In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis shows how greed as an end in itself is, well, an end
The following post is part of a work-in-progress about Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally.
Daniel Plainview, the protagonist Daniel Day-Lewis portrays in There Will Be Blood, projects a paradoxical sense of self-containment. But more than any of his predecessors in Day-Lewis's canon of characters, he moves deliberatively toward the fixed objective of mastering an independent domain, seizing opportunities and exploiting them with an element of calm deliberation that seems less reactive than his roles as John Proctor, Hawkeye, Bill Cutting, or even Newland Archer, all of whom are responding to events rather than consciously shaping them. Day-Lewis is able to convey this sense of methodical purpose without uttering a word; indeed, in a splendidly audacious piece of filmmaking, the first 18 minutes of There Will be Blood is silent, literally evoking the early days of the film, but in full color with brilliant sunlight desert landscapes and the unnerving soundtrack of Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame). In calm but nevertheless fast-paced sequence that moves from 1898 to 1912, we watch Plainview begin as a sole wildcatter to building a small business. When one of his workers accidently gets killed when equipment falls down a well, Plainview adopts the child, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) as his own. We quickly realize that whatever his personal motives may have been, such a move is a shrewd investment, because it allows him to depict himself as a family man when he seeks leases from individual Californians to drill on their property. (The first time we hear him speak is to make a sales pitch with the boy at his side; the cacophony of greedy squabbling – and Plainview’s departure – that follows happens to be one of the scenes from the novel.)
Over the course of the story, Plainview shows real devotion to the child, even though his work comes first, and even though his work will exact a price on his adoptive son, when a gushing derrick injures the by making him permanently deaf. He also shows some devotion to that which the child is devoted. When Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who has a major role in the novel but a minor one in the movie, arrives at his office to say that his family property is likely to have oil under it, father and son visit the Sundays under the pretense of quail hunting. It is here that the two meet Eli Sunday (also played by Dano, which I will confess confused me for a while) and Mary Sunday (Sydney McCallister), who will eventually become H.W.’s wife. When Plainview learns from his son that the family patriarch, Abel Sunday (David Willis), is abusing Mary, Plainview quietly but effectively threatens him amid the celebration that follows the opening of the pumping operation. Noting the new dress he’s bought her in front of her father, Plainview asks, “Daddy doesn’t hit you anymore, does he?” When she shakes her head no, he adds, “Better not. I’ll take care of you. No more hitting, right?” Abel’s humiliation in this scene is complete – and thrilling. Plainview’s power is such that it’s hard not be moved when deployed for good ends, even as we know he’s not a very good man.
In some sense, Plainview’s virtue is beside the point: it’s that power that compels our attention – and, perhaps, our reluctant admiration. Yet at the very moment of his triumph we begin to see him unravel. Some corporate types offer to buy Plainview out; they’re literally and figuratively seeking to capitalize on his hard work, but they’re also willing to make him a millionaire in the process. But Plainview will have none of it: What would he do then? I don’t know, one of the men, H.M. Tilford (Daniel Warshofsky) tells him more than once, you could spend more time your boy. This is an innocuous remark, part of a set of essentially polite remarks about H.W.’s handicap that Tilford makes as part of his sales pitch. But Plainview’s reaction is utterly irrational. “Did you just tell me how to run my family?” he asks in his voice of quiet rage. “One night I’m going to come into your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and cut your throat.” Tilford is stunned. “What are you talking about?” he asks. “Have you gone crazy, Daniel?”
Not entirely, but he’s on his way. With a mania that seems as much a matter of spite, Plainview not only refuses to sell but builds a pipeline to the Pacific so that he can retain control over the flow of his oil. He still cares about his family, but does so in a dysfunctional way, sending H.W. away to a special school against the boy’s will. When a man shows up claiming to be his long lost brother Henry, (Kevin J. O’Connor) Plainview accepts him into the fold. One night he confides to Henry, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” He takes comfort in Henry’s company. But when he figures out, at the moment of his triumph, that Henry is not in fact his brother, Plainview’s reaction is utterly remorseless in its savagery.
It turns out that there are people in Plainview’s life that can be a ruthless as he is. When proprietor (Colton Woodward) of the so-called “Bandy tract” that Plainview covets finally agrees to sell his land, he blackmails Plainview into baptism at Eli Sunday’s church, an opportunity Eli makes the most of in avenging his humiliations at Plainview’s hands. But these setbacks are merely temporary and amusing; what’s unnerving is the way Plainview’s emotional and material avarice twist him into madness and self-destruction. In the last half-hour of the film, which is principally set at the Plainview estate in 1927, we watch the now-alcoholic Plainview alienate H.W. for good by revealing that his son is not actually his child in a cruelly calculating manner. We also see a blackly comical showdown with the slick but desperate Eli, in which Plainview reveals he’s sucked wealth right out from under the preacher – the screenplay dialogue “I drink your milkshake!” is adapted from actual testimony in the Teapot Dome Scandal – and culminates in a final scene of grisly violence that shows Plainview is beyond redemption. The acquisitive imperatives at the heart of the frontier mentality, unmoored from any broader social, cultural, or affective ties, devour those who embrace them. The frontier, which more than anything else was a state of mind, has become an addictive, end in its own right, and mindless nihilism as a result. Bill the Butcher died for something; Hawkeye and Newland Archer lived for something. But Daniel Plainview lost his way sucking wealth from the land. The frontier may not be closed, but his mind has.