WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
It starts well enough, with a striking vision of what it was like to work in a hard-scrabble hole in the ground in the 1890s, in search of silver. The madness and misery presented in the first fifteen minutes of There Will Be Blood are memorable because they are suffered in such silence, so effectively staged and beautifully photographed. Dirt, rage, mud, explosives, severe injury… all these are the lot of Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Plainview finds silver in the mine, but to his surprise the real revelation is that he also discovers oil there. Understanding that this can possibly mean immeasurable riches, he becomes an oilman.
On a drilling operation a few years later, one of Plainview’s workers has a small baby son. When the worker is killed in an accident, Plainview takes over the care and feeding of the little boy, and herein lies the key to what could have been a very fine film.
Plainview names the baby H.W., and by the time the boy is about ten, he’s become almost a full partner in Plainview’s explorations for oil in Southern California. As played — in reserved and extremely expressive quiet at first, then silence for the rest — by Dillon Freasier, H.W. is a very bright boy who seems to understand that his “father” Daniel is a cagey, manipulative man. But he commands H.W.’s love and respect nonetheless. Indeed there is a very short scene on a train when H.W. is still a baby that for me legitimizes the emotional connection between them. It simply shows the baby reaching up to touch the man’s face, and Day-Lewis’s tender reaction to this made me think that his character was a man of considerable feeling.
That conviction of mine continued as Plainview, with the ten-year-old H.W. in tow, buys up all the land around the oil discovery he makes in California. Despite his paying pennies on the dollar for the land and his continued manipulation of the former owners, all of whom are poor farmers, Plainview has real regard for the boy, and treats him with tenderness and respect. When the first oil strike comes, H.W. is severely injured in the “hightop” gusher that explodes from the ground. His hearing is destroyed. Although Plainview leaves the boy momentarily when the gusher catches on fire, the scene later in which he embraces the injured boy – both of them covered in black oil – is one of horrified worry and loving regard on Plainview’s part for the boy’s welfare.
All this sets up what I thought was going to be the real story here. I imagined the moral conflict that would play out between Plainview’s cynical manipulation of almost everyone in the story, all for the purpose of defeating them, and his obvious love for the boy H.W. Plainview says at one point, “I’ve got competition in me,” and this drive pushes him to remarkable feats of lying, self-aggrandizement and cheating — even murder. Yet he embraces the boy and loves him.
When the accident that deafens H.W. takes place, I thought that Plainview was going to have to find special ways to succor the boy, to save him, to bring him up in a soulful manner. The battle between the two internal expressions — of savage emotional manipulation and singular love –was going to be a great one, filled, I imagined, with conflict and moral difficulties, failure and grudging acceptance of fate, of battling against fate.
But no such things happened. Once Plainview’s oil holdings begin to multiply exponentially, the boy’s injured presence becomes too much for him to bear, and he sends him off to some sort of school for the deaf. The boy plays little further part in his life until many, many years later, after the boy’s marriage, when he finally is able to confront the now emotionally destroyed older man.
It is the decision by screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson to get rid of the boy that ruins the film.
H.W. is taken away about halfway through it. From this point on, Plainview descends into simple, murderous evil. So inexorable in his single-minded grubbing for every inch of land and every drop of oil, he becomes a tycoon, a profoundly compromised liar, a drunk, a deadbeat father, and a murderer.