Daniel Plainview is a man of few words.
For the first 15 minutes of There Will Be Blood, he works in solitary silence, chipping and digging for silver in a dark, jagged pit in the middle of a bleached, waterless wasteland. When his makeshift ladder breaks, Daniel plummets to the pit floor, shattering his leg. With barely a moan, he struggles up the shaft and literally drags himself into town with a handful of silver-streaked rocks. He lies patiently on the floor as an assayist measures his newfound wealth and worth.
Four years later, in 1902, he's working with other people—digging for oil now, not silver—but still he's hushed. Perhaps he can't take the time to talk with them—folks he considers beneath him. "There are times when I look at people and see nothing worth liking," he says much later. But when one of his partners is killed, Daniel takes that man's orphaned infant baby as his own. In the years to come, he'll introduce the boy, H.W., as his son and partner.
The boy is about 10 when we first hear Daniel speak—in a deep, erudite voice that seems oddly out of place on the rural stage he walks across. "I'm an oilman," he tells rooms full of farmers and ranchers who own the oil-rich California land he craves. He says he's one of them: honest, plainspoken, a family man raising his son the best he can. It's mostly shtick, of course, a greasy ploy to separate people from their mineral rights as quickly and cheaply as possible. So, when a young man named Paul Sunday tells Daniel there's oil on his family's parched goat ranch, it's business as usual: Daniel scouts the property by pretending he and his boy just want to hunt quail there. Thinking the rest of the Sunday clan isn't aware of the black gold burbling beneath their feet, Daniel plans to buy the place for a song.
"We're not going to give them oil prices," he whispers to H.W. "We're going to give them quail prices."
But Paul's twin brother, Eli, demands more. What's all that money for? Daniel wants to know. Eli says, "For my church." "That's a good one," Daniel replies.
In that moment, an acrid rivalry is born between oilman and faith healer for the mind, soul and wealth of the tiny hardscrabble settlement around them.
Daniel does, apparently, have a soft spot for children—particularly his adopted son. Though this father-son relationship is complex and murky, Daniel takes the boy with him everywhere and seems, in his own way, to love him. When H.W. goes deaf, Daniel does what he can to help him at first. He lies beside the boy the night after the injury, holding him and stroking his hair as H.W. grunts and moans, trying to hear himself. When Daniel sends H.W. away to a special school—not an altogether positive development for either of them—he makes sure H.W.'s new room is big enough. Later, convicted about "unloading" his kid so he won't have to bother with him, Daniel brings the boy back and hires a teacher for him.
When H.W. tells him that one of the girls in the Sunday family is beaten when she doesn't pray, Daniel buys the girl a new dress and confronts her father. Audiences aren't told why Daniel's thorny exterior softens around children, though we do witness him weeping when he sees an old picture of a child—perhaps himself—tucked into his brother's journal.
Daniel is arguably the worst character of a bad lot. But the film, to its credit, wants audiences to be revolted by what they see of him. This is a thundering, Old Testament-type tale that metes out punishment to its sinners, including spiritual and literal death.
Eli Sunday, young preacher and faith healer for his burgeoning Church of the Third Revelation, is the film's spiritual core. Despite its name, which can carry with it connotations of paranormal spiritualism and New Age-style movements, his congregation seems rooted in Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity, complete with high-octane healings and demonstrative expressions of faith.
Eli leads the church with enthusiasm and supposed sincerity. He offers to bless Daniel's oil well before it begins operation. He and his congregants give away cloth crosses to oil workers, some of whom accept them. He talks about his visions and, at one point, apparently exorcises an unseen "ghost" from a woman suffering arthritis, physically throwing it out of the church.
Or maybe it's just in pantomime that the spirit is spurned. Because this story suggests that Eli is a charlatan, and we see more than few indications that Eli's not as spiritual as he claims. After his father sells Daniel the family tract for a bargain, Eli looks at him in disgust and tells him that God "doesn't save stupid people." We see him desperately slam back hard liquor. And he admits to making some bad investments—under the influence, he says, of divine guidance.
Daniel, for his part, believes he and the young minister are cut from the same cloth, and he fights him at every turn. When Daniel and the Sunday family cement a deal for the property, Eli wants to pray—but Daniel rips his hands away from the circle before the prayer can be said. Instead of allowing Eli to bless his oil pump, Daniel says a prayer himself. When a member of Eli's church dies that very evening, the two argue: Eli suggests the workmen's drinking might've been a factor in the accident. Daniel says he can't operate very well with Eli always stuffing the gospel in their ears. And when Eli comes asking Daniel for the $5,000 the oilman was supposed to donate to the church, Daniel smacks the preacher around, eventually pushing the younger man's face into the mud.
