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Daniel Plainview - greatest cinematic villain of the 2000s


Appreciating the many-splendored psychoses of Daniel Day-Lewis' crazed oilman...

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview

In a community as diverse as cinema, it stands to reason that, among the thousands of films released this past decade, there were many memorable antagonists that rose to the top of our collective memories. These villains of the screen came in many stripes - comic book foes such as Lex Luthor, Doctor Octopus, or the Joker; horror baddies like Jigsaw and The Devil's Rejects' Firefly family; or power-mad maniacs Anakin Skywalker, Colonel Quaritch in Avatar, and Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort. But as murderous, devious, and sociopathic as these and other silver screen brutes were, none can hold a candle to the duplicitous and cunning monstrosity that was There Will Be Blood's (2007) heartless oilman Daniel Plainview, an amalgam of mankind's worst attributes rolled up into a single entity of hatred and avarice.

In the hands of a less-capable actor, There Will Be Blood would still be a great film, certainly worthy of accolade, thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson's expert direction. But with Daniel Day-Lewis leading the way, the character of Daniel Plainview achieves mythological status. Far more frightening than any spirit going bump in the night, Plainview is a primeval force, unswayed by conscience, remorse, or love for his fellow man. In a year that saw Death personified on screen by Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, the mop-topped hitman in No Country for Old Men, it was Day-Lewis' Plainview that managed to come off as more pathologically-diabolical. To understand how this was achieved, let us examine the ever-important blend of actor and story.

[There Will Be Blood spoilers follow]

The first time we see Plainview, he's in the bowels of the earth, sweaty, grimy, and alone. He is not a hands-off tyrant, nor born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but is eking out a living like so many a solitary miner, hoping for the big score. At no point are his earlier years ever delved into, nor is it mentioned if he has ever been married. Plainview simply appears within the belly of a derelict mine on that lonely, windswept Texas plain, his past lost to the murky depths of time. From the outset, Day-Lewis cleverly cloaks both Plainview's ultimate intentions and his feelings towards his fellow man, to the point where the viewer wonders what he 'really' thinks. In the early days of his oil operation, Day-Lewis works alongside his small crew, getting dirty and seeming to have a friendly rapport with his men. When one dies, he adopts the man's son for his own. But questions lurk near the surface. Is he doing it out of kindness for the helpless boy, or are the gears turning from the outset as to how Plainview can use the boy to his advantage? This, like so many other questions in There Will Be Blood, is left open-ended and up to individual speculation.

"Eyes narrowing and glinting in the firelight, he confides his abiding wish - to make enough money that he would never again have to deal with people."

The answer is hardly evident several years later. Daniel dotes on preteen H.W. regularly, yet uses him as a means to an end by taking the boy to all business-related meetings, strengthening Plainview's claim that his oil company is a family business. One wonders how aware H.W. is that these 'business meetings' called by his father are little more than veiled attempts to bilk town after town into giving up leases on their immensely-valuable land for a pittance. The film doesn't make this clear because Plainview has no interest in making this clear. He controls the narrative, both literally and figuratively. Daniel teaches H.W. about his business as they go along, apparently grooming H.W. to follow in his footsteps, but when the boy becomes deaf after a gas explosion, Daniel's insensitivity to, and inexperience with, human nature soon leads to Plainview sending his son away. H.W. is no longer a usable tool to elicit confidence in Plainview's ventures; he is a burden. And so he must go.

Another attempt at family ties comes in the arrival of Henry, Daniel's alleged half-brother. Interestingly, Plainview quickly places his trust in the man and even confides in him his darkest desires during a whiskey binge. It's not a pretty picture. With a campfire's flickering flames devilishly lighting his visage, Plainview tells Henry of his hatred of mankind. "I have a competition in me," Daniel says. "I want no one else to succeed." Eyes narrowing and glinting in the firelight, he confides his abiding wish - to make enough money that he would never again have to deal with people. "I hate most people... I've built up my hatreds over the years, little by little", the oilman purrs, Henry listening in what could be described as nervous trepidation. Plainview freely admits his relief that he finally has somebody who he can trust by his side, as he laments having to constantly deal with people that he cannot stand, punctuating his glowering monologue with a burst of unrestrained maniacal laughter. When Henry turns out to be an imposter, the news only further speeds Daniel's descent into antisocial madness, as he kills the man without fanfare or so much as a single pondering moment. Ironically, the shallow grave that Plainview digs in which to bury the fake Henry fills with his beloved oil, so that the viewer cannot help but notice that Daniel is not just burying a body, but perhaps the last of his humanity along with it.

