Inspired by the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil, and The Dark Side of Fortune, a biography of oil tycoon Edward Doheny, Paul Thomas Anderson continues his examination of the state of California with his look back at the oil boom at the turn of the twentieth century.
Daniel Plainview is a struggling silver miner who finally finds his true calling as an oilman. He is driven, intelligent, and ruthless. He adopts a baby, later named H.W., who is orphaned in the fields. His successes make him an equal to companies like Standard Oil and cause townsfolk to seek him out for his expertise.
One in particular is a young man named Paul Sunday. He comes to sell Daniel information about potential oil fields. Daniel agrees to offer some money up front and the rest if Paul’s story is correct and fruitful. Paul tells him about the town of Little Boston, CA, and the oil found on his family’s farm. Daniel investigates and discovers Paul was telling the truth, so he negotiates with Paul’s father, Abel Sunday, and works to buy all the land in the area from the other homesteaders.
He is impeded from his normal course of business by Paul’s brother, Eli, the local preacher of the community, who wants to make sure his family and his church are recipients of a fair share of the forthcoming riches. They remain rivals throughout their lives, this businessman and preacher man, one-upping each other whenever possible to reveal who follows the wrong path, unaware they are traveling beside each other.
In the dogged pursuit of wealth and prosperity, many sacrifices are made at a great cost by all involved. The film concludes with a long epilogue, where the relationship of Daniel and H.W., and Daniel and Eli are resolved, leaving the viewer questioning the true and total value of their decisions.