There Will Be Blood part 1

Faithful reader Kent M. Beeson has asked my advice on how to present a character’s motivation in a screenplay. This is a tricky situation — the best thing to do is not present motivation but rather action, and let the audience wonder about motivation. But motivation does lie close to the heart of the question, the question being, of course, What Does The Protagonist Want?

As Mr. Beeson was composing his question, I, coincidentally, was re-watching There Will Be Blood, in anticipation of a blistering attack from longtime friend and PT Anderson-hater

   . Blood presents us with a protagonist who plays his cards very close to his vest — perhaps so close that not even he knows exactly what he’s holding.

Daniel Plainview is not an easy character to figure out. He devotes a fair measure of his energy to concealing his motivations from other people and those people, it follows, includes us.  We could say with some certainty that, to an extent, Plainview’s motivations are a mystery even to himself. To suss out the motivations for his actions, we have to add up the clues in his actions and see what we get. As this fine motion picture is still in theaters, I urge my readers to go see it before reading the following.

There Will Be Blood, obviously, has a great deal to say about capitalism, sin and and soul of the United States. What I want to do here is forget about all that to the extent that I can. Daniel Plainview may be some kind of metaphor for the American character, but you can’t write a character as a metaphor and an actor can’t play one. The only way to write a good, three-dimensional character is to be as specific as possible and then have the actor play it as specifically as he knows how. Both of these tasks are performed quite well in There Will Be Blood, which I think is why most people recognize its excellence even if they can’t quite figure out what it’s on about.

First of all, let’s see if we can divide Blood up into coherent act breaks. I count six, and they go like this:

ACT ONE: “Plainview makes a name for himself as an oil man.” We see him dig for silver, find silver, dig for oil, strike oil, then set up his oil business. At the end of this act, Paul Sunday shows up in his office and presents to him the discovery that will ultimately make Plainview his fortune.

ACT TWO: “Plainview sets up operations in Little Boston.” We see him travel to this godforsaken town in the middle of nowhere, con some simple folk out of their land, deal with Paul’s brother Eli and his burgeoning church and get his first well underway.

ACT THREE: “Plainview loses his son.” We see Plainview’s well gush, which brings him great wealth but makes his adopted son deaf.

ACT FOUR: “Plainview replaces his son with his brother.” Henry Plainview arrives in Little Boston, claiming to be Plainview’s brother. Plainview takes Henry into his confidence and sends his son HW off to a special school in San Francisco. Plainview is approached by Standard Oil for his land, but he has plans of his own. He and Henry plot out a pipeline, walking 100 miles to the sea, to sell their oil to Union Oil. While at the beach, Plainview realizes that Henry is not his brother but an impostor. He kills him and buries the body.

ACT FIVE: “Plainview gets his son back.” Daniel, having learned his lesson, completed his work and made his fortune, fetches HW back. Eli uses his influence to pressure Daniel into a situation where he (Eli) is able to humiliate Daniel in public. HW grows up and marries Mary Sunday, Eli’s sister.

ACT SIX: “Plainview has the last laugh.” It is some time later. We see Plainview, wealthier and older, disown HW for undergoing what he considers a competitive business venture. Eli, who has beenlaid low by the intervening years. comes to Daniel for a favor. Daniel drinks his milkshake and bludgeons him to death with a bowling pin.

(These last two acts are rather brief, only twenty minutes apiece. This would, ordinarily, suggest that they are, in fact, one act, except that a good deal of time passes between Act V and Act VI, and Act VI is too long, and too explosively climactic, to be considered an epilogue.)

ACT ONE: It is 1898. Daniel Plainview (DP), a grizzled prospector (looking not unlike this guy), digs a hole, alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the desert. In a movie rife with Kubrick references, DP, covered with hair and dirt and swinging his pick, looks like 2001‘s Moon-Watcher with his bone.

Why is he alone? Wouldn’t the job of digging a deep, deep hole in the middle of nowhere be easier, not to mention safer, with a crew or at least a partner? And yet DP goes it alone. Perhaps he’s seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre and knows better than to tell anyone where he’s digging, or it could simply be that he, like Garbo, prefers to be that way. And indeed, we will learn later that DP doesn’t particularly care for people. It is not a “good” or “bad” quality — it is just, we would say, Who He Is.

We could say that this DP is pure DP. Miles away from anyone, his life is not a performance. His actions are simple and direct and uninflected. He’s not asking to be loved or trying to prove his superiority. He’s digging a hole and climbing a ladder and hauling a winch and blowing up some dynamite. PT Anderson, like Kubrick, is interested in examining systems: this is how an atom bomb gets delivered to its target, this is how a group of teenage boys are turned into killing machines, this is how a shuttle docks with an orbiting space station, this is how one gets precious materials out of the ground. We could say that this first part of the movie shows DP in his element. We could say that this is when he is happiest, alone and accountable to no one and on no one’s schedule.

(Speaking of elements, three of the four classical elements get real metaphorical workouts in this movie — Earth, Water and Fire all make dramatic appearances. And I suppose Air gets blown around too, whenever one of the principles needs to sell something to somebody.)

