My husband was watching There Will Be Blood on television the other day. Even though it was near the beginning of the film when I walked in to find him watching it, my mind immediately skipped to the final scene. Somehow, the madness depicted at the conclusion of the film fits. It’s one of those astonishing and unexpected conclusions that leaves you contemplating long after the credits role. For me, the entire film is quite beyond a definite impression. It’s neither good nor bad – it’s strange, unclassifiable, obscure at times, yet unique. It’s a creative force with so many layers (touching and poignant moments, scenes of terror and ruthlessness, aspects of peculiarity and moments of grandeur.)
There’s no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson’s work here is phenomenal. The film is beautiful to look at, and together with Daniel Day-Lewis, the two create a character in Daniel Plainview that is like no other character in film. Plainview is an outsider who comes from nowhere. He’s a nomad without ties to anyone or anyplace. He’s closed-off from intimacy, unfeeling, brutish and driven by a demented ambition for money. He feels no remorse and no regret, for he succeeds at the expense of others. “I hate most people,” he bluntly declares at one point. He has an adopted son whom he appears to feel something for, though it is difficult to discern what his feelings are. Plainview creates the impression that he’s a family man by using his son as a prop to work business dealings in his favour, and then when his son is deafened when an oil well explodes, he grows cold towards him and the two become alienated.
Plainview must compete against organized religion and its supporters in the community in which he wants to drill. In pitting organized religion against oil drilling, Anderson dramatizes the battle between the two characters who personify those opposing realms – Plainview and a young priest named Eli Sunday. It is the pitting of these two foes against each other that sets the course for the film’s final scene. The two characters are suspicious of one another from the get-go and constantly strive for domination over the other. Both humiliate and are humiliated by the other. Plainview promises to let Eli bless his first well, but when the time comes, he deliberately ignores him and a lifelong mutual hatred and contempt is forged.
Fast forward a few decades. Plainview has become a drunkard and is more isolated than ever, trolling around his big empty mansion and descending into madness. Eli pays Plainview an unexpected visit and the two foes face-off in Plainview’s own private bowling alley. Eli has come because he would like to broker a deal for the oil drilling rights to the Bandy ranch. Plainview agrees, but only if Eli will admit that he is a false prophet and that God is a superstition. He manipulates and bullies Eli until Eli finally concedes. Then cruelly, Plainview reveals that he drained the Bandy ranch of oil already, having owned all of the wells around it, and thus there is no oil left to be had. As if that humiliation weren’t enough, Eli admits that he’s broke due to too many bad investments and asks Plainview for help. Plainview chases Eli around the bowling alley, out of his mind with rage and lunacy, drooling at the mouth and roaring like an unhinged animal. Then he beats Eli to death with a bowling pin. When his butler comes in to see what the commotion was about, Plainview simply says, “I’m finished.”
It’s a stunning conclusion that will either fill you with disdain or with satisfaction depending on which side of the fence you’re on since people either approve or disapprove of the way the final 20 minutes of the film play out. As over the top and weird as the final scene is, I think it effectively shows the final evolution of Daniel Plainview. When we first see him at the start of the film, he’s inside a deep, dark hole in the ground hacking at the earth with a pickaxe looking for silver. And at the end, he’s in a different deep, dark hole of sorts – completely alone and consumed by madness with nothing left to conquer and nowhere else to go. He’s cooped up inside his mansion where before he was outdoors pillaging the earth. Anderson brings Plainview full circle in the final act from a triumphant oil magnate to a crazed and damaged man.