There Will Be Blood: the Dark Side of Ambition

The other day I was on YouTube and a recommendation came up for a clip from one of my favorite movies, There Will Be Blood. I thought what the heck, I’ll watch it. The scene was of the main character, Daniel Plainview, talking with a man named Henry who claims to be his long lost half brother. He tells Henry, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people…” he continues, mostly ignoring his brother. “There are times when I look at people and see nothing worth liking”, said with a half smile and a follow-on smirk.

At this moment I was stricken with a sudden feeling of dread. I didn’t understand it; it was almost like a feeling of making a severely grave mistake. In hindsight, it was more of an epiphany, but I needed to understand what it was that just came into my mind. I re-watched the film and came to terms with what that moment truly meant.

I’ve seen There Will Be Blood a number of times, so I was familiar with the story and characters. But as much as I love the film, I’ve always had a hard time explaining what I liked about it to people. Beyond saying it was “well written”, I’d tell folks that I liked the characters. But wait, Daniel Plainview is an awful person, what do I like about him?? Besides Daniel Day Lewis’s top notch acting, I would usually try to explain that he was the “perfect anti-hero”, but never with full conviction or solid explanation. Truthfully, I never fully understood what I liked about him. But in that fleeting moment, I think I’ve realized that I am fond of the character because I see a side of myself in his dark personality.

After much deliberation though, I’m not sure this is a bad thing. I think Daniel Plainview was written by director/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson for the very reason of identifying a drive for destructive competition that is irrefutably present in many people’s souls. As dark as it is, perhaps it’s innately human, and an aspect we can control. (Spoilers to follow)

Director Quentin Tarantino makes an excellent assessment for why Daniel Plainview believes his destructive tendencies are justified. From before the first master shot even comes on screen, we are brought into the story by an unnerving cacophony of string instruments, an amazing addition to the score by composer Johnny Greenwood. It is unsettling to a nearly unbearable degree. We see Daniel, filthy and disheveled, dig into a mine shaft, finally striking a large gold vein. Upon returning to the shaft, he falls, breaking his leg, and is forced to literally crawl out of the shaft and through miles of wilderness to the nearest town to claim his prize. Tarantino notes that this unbearably arduous struggle is the foundation of all of Plainview’s actions. Having “literally crawled through hell” and conquered an insurmountable challenge, Daniel now views himself as a herculean figure, unrivaled in ethic and mental strength. This endeavor, experienced and witnessed by only Daniel and the audience, mitigates any reason for anyone else to challenge his strive for wealth and power in the oil industry. The scene is drawn out extensively, shot and edited with unnerving technique, to solidify this idea in the audience’s minds.

I’ll admit that, somewhat like Daniel, I’m a fairly driven individual who will pursue my goals with extreme vigor. Whatever career or personal development I want, I’m highly motivated to conquer it with my best efforts. Oftentimes it’s required me to make sacrifices or jump over large hurdles, and when I achieve these goals, I gain a huge sense of accomplishment. At the same time, I’ll see people who, with little effort or motivation themselves, gain far greater successes, either on sheer luck and circumstance, or because they “mooched” off of others’ achievements. In either case, I’ll view their successes with remorse or hatred, instead of showing support, and respond with an attempt to “one-up” them. Of course this is a vain insecurity I aim to mitigate, but nonetheless, a flaw that I’ve shared with people who have similar levels of ambition.

We can see how Plainview holds the same sentiments towards all those around him, unless they don’t challenge his power. When interacting with other “Oilmen”, he’ll scoff and treat their proposals with disdain, never allowing them to hold an upper hand. Most importantly, we see his misanthropic psyche materialized when interacting with Eli Sunday, a radical religious ideologue who keeps demanding Daniel support his efforts to grow his church. Sunday is played expertly by Paul Dano, characterizing him as a pathetic, rat-like young man. Plainview is relentless towards him. Daniel knows he’s the harder worker, but nevertheless, bullies Eli with immense hatred, going so far as beating and smothering him in a puddle of oil, saying “I’ll bury you underground, Eli!”.

Daniel Plainview is publicly belittled only once in the entire film, ironically by Eli Sunday. In order to secure the property of Mr. Bandy (a follower of Eli’s teachings), he’s asked to repent in front of Eli’s congregation. Forced to choose between humiliation and innate ambition, Plainview angrily repents for abandoning his now deaf child, sent away to boarding school. He gains Bandy’s massive oil reserves and immense wealth, but harbors immense fury towards Eli. Decades later, when Plainview basks in insane wealth, Eli pitifully begs Daniel to help fund his dying radio ministry. Daniel murders him in a tirade, infamously proclaiming “I drink your milkshake!”.

“I drink YOUR MILKSHAKE! I DRINK IT UP!”

It’s Daniel’s treatment of Eli that confirms his violent and tenacious ambition. With a heart of pent-up hatred, Daniel had succeeded in getting away from everyone and burying himself in riches, as he told his brother he wished to do. But it was only a sole moment where a pathetic, worthless man brought Daniel down from his pedestal into his own metaphorical puddle of oil. For Daniel, Eli attempted to gain unwarranted power in that moment by begging and attempting to “cheat the system” as opposed to earning his own glory.

Rather than loathe Daniel’s final actions, I unfortunately find myself with some empathy towards his sentiments of Eli. I completely understand how he, defined by his early struggles and subsequent gained power, feels threatened or insecure by the pathetic requests of Eli, given the humiliation that he’d been put through. Eli isn’t a real threat, but the fact that he thinks he’s owed some form of charity seems loathsome and unearned to Daniel. However, neither I nor anyone else I know is quite as distinctly brutal and aggressive as Daniel, who seeks to literally suck all the resources from everyone around him, going so far as to murder. I think this is because he’s purposefully meant to be a physical embodiment of this borderline “evil” trait, instead of demonstrating a more “typical” character study. It’s through this clear and distinct evil that we’re able to identify our own vices more powerfully, as opposed to if Daniel were a more “relatable” character who just monologues his every intention to the audience.

Daniel Plainview is an evidently “evil” man, but it’s through his vices that we can identify our own shortcomings, ensuring they never manifest in the same way.

Perhaps this is why he remains one of the most memorable, powerful characters in the history of film, transcending a demonstration of “good acting” into a critical, cautionary symbol of the detriments of power, displaying malice while not glorifying violence. At the very least, he certainly has allowed me to be more introspective of my own shortcomings, and correspondingly, enable me to make sure they never manifest into such evil. I’m certain the same can be said for all those who see a part of Daniel in their own souls.