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.