DP finds silver in the hole he’s digging, which gets him enough money to get started in what will be his life’s work, digging for oil. We see him next with a small crew of men, digging another hole in another middle of nowhere. They strike oil — whether through intent or by accident isn’t clear to me. One of the men has a baby boy, HW, who is baptized with the newly found crude.

(This is the first we see of oil-drilling as a kind of belief system, which will become important later.)

A few scenes later, HW’s father is killed in an accident. This is the second accident in the movie — DP broke his leg in the first hole, now HW loses his father in the second hole. To quiet the sobbing infant HW, DP feeds him whiskey. The significance of this becomes important later (and has nothing to do with milkshakes). Oil struck in this hole, DP moves on with HW to greener pastures.

We see DP with HW on a train. HW, though an infant, seems to like DP and DP seems to like HW. So it seems that DP is not a wholly antisocial creature; given the opportunity, he will be nice to a defenseless infant.

Fourteen minutes into the movie, we get our first dialogue. It is 1908 and DP is seen trying to sell his drilling operation, which as grown considerably, to a group of townspeople. The tools of his speech to the townspeople are crucial. He uses words like “family” and “community” and “trust” and “friendship” when what he’s really talking about is stealing these people’s land so he can turn it into an oilfield and make a ton of money. So while DP may prefer to be alone, he apparently has learned somewhere how to work a crowd. Public speaking, the most common of fears, does not seem to slow down DP. When the town meeting breaks down into argumentative shouting, DP gets up and walks out. “Too much confusion,” he says, limping out to his car.

The next thing we see is DP in the kitchen of a middle-aged couple, negotiating to buy their land. He lies to them about HW’s parentage and his status as a family man. This scene, up against the previous one, confused me until I read the screenplay (which can be found here), which indicates that DP, through buying the middle-aged couple’s land, is getting the same oil he would have been getting by leasing the land of the argumentative townspeople of the previous scene. He doesn’t explain it there, but the issue is “drainage,” the same concept he ends up explaining with the “milkshake” metaphor in Act VI. He could, apparently, lease the whole town, which would benefit everyone but involve dealing with a large group of people, or he could lease the land of just the middle-aged couple, get all the same oil eventually, and not have to talk to anyone.

Through this first part of the movie we see that yes, DP is a greedy capitalist, but he is also not afraid of hard work, risking his life and limb, or getting his hands dirty to achieve wealth. He’s even willing, up to a point, to be fair to people — unless there are too many of them with too many agendas, in which case he’d rather just withdraw and make a deal that screws everyone. That is, he’s greedy but his greed is secondary to, I think, his prime motivation — his dislike of people.

In any case, DP gets his well in Signal Hill and takes over the house of the middle-aged couple he was dealing with (this is another tidbit I got from the screenplay. DP transforms the Signal Hill house with so much construction as to make it unrecognizable). It is his success in Signal Hill that brings Paul Sunday to his office. Paul Sunday, a poor but apparently wily young man piques DP’s interest in a tract of land near a town called Little Boston, which brings us to the end of Act I.

So, in plot terms, what we have so far is: DP, alone, digs for silver, which leads to DP making a small fortune, which leads to DP and a crew of men, including the infant HW, digging for oil, which leads to the death of HW’s father, which leads to DP’s adoption of HW. The success of the well that killed HW’s father leads to DP’s business expanding to include, among other sites, a successful well in Signal Hill, which leads to Paul Sunday seeking DP out to offer him his family’s ranch as a potential drilling site. This series of events all lead to DP heading out to Little Boston and the Sunday Ranch, which is where Act II begins.

And this has gone on long enough for one day, I will pick it up anon.

hit counter html code


15 Responses to “There Will Be Blood part 1”
  1. “I’ve got Blisters on my Fingers”
    Alright- I’ve been called out…and have a some overall comments about this flick- but will reserve most of them until you get further down the line.
    For now let me start by saying that for the most part I agree with everything you’ve stated above.

    As for the complexity of the Big Question- “What Does The Protagonist Want?” or W.D.T.P.W.?
    (not the niftiest acronym- it’s no SMERSH…perhaps if we pronounce it “Whadprowa?”- sounds a bit like a new bank…)

    I think that Daniel Plainview’s character is fairly easy to figure out, he wants wealth- without regard for anyone else – perhaps without even regard for himself- he certainly does not seem to want wealth for all that it can bring/buy…in this sense he seems to be more than a greedy man- he seems to be Greed incarnate.

    Okay- maybe a secondary motive is respect- but it’s subservient to the desire to accumulate more-more-more…So his actions may seem like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma- but at the end of the day- dude wants ca$h money!

    Let me finish by saying that if there were ever an actor to play a metaphor- Daniel Day Lewis is that man.

    • Todd says:

      I’d be content to leave out the “T” and make it WDPW, or Wadpaw.

