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.
Day-Lewis is up to most of this. His portrayal of this megalomaniac criminal is itself megalomaniac, and for a good part of the movie he’s quite effective. The fault in the film lies not with his performance (except in a few important scenes — see below). We’re watching a consummate actor here, one who can breathe profound nuance into small and large scenes, and Day-Lewis almost always succeeds with breathtaking brio. He’s playing what at first appears to be an amazing character, and he embodies Plainview in a way that I’ve seldom seen in film or on stage.
The trouble here is in the story and the script, and that’s why I think this film is very instructional for those writers who worry about things like plot, character development, and the play between emotional tension and release — writers who care about stories that demand difficult resolutions. Once the kid leaves the scene, there’s very little to be said for this film on all these scores.
I so wanted to see how this villainous man was going to be able to raise this badly injured boy. I thought I was being prepared for this by the genuine close affection the two have for each other before the boy is sent away. Once he goes, though, there’s no alternate force in Plainview’s emotional situation that allows his character to develop in ways that make profound emotional decisions necessary. I believe that all great fiction has at its core central characters who go from a state of emotional ignorance to one of disastrous revelation or soulful deliverance. Plainview, with the help of a great deal of alcohol, descends into simple disaster, simple ignorance, and simple depravity.
In the last scene, when he finally loses every shred of nuance in his character and bludgeons a man to death on –- would you believe? –- a bowling lane, he’s heard to utter “I’m finished!” It’s the last line in the movie, and after Day-Lewis’s stirring utterance of the line, delivered in all its Academy Award-worthy stentorian gruffness, I observed to my companion in the theater that I had known that an hour ago, and why did it take this man so long to find it out?
There is one other great theme in this movie, and that is the battle between fundamentalist Christianity and rapacious capitalism. The people from whom Plainview wrests the land below which the oil lies are all poor evangelist Protestants. Their preacher is a young man named Eli, and he becomes the thorn in Plainview’s side throughout the film. I liked the conceit because this character is that most enjoyable of Christian right-wing zealots, the one whose own moral underpinning falls to ruin even as he maintains his egregiously self-righteous hubris. We all know that this kind of person abounds in contemporary Christianity because we see them being exposed in various scandals all the time. They are the purest form of hypocrite that exists in today’s American society.
So I was happy to see such a character going up against the monolithic capitalist and trying to bring him down. I thought, good, we’ll see Evil self-denied doing battle with Evil personified. That’s an interesting conflict.
In the film, though, Eli is played by a young actor named Paul Dano, who is simply not up to the character he has in hand, and certainly not up to Day-Lewis. He overacts remarkably, especially in the two scenes in which –- one — the oilman is humiliated by the preacher in the rickety church on the grounds of the oil operation, and –- two — when the enraged Day-Lewis character verbally tortures the preacher and then kills him.
In both scenes, Dano goes for The Big Scene. But he’s too young and too limited an actor to make either convincing. Poorly directed, too. In the second of his Big Scenes especially, the very last in the movie, he’s helped to his ineptitude by Day-Lewis’s own effort to achieve some sort of King Lear-like bluster. Lear’s character and mind are so much more complex and his emotional state so completely confused and compromised that his bluster ascends to terrifying greatness. He has many people who still love him and will sacrifice everything for him, even though he has made remarkably foolish decisions that have brought his kingdom to a state of full civil war. Any actor playing King Lear has a leg up because the script is so good.
Plainview’s character has ceased being interesting by the time we get to his last scene. Nobody loves him and no one will do anything to help him. He’s become a plain drunk and little else. As Malcolm Lowry so eminently proved in his novel Under The Volcano, a character’s drinking problem isn’t interesting, and cannot carry the story. Poor Day-Lewis is left in this scene with the task of dragging a great, climactic, and apocalyptic performance from it. He achieves the exact opposite.