In the opening scenes of There Will Be Blood, we see Plainview, a single-minded prospector hacking away at the earth in search of silver deposits. Without any dialogue, we are given a glimpse as to what drives this man: profit. After discovering oil, Daniel’s destiny is set for the remainder of the picture, as he brings along a minimal crew and begins pulling the black gold from the ground. The first fifteen minutes lack any dialogue, but they introduce us to Daniel as what he is, a man consumed by money, so much so that after falling and breaking his leg, he drags himself out of the well and into town to cash in on the silver he had found. One of the men in the well with Plainview has a child, and when an accident kills that man, with Plainview right down their in the oil with him, it is Daniel who decides to care for the young child. This is something he did not have to do, and while there may be the argument that Daniel takes the boy – H.W. Plainview as he grows older – in order to manipulate people into allowing him to drill on their land, I see no real evidence of this. In his opening monologue to a collection of townsfolk reluctant to let him build, he says “he is a family man,” which he is. Throughout the film, until the unfortunate accident (which I will discuss at length in a moment), Daniel works alongside H.W., never minimalizing him, never trivializing him or exploiting him. He is merely trying to show young H.W. the business.
And consider the other child in the film, young Mary, the daughter of Abel Sunday and the younger sister of Paul and Eli Sunday. Daniel is the one who stops the abuse Mary is getting from her father at home. He despises the abuse, even going so far as to make a mockery of Abel at the dinner table, emasculating him for being an abusive father. “No more hitting.” Daniel cares for children, because he knows they are innocent, he knows they are not his competition, and he knows they need to be cared for and not abused, so the business that he is using H.W. does not seem valid.
While Daniel wishes to make a hefty sum of money, he also sees an opportunity to share wealth and prosperity with the people of the town in which he and H.W. arrive after a hint from the enigmatic Paul Sunday. He wants to bring water, commerce, farming, and economic stimulation to the region along with wealth and prosperity. He is a business man, but in part his business is in helping those who cooperate with him. He, like any businessman, wants things to go smoothly, and when his antagonist is introduced in the form of Paul’s twin brother, Eli, conflict becomes the focal point of the story.
Eli Sunday is the true antagonist of the story, especially when examined alongside Daniel. Eli is the young preacher of the town, and his religious characterization is a central theme in Anderson’s narrative. Many will say that Plainview is godless, therefore is the villain, but if they were to examine closely the way Anderson treats organized religion in the picture, they would see quite the opposite. Eli is clearly a fraud, a snake-oil salesman dealing in salvation, and Daniel, having traveled the country, can see through his façade. Eli has used his power in the community, his manipulative abilities to be seen as a healer, to gather the less educated people of the town behind him. He thrives off the admiration, and when Daniel does not return admiration of his own, tension builds between the two. Eli comes to Daniel and asks, or tells, him to dedicate the opening of the new well to him, and Daniel promptly ignores him. He has no time for phonies, he has no patience for liars, and as it becomes obvious that Eli wants only money for the oil, Daniel has no time for competition. And Daniel’s first ravenous explosion in the film, his first violent outburst, is directed at Eli and comes on the heels of H.W.’s accident.
Notice when Daniel shouts, looking to the sky, tears forming in his eyes. It is his most vulnerable moment in the film, and proof that he is, deep down, a man with a soul. But aside from that moment and that stark realization, the rest of the time he is treating the baptism as a step towards wealth, making a mockery of the thing inwardly and, at times, outwardly.
Of course, the biggest argument to his villainy for most people – aside from his misdiagnosed treatment of H.W. – is the murder of Henry, a conman posing as his brother. Henry deceives Daniel, but not in the way that most have done; his deception is so deep and hits so hard into the isolation of Daniel as a man, that he spills his most intimate secrets, his most inner thoughts about humanity:
He doesn’t like most people, he wants to get away from them, he uses them; all murmurings of the dark side of Daniel’s soul, the place where he ends up by the end. In this scene, I feel that he is trying to explain his overview of human society in hopes that Henry responds with agreement, only he doesn’t, and later when Daniel realizes this man is a phony, the anger and resentment towards him becomes overwhelming for Daniel. The murder is a turning point for Daniel, yes, and not an excusable act regardless of what Henry did to him, but I feel that the guilt and anger towards Henry, and the subsequent cold reception from H.W. once he returns, compounds to create the monster we see at the end of the picture.
Several years down the road we see Daniel, given up on humanity, devoid of any personal contact besides his servants and business connections who are few and far between. He spends his days drunk, shooting his pistol at a pile of worthless goods in his vast hallway of his empty mansion. Greed has corrupted him, power has isolated him, and madness and alcoholism has turned him into the personification of those feelings and emotions he spilled to Henry that evening. He has made all the money he will ever need, he has built the town of Little Boston higher and better than it ever would have done without him, and the only thing he has yet to conquer just so happens to walk into his personal bowling alley and wake him up at the end of the film.
When Eli returns, emphasizing his shield of religion by a gaudy silver cross hanging around his neck, Daniel knows he is in desperate need of financial help, and he sees his chance to emasculate, expose, and ruin Eli, crushing his hopes and his soul in the process. Eli was the one who lied and manipulated God and religion to get what he wanted, Daniel never once lied about his ultimate goal, and that discretion may have been the third element of Plainview’s eventual madness. So when he sees Eli in dire straits, he relishes the moment, already certain of how this meeting will end:
The “milkshake scene” as it has been tagged, is one of the most lampooned scenes in recent film, but the scene overall shows Eli for what he is: a sad, weak, lying phony who has no set of moral codes, like Daniel. Anderson handles this final scene perfectly, switching at a second’s notice between almost slapstick comedy, then to anger, tension, horror, and shock, and perhaps all around again. While the milkshake line seems funny, things around it, and mannerisms along with it, create a scene of uncertainty and uneasiness. It also gives Daniel the final say in the duel between the two men, with the more honest man – the one who may be lost now, but was never a false prophet, and never used the people of Little Boston the way Eli did – coming out on top.