    • Anonymous says:

      ca$h money

      If all Plainview wants is money, then why doesn’t he accept standard oil’s million dollar deal? And how do his actions in the final act (torturing/disowning HW and torturing/murdering Eli) align with a desire for wealth?

      He’s got an oil empire, a mansion with a bowling alley, and a butler. But he isn’t “finished” until the final moment.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I loved this movie and I love reading your analysis of this stuff.

    A stray thought I had that caught me when I was in the movie watching this was in the shot on the left you have up above Plainview reminded me of a deranged youthful
    Robert Baden-Powell
    the father of the Scouting movement. As an Eagle scout, I had to look at that limey and his weird hat so many times that when I finally saw Daniel Day-Lewis looking much like him I had to laugh.

  3. Anonymous says:

    At the begining, when Plainview was working alone, I think it was completely economic. He couldn’t afford employees, and didn’t want partners.

    • Todd says:

      No doubt economics is the rationale of many lone prospectors. But it begs the question: does DP work alone because he’s a prospector, or did he become a prospector because he prefers to work alone?

      • When you ask it that way it makes me think that maybe DP was hiding –
        maybe from something that happened in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
        or from something else that happened in his travels…

        (there seems to be a subtext about him having some sort of issue with women-
        lying about HW’s mother and never answering the question of his marital status)

        It also makes me realize that DP is born out of the ground
        in the beginning of the film- alone, gooey and not talking…

        • mr_noy says:

          A copy of the screenplay is floating around on the internet. I’ve only glanced over it but it seems very close to the final film. There were a few scenes that didn’t make it into the film but which shed some light on the character and plot. For example: a scene where Eli presumes to have healed HW, (explains why DP is so anngry towards Eli) a scene of DP having sex with a ‘Local Vixen’ (explains why Eli accuses DP of lusting after women during his baptismal) and a few lines where DP confides to his brother that he is, in fact, impotent (which, I guess, could explain a lot).

  4. Anonymous says:

    Was leaving a message and lost it – retyping.
    Regarding Elements:

    We hear alot from Air throughout the film. I was continually struck by the way in which Daniel’s breathing, the sound of his breath, his teeth and tongue, his voice were like part of the soundtrack. As if he were speaking, always, just next to your ear.

    It seems to me that Blood is the 5th element in this film. Consider the interconnected themes of “life’s blood” (risk); family (Daniel replaces HW with what he thinks is his “true” blood brother) (Blood is thicker than whiskey…) and, of course, the final scene. And perhaps oil as the blood of the earth…

    Finally, a quote from Richard Hughes (High Wind in Jamaica) that I think can be applied to presenting motivation in fiction: “…often the only way of attempting to express the truth is to build it up, like a card-house, of a pack of lies.”

  5. Anonymous says:


    I dont think DP is greedy. I dont think he is in the oil business for the money. I think he is in it because of the “competition” that lives within him. Greed is an excessive, selfish desire for money, etc. I think he was looking for silver and oil because as climbers when asked why they climb Everest respond, because it was there. He grabbed that rock to see if it had silver when he had broken his leg not because he was curious if he had struck it rich; he simply wanted to know if he had found what he was searching for. Some men have an instinct to explore and challenge themselves.

    I left the film thankful for the work that men like DP have done for this nation/world. It is a dirty little secret that the Christian faith preaches against, but we need men like DP. The competition that lives within and drives certain men propels all of us and makes life easier. (viz. Darwin, Ford, Carnegie, Stanford)

    • Todd says:

      Re: DP

      I had a similarly complicated reaction to DP while watching the movie, and one of the most interesting things about it is how it refuses to paint DP as a one-dimensional anything. His drive, innovation and pioneer spirit are all admirable and inspiring. His heartlessness and homicidal nature less so.

    • dougo says:

      Re: DP

      I don’t think greed is his motivation, but neither is competition. “I want to make enough money that I can move far away from everyone.” He just wants to be left alone to drown his troubles and fall asleep on the floor.

  6. kokopopo says:

    I know you are writing about character development, but I am fascinated by the way that the film uses DP to explore the economic underpinnings of our society.

    Marx would say that labor is the foundation of all capital, and few would dispute that. DP starts with nothing but his ability to work hard, all alone he scratches wealth out of the ground, then he uses this wealth to stake himself in the next venture (hiring men and purchasing equipment), then the proceeds of that enterprise (Coyote Springs?) for the next (New Boston). By this time, he’s the ultimate capitalist, purchasing the labor of other men to build his wealth.

    DP’s contempt for all others is as much a contempt for losers–those who couldn’t transform their muscle into wealth and power–and reflects a deep inner hunger to build and control and defeat others. Those traits, one might suggest, are shared by all great business successes, certainly of this period. In DP, they are primal. In other words, I would say, his character is directly related to and reflective of the overarching them of the movie. That’s pretty cool.

    • Todd says:

      I feel like it’s possible to have a certain amount of respect for a sociopath like DP, since he did, after all, create something out of nothing. The same cannot be said for capitalists on the scale of Bush and Cheney, who were simply given the world to play with and have spent their whole lives whining about how they don’t have more.