted nothing more than to be alone his whole life, to make his money, and die clutching it in his hands. Then H.W. happened, Eli Sunday challenged him, and Henry’s deceit ultimately returned him to his truest form: a man who has a competition in him, who “hates most people,” and who has been poisoned from all sides to the point of no return.
Daniel Plainview is a wicked person, make no mistake, but even in the most cunning of conmen there was once a sliver of humanity worth noticing.