As troubling as discovering the truth behind the false Henry Plainview is to Daniel, his main enemy in the film is clearly Eli Sunday, paradoxically both the antithesis and brother-in-arms of the oil tycoon. Both men will stop at nothing to get what they want, but the similarities end there. Eli is young, smug, and pious, an enigmatic faith healer, a manipulative huckster, and fiery preacher for his own Church of the Third Revelation. Young Sunday's shrewd spiritual guise makes him a ready-made opponent for the agnostic Plainview. He is also the only bulwark between Little Boston's inhabitants and Daniel's unbridled desire for control of their oil fields, but he is far from a hero. Sunday's comically over-emoted Pentacostal sermons are all fire and brimstone, his 'healing' sessions the unrestrained id of the charlatan, and all that he purports to care for is his church and congregation, many triple his age or older. For Plainview to get what he wants in Little Boston, he must go through Eli, and the viewer shivers at the titanic rivers of hate coursing through Daniel's veins when he must supplant himself before the preacher.

Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) baptizes PlainviewThe most prominent example of this, and Eli's crowning moment of glory, is his baptism of Plainview. In front of his church's congregation, Eli forces Daniel to admit that he abandoned his boy in favor of his pursuit of wealth and slaps him repeatedly in the guise of casting the oilman's demons out. It is in this scene that Day-Lewis perhaps best displays his genius. The gamut of emotions that Plainview runs through in this scene alone is astounding. His countenance shows it all, from boredom with the procedure to irritation to genuine sorrow and longing for H.W. to full-fledged volcanic anger to overwrought mockery and finally false repentance so that the ordeal can be done with, all in the span of a couple short minutes. As Plainview faux-genially shakes a cautiously-suspicious Sunday's hand after the ritual, one hardly feels that the conniving Plainview will let the humiliation stand.

After the baptism, it's all downhill for Daniel's sanity. Eli Sunday leaves town to perform missionary work, a glaring Plainview watching his train depart. With Eli gone, H.W. gone, and his bank accounts growing exponentially, Daniel descends into drinking binges and debauchery. When the film once more leaps several years forward, Plainview is unfathomably wealthy but nearly insane from drink, unrequited hatred, and unfulfilled revenges against a vast number of opponents, both real and perceived. He passes the time only semi-coherently, lips constantly finding his ever-present flask, shooting his own valuables with a shotgun across his mansion's marble-floored hallways. When an older H.W. visits his father to extend an olive branch of sorts, Plainview not only slaps it away but cuts all ties with his adopted son and 'partner', finally telling him the truth of his lineage, and ordering him out of his mansion. That relationship severed, Plainview next has the good fortune to have Eli come calling.

Most casual fans of the film are most familiar with this climactic scene between the two old rivals. Eli is outwardly successful but secretly destitute, while Plainview is morally bankrupt but rich beyond measure. Eating leftover steak with his bare hands, as if descended to the manner of beast, Plainview listens while Sunday tells him of old William Bandy's death, Eli's inheritance of the Bandy tract, and his offer to finally sell Daniel a parcel of land which he has long desired. It is then that decades of hatred of mankind comes into narrow focus in Plainview's black heart and he begins toying with the preacher, ordering him to reject God in order for Daniel to take him up on his offer. After prodding him to ever-greater heights of self-loathing and rejection of his god, the oilman abruptly tells Sunday that the Bandy tract is now worthless. Horrified and confused, Eli breaks down, revealing that he desperately needs the money. This isn't news to Plainview, who simply answers "I know", implying that he has been anticipating this meeting, and his revenge, for years.

With righteous anger bubbling just under the surface, Plainview patronizingly mocks Sunday regarding the concept of drainage, telling him that he had been surreptitiously draining the Bandy tract dry for years. Plainview even tells Eli of his twin brother Paul's involvement, calling Paul the 'chosen brother' and Eli an "afterbirth". In perhaps the most famous scene from the movie, Daniel attempts to analogize his raping of old Bandy's land - "That land's been had. There's nothing you can do about it. DRAINAGE!" Plainview cackles horribly, spittle flying from his lips. "DRAINAGE! Let's say you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw...and my straw reaches acrosssssss the room and drinks your milkshake. I drink your milkshake!" Day-Lewis' Plainview capers and hobbles with demonic glee, echoing Robert E. Howard's early horror imaginings of the Piper of Cthulhu, as he destroys Eli's spirit in one fell swoop. That victory attained, he then physically attacks Sunday and batters him to death, his hatred of the human race culminating in the murder of the man who had come closest to besting him.

"Plainview loves only oil. And he will humiliate, ruin, maim, or murder anyone to gather as much of it to himself as he can."

So what makes Plainview the greatest villain of the 21st century? It is because of how his behaviors encapsulate his true being. Every supposedly good deed he is shown doing has a possible negative connotation. There is not a single action that he takes that can be understood as wholly good or noble or kind. While Bardem's Chigurh murders far more people, he has a twisted sense of honor about him and even spares some lives because of it. Chigurh is not out to actively ruin lives. He's just doing his job, along with all that it entails. There can be no doubt that Chigurh is psychopathic, but Plainview's aspirations of domination are far more encompassing.

