There Will Be Blood may eventually be regarded as Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest film, but we are pretty early in his career. Nevertheless, Anderson’s opus on the birth of American greed is a powerful and compelling study of one man’s spiral into obsessive madness and egomania. Daniel Plainview is seen as a vile and dastardly oil baron, a man whose greed gets the better of him. He adopts a son whose father dies early in the film, raising him as his own and using him as a card in his oil dealings. But when an accident renders the boy deaf, Plainview ships him away because he has become too much of a burden.
Plainview’s adversary, the false prophet Eli, uses Plainview’s decision to send his son away – and the fact Eli’s family is sitting on a valuable piece of property – to publicly baptize and humiliate Plainview in front of his congregation. Plainview accepts the baptism because he needs that land, despite his staunch rejection of religion throughout the picture. There are individual scenes throughout There Will Be Blood which formulate the greatness of the whole. Those who know the film of course think of the final showdown first and foremost. And there is the oil derrick explosion causing the child’s injury. And the powerful, nearly silent opening scene. But I feel the most important portion of this story is the baptism scene:
The reluctance of Plainview to carry on with the baptism is clear. But the inflections in his face during the most intense moments of the baptism are more important, and are absolutely vital for the story and audience involvement. Daniel Plainview may be considered to be a vile human being. But for a moment, here, we see vulnerability. Although the screams and desperate cries are the draw of the scene, the sadness in his eyes and the curl of his lips suggests he is truly remorseful. He feels pain for sending his son away; there, for a moment, Daniel Plainview is a human being. And that is all we need to pull us in and carry us to the finish line.
Anderson chooses to focus strictly on Daniel Day Lewis once the meat of the scene takes hold. Nothing of what Eli does matters; only the reactions of Plainview are essential. We see his disgust at Eli’s demands, only because Eli is forcing humanity out of a man who has no time for such nonsense. This makes the breakthrough hit harder; we haven’t left Plainview’s face the entire time and the moment he approaches that true sadness, we feel it. Plainview feels it as well, which is why he shuts it off and returns to his own internal mockery of the proceedings. His humor masks his contempt, and despite the fact there may have been a brief breakthrough, Daniel's rejection of God will not allow him to oblige.
Eli's absurd assault on Daniel speaks to another portion of the story, and Daniel of course gets his revenge for this public humiliation.
Without the baptism scene, There Will Be Blood is the story of a cold and ruthless man who got what he deserved. But with this moment, no matter how slight it may seem, the picture tells a different tale. It is important for the audience to identify with the lead on at least some level. Keeping Plainview as a monster through and through would be a mistake. We would never feel empathy. Even with cinemas most vile creatures, those who are central to the story, we connect somehow. With this scene, even though we may not realize we are feeling something for Plainview, the image of his melancholy is burned into our heads just enough to resonate in our subconscious through later scenes.