There is an adage about moneymaking that suggests it's not that hard if that's all you want to do with your life; in other words, if you are willing to trample anyone or anything in your way. In many countries around the world, citizens are no longer allowed to exploit their compatriots, charge whatever outrageous sum they'd like for their goods or destroy competitors' supplies in order to jack up their own profits. America is not, however, one of them. For all the freedoms it offers – and freedoms are privileges – America remains an immigrant land of financial opportunity, the paragon of Darwinian capitalism where demand and supply regulate one another in constant evolution and erosion of everything else. Its vast natural resources, enterprising spirit, and lack of anything resembling a common history allow it to do whatever it takes to get ahead (some will call history the conscience of a people or nation, but such a generalization becomes silly the moment it is uttered). However one feels about the American path to riches, no other country stands aside so passively to permit the tireless verve of the businessman to maximize its productivity; no other country protects those with ambition and resources against those who lack the same drive and material capacity; and no other country tacitly hints at unlimited power and unlimited wealth to those strong enough to want it. Perhaps "strong" is not quite the right word here; but nowhere else on our lonely planet could this great film have taken place.
Our film has the simplest of plots: a poor, unconnected, unloved man of Faustian ambition changes nothing about himself except the size of his bank accounts and what actually happens is far less important than how it happens. In films of such scope, the first scene will often be a metaphor for the entire work. And sure enough, before a word is uttered, we see a lean and hungry man, muscled and dirty, hammering away at a large chunk of rock, switching his blows from his right arm to his left, the peen of his hammer as sharp as the diamond of his gimlet eye. This man is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his one aim in life is to make money. His dedication to the ground and the forces beneath it will remind even the casual observer of devil worship. So will, as it were, his raising of a black hand when he finds petrol or when his son is dabbed on the forehead with petrol by a colleague. A close observer of these first, mostly wordless scenes, will detect the true relationship between Plainview and his son, H.W., so that the revelation at the film's end will shock only H.W., who perhaps, upon reflection, isn't that shocked at all.
In the course of thirteen years (1898-1911) of toil and trouble, Plainview finds countless barrels of petroleum and no longer needs to bear the burden of his wealth. But as he finds more and more oil, oil comes to find him. He is approached by a young man called Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, in an extraordinary performance) who claims that his familial territory has black gold, and he wishes to strike a deal. What is remarkable about this first exchange is how quickly both Plainview and Sunday sense the fraudulence in each other's mannerisms, as if they were two animals sniffing in disgust at stuffed ringers. Plainview's first statement, "What can I do for you?" is as great a lie as any line in the film and the exact opposite of his purpose in every human interaction (later, at a weak moment, he would admit that he wants "no one else to succeed," that he hates most people, and that he wants to "earn enough money so that he can get away from everyone"). Sunday then asks Plainview to what church he belongs, to which Plainview answers – substituting in his mind "source of income" for "church," you can almost see the pause needed to change vocabulary – he "likes them all." Plainview eyes up the boy in that way some people have of looking at food or available women and determining the risk of satisfaction, then agrees to an advance. Sunday is only to be paid in full upon retrieval of the petrol. And what if there is no petrol, is the question hanging in the air. Then, adds Plainview, "I will take much more from you than my five hundred dollars," at which point Sunday should have run out that door as quickly as he could and never looked back.
