Daniel Day Lewis delivers a performance that is equally brilliant and psychologically disturbing. The film, based off Upton Sinclair's "Oil!", portrays the life of Lewis's character, an oil tycoon: Daniel Plainview. This film is not one that clearly tells a story. Rather, it creeps under your skin and strikes you to force you're own interpretations. As a result, the film's chain of events and subtleties initially confused me, but after further thought I came to some of my own conclusions...
- NOTE: before reading further, know that I expose some of the plot in my interpretations.
Daniel Plainview is a Victim of His Own Determination
Plainview inevitably becomes a great business success. Yet, despite all of his wealth and attributed success he is the character whom exudes the most unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and overall discontent with life. My thoughts are that his determination and drive that allowed him to achieve his success was the poison that killed him as a human being. In the movie covering what we can assume was his entire adult life; Lewis has no one in his life. He discovers that the only person he actually befriends was a criminal posing as a lost relative. And then, the orphan boy he raises as his own son wants nothing to do with him as an adult.
As a result of his nature - it appears that this has no effect on Plainview. But it becomes evident that Plainview is broken and depressed in the subsequent and final scene of the film.
Eli Sunday Mirrors Plainview
What may be the most provocative part of the film is just how easily people are manipulated by perceived power. Plainview misleads the public, often bluffs, and never holds true to his promises. He also uses his power in the form of wealth to easily influence and bully the common people. This is clearly seen early on when Plainview purchases the Sunday's ranch. Being offered $3700 astounds the father of the household. Even knowing the value of the land was greater due to oil, he still has no power to truly negotiate. He is very simple and as a result easily bought.
But it is in these negotiations where Eli emerges as Plainview's true competitor. The two men do not compete for wealth. They compete for influence. And while one is a deceptive oil man; the other is an equally misleading showmen who abusively seeks religion as a disruptive means to control the common people. You could argue perhaps that one took the highroad, and the other took the low road. But you can't deny that both men were corrupt. And both men could see past each other's false words.
A Tragic Paradox
Rich beyond belief but alone, Plainview lives a singular and depressing life in his great home. Eli Sunday comes to seek business between his church congregation and Plainview's oil business. But it is here where Plainview defeats his ultimate competitor, ruthlessly breaking him mentally and then murdering him physically. Powered by a cruel but powerful form of determination that is all but ridden of hatred, Plainview sits in the bowling alley of his mansion. He has both everything and nothing at the same time. All that is left is for him to say his last words in the film "I'm finished."