[Spoiler Warning] Eli appears to get the last word when Daniel, in an effort to pluck a plumb land lease from a churchgoer, is forced to undergo a humiliating public confession and revival-style "salvation." Eli tells Daniel he needs to be washed in the blood of Christ, and Daniel croaks, "Give me the blood and let me get out of here!" Eli compels him to shout, over and over, that he abandoned his child—a soul-crushing admission that Daniel does not forget when he and Eli meet again many years later.
That meeting turns out to be the adversaries' final encounter. And the tables are turned once again as Daniel forces Eli to yell, over and over, at the top of his lungs, "I am a false prophet and God is a superstition." Daniel thunders, "I am the third revelation!"
It appears that one scene is shot in a brothel. (In the background, out-of-focus couples are seen clutching.) The subject of lust comes up during Daniel's "salvation."
For a film titled There Will Be Blood, there's surprisingly little of it splashed across the screen. Woven throughout is a bleak and violent motif, but moments of explicit carnage are brief and, often, happen just outside of the camera's frame.
Removing the earth's wealth from its bowls is extraordinarily dangerous. We get a taste of that when Daniel falls and breaks his leg. We don't see the impact, but we do see his leg tilted at an uncomfortable angle. Falling equipment claims the lives of two other miners in similarly dark shafts as pieces crush them at the bottom. Workers pull the limp, bloodied body of one of these men out of the pit.
Daniel's son falls victim to another accident: As he's watching, oil shoots from the well like a cannon, preceded by a concussive sound blast that blows H.W. from a nearby roof. The oil later catches fire in a spectacular burst—a fire that can be only stopped by another brain-rattling explosion.
Daniel shoots a man in the head at point-blank range. We're spared seeing the bullet strike, but we do hear the man moan and grunt as we watch blood drain from the wound. Eli fights with and knocks his father down.
[Spoiler Warning] Daniel's wrangling with Eli includes slapping, hitting and pushing. Eli slaps Daniel repeatedly to supposedly free him of demons during his "conversion." The scene is both comical and curiously disturbing, as is the two's climactic face-off in Daniel's private bowling alley. There, Daniel starts throwing bowling balls and pins at the panicked preacher before finally taking a pin in his hand and bashing Eli to death with it. We don't see the blows land, but we do see the aftermath—blood spatter along the walls and a pool slowly forming underneath Eli's head.
"Daniel's terrifying in that last scene," said Paul Dano, who played Eli. "I didn't have to do much acting there."
Crude or Profane Language
Daniel abuses God's name three times, pairing it each time with "d--n." He calls his son a "b--tard" a handful of times. And he serves up a couple of other swears ("a--" and "h---"), too.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Daniel tries to give his adopted baby a taste of whiskey. The baby doesn't go for it the first time, but when he's a bit older Daniel pours a good dose of the hard liquid from a metal flask into H.W.'s milk and forces the lad to drink it down.
Daniel himself gets drunk during a lunch outing with his boy. He staggers over to a table of rival oilmen and makes a spectacle of himself. And he spends much of his later onscreen life seriously soused. Eli also pours himself a drink and downs it.
The oilman and other characters smoke frequently, too.
Other Negative Elements
Overwhelmed with the work it takes to care for his deaf son, Daniel deceptively puts him on a train to a boarding school, leaving the screaming boy in the care of one of his henchmen. [Spoiler Warning] The heartrending scene foreshadows Daniel's later disowning of his adult son.
At one point a young H.W. sets his pop's house on fire, apparently as a form of silent rebellion. He also hits his father.
The blood in There Will Be Blood refers to kin, killing and Christ's work on Calvary. But most importantly, it evokes oil—the dark, powerful blood of the earth, pumped from the ground via the low, loud pulse of Daniel's wells. It's this blood, bubbling underneath the desolate land above, that powers this film and forms the natural counterpoint to Daniel's own bleak, black, bloody life.
"I have a competition in me," Daniel confesses. "I want no one else to succeed."
Artistically, this film succeeds. Daniel Day-Lewis is practically a force of nature loosed in a vivid story of greed and animosity. Through him, we see down to the depths of the oilman's inky soul. And we both identify with and recoil from what we see there. But like its main character, There Will Be Blood pays a heavy price for its success. It proffers to its viewers a bottomless pit full of desperate questions and only a handful of dark, jagged answers at the bottom of a parched and bitter tale—textured, powerful and ... sad.