But Sunday does no such thing. When Plainview and H.W. arrive on his family's property, Paul is nowhere to be found; in his stead is his identical twin, Eli. Is Eli really a twin or the same person? Plainview looks at his son to see whether a child, unwise to the world, can tell and the camera gradually wraps around H.W. as Plainview watches him closely – but the matter is never explicitly resolved. Plainview charms the Sundays, and soon has his drills ripping up their riches. He has other suitors, and his method of selling his services to them bears an uncanny resemblance to that of a surgeon: "We have to act quickly," "the extraction," "These are men I know," all suggest some kind of miracle operation, when in reality he is offering nothing more than affordable exploitation for himself and himself alone. In the meantime Eli has become a preacher for the ridiculously named "Church of the Third Revelation," delivering his sermons with the raucous gusto of what we have come to expect from certain American sects although without losing his characteristic snicker, a method of smiling without really smiling that will remind the viewer of this actor. The awesome casting out of an old woman's arthritis, one of the more magnificent scenes in recent memory, is witnessed by Plainview against his will, and this is where his face tells us that Sunday's talk is as false and preposterous as his own rustling and hustling. What separates them, at least in Plainview's mind, is the oilman's directness and brutal (in the literal sense of the word) honesty. But the gulf between them is more than the difference between hypocrisy and ruthlessness. Sunday is always on the verge of implosion, of collapsing either under the weight of his sins or that of the world (importantly, we are never persuaded, even in the famous final scene, as to whether or not Sunday believes in his own preaching; the matter is left purely to our speculation), while Plainview, like the oil wells that explode and burn on repeated occasions during the film, is a walking volcano. He is capable of anything and he knows it, which makes him one of the most dangerous men alive.
Careful directors and writers will invariably place an image or motif of great significance at the halfway point of their work, and at the center of There Will Be Blood, Plainview stares at an alternative reality of himself. He is greeted at his doorstep by his long-lost half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor). Henry has failed as much as Daniel has triumphed: his moustache and hair are far thinner than Daniel's, he possesses none of his brother's athleticism or energy, and he appears as passive and armed with as little foresight as Daniel is aggressive and conniving. Needless to say, Henry is also unemployed and penniless. Through his half-brother, who was conceived with their father's mistress Mary Branch, Daniel learns the details of his past again, from a slightly different perspective and, for a brief time, Daniel becomes confessional and sentimental. He talks about the house he loved when he was a child, his struggles to make it as an oilman, and dismisses his initial failure with the words: "I went to Kansas. I couldn't stay there. I don't like to explain myself." Apart from the very real threats that Plainview makes and often carries out, this admission might be the truest statement in the entire film. Plainview wants his actions to explain everything – his insatiable lust for money, his misanthropy, his hatred of the Church, and his soothing, intoxicating way of making people do exactly what he wants by being utterly unpredictable. This modus operandi is maintained until the bitter end of the film and Plainview's bottomless glasses of bottomless moonshine; and in the end, however off-kilter it has been accused of being, there is nothing that we could put past him.
While Dano is consistently superb, Day-Lewis exceeds all expectations: his performance is simply one of the greatest in the history of cinema. Although allegedly molded on the affectations of this famous director, Plainview's persona throbs with vibrant authenticity without being an imprint of anyone in particular. Many actors have won accolades for channeling historical figures through assiduous study, physical resemblance, and, of course, a great deal of talent, but Day-Lewis creates a stunning, complete, and yet mystical figure. We understand his general motivations but not the small, distant reasons behind them, and, despite his volatility, his actions correspond perfectly to his intentions. During his unwanted baptism in Sunday's Church, Plainview famously mutters "there's my pipeline" as he is declared a new member, and his sparkling, half-drunk diatribes to H.W. and Sunday towards the end of the film will be quoted for years. And what should we make of the blood in the title? Considering the heartless drilling methods Plainview employs regardless of the welfare of his workers, we immediately think of indentured servitude, of the exploited labor force that begot some very misbegotten ideas about class structure, and the weak and poor who died so that Daniel Plainview could live out his days in luxury. But the blood is also the earth's blood, oil itself; it is the watchword featured in Sunday's Church; it is the lineage passed on to H.W., who might harbor some doubts about his father's love after a freak derrick explosion renders him deaf; it is the bloodline of Henry and Daniel, the Plainview brothers who couldn't be more plainly opposite. Perhaps in a universe of frauds, impostors, and changelings, Daniel Plainview is the realest of them all. He hasn't the faintest inhibition about anything in this world, which he considers a sham, and the next world which, his rhetoric notwithstanding, he seems to fear. Yes, he fears death because in death, unlike in life, there is no inequality. Except, of course, for those who will be damned. And some people know precisely what's coming to them.