Chigurh is no special case, however. One can make their way down any list of villains since 2000 and find them wanting when put against Daniel Plainview. Hannibal's titular character hangs one man with his own intestines, eats the brain of another, and watches as his main adversary is eaten by starving boars, but he is cultured and refined. Hannibal spares Clarice Starling's life on more than one occasion because he respects her and possibly loves her. As vibrantly as Anthony Hopkins played the role, Lecter is no match for Daniel Plainview in unadulterated villainy. Daniel loves nobody. He seems to care for H.W., but does he love him? The jury is out. No mention of any romantic love in Daniel's life of any kind is ever made, because he can spare no feeling for man, woman, or beast. Plainview loves only oil. And he will humiliate, ruin, maim, or murder anyone to gather as much of it to himself as he can.

So run down the list, dear reader. Who can hold a candle to this monster in human form? The Star Wars prequels' Anakin Skywalker? Hardly. Skywalker's lust for power and control leads him to evil, but as a subservient drone for a greater evil. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Johnny Depp's titular barber in Sweeney Todd leap to mind as death-dealing butchers, but they are sufferers of phobias and psychoses. Crazed villains to be sure, but while they are slaves to their mental defects, Plainview uses his to tremendous advantage.

To my mind, the Joker in The Dark Knight is the only human choice that approaches Plainview in terms of outright wickedness, and it is a close contest to be sure. Heath Ledger brilliantly fuels the Clown Prince of Crime's personality with nervous tics, calculating immorality, and a deep-seated desire to expose outwardly just people as inwardly corrupt. But even the Joker comes up short. As monumentally-savage and manipulative as he is, it is ultimately just a game to the Joker, a science experiment of sorts, to see how far people can be pushed. Money means nothing to him, control is the last thing he desires; the Joker wishes above all else to disrupt the status quo and cause chaos. Although he holds a city spellbound with terror, the Joker's overriding desire is to prove that everyone is as morally-bankrupt as himself. The need to have compatriots within his own special brand of insanity is almost childlike in its fervor.

A brooding Daniel PlainviewPlainview has no need for such trifles. He cares nothing about proving a moral point or feeling included. He means to be the greatest, richest, most powerful tycoon the world has ever seen, a man so rich that he can transcend any and all ties to humanity and never have to bother with another human being for the rest of his existence. Any other goal, no matter how trivial, is dropped by the wayside. Plainview's single-minded purpose makes him far more dangerous than the Joker could ever hope to be. His entire life is committed to the pursuit of wealth, but it is not enough that he succeeds. Just as important to Plainview is that he prevents others from succeeding. Daniel is suspicious of everyone, envies those of higher status with a burning intensity, and belittles those beneath him. In due time, nobody is spared Plainview's wrath, not even his adopted son and certainly not his hated enemies. He is the ultimate capitalist, without an ounce of mercy or pity. Bearing that in mind, I believe that there is one cinematic villain that measures up even better to Daniel Plainview than the Joker - Ridley Scott's eponymous Alien. Remember, it was the android Ash that admiringly described Nostromo's unwanted visitor as "a survivor...unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality". Such a line could be directed verbatim towards the hateful oilman, without losing a speck of its vigor and meaning.

To top it off, Plainview's fantastic character potential on the page is impossibly magnified even larger by its player, as Daniel Day-Lewis broadens the role beyond all expectation, turning the outline of a run-of-the-mill, avaricious sociopath into a towering colossus. Day-Lewis' Plainview leaps off the screen, beady eyes, gritted teeth, bristling mustache, clenched jaw and all. A brilliant conman with murderous impulses, the oilman flawlessly bounces between mastery of smooth-talking deception and spine-chilling threat in the blink of an eye. In a cinematic universe where villains are too often portrayed in stark terms of black and white, Plainview is the deepest gray, a man who revels in his flaws and exploits all those around him, a man who actively wishes greatness upon himself at the expense of everyone else, a man who appears to be nothing less than the Devil incarnate. Even in his final screen moment, Plainview dabbles in the oblique. His exhausted uttering of "I'm finished" after bludgeoning Eli to death has more than one possible meaning, to those who take a moment to think about it. What he truly means by it is, naturally, not explained.

There is a scene about 2/3 through the film where Daniel is offered one million dollars cash by Standard Oil for the lease of his Little Boston wells, an impressive sum today and a fantastic sum in 1911 dollars. But he doesn't even seem to consider it. "What would I do with myself?" Daniel asks. When the Standard Oil representative admits confusion at the question, Plainview repeats himself, face set in an unwavering scowl. It is a clever bit of foreshadowing. By the time the movie ends, Plainview is indeed no longer working and is instead holed up in his mansion, shooting at his own belongings in intoxicated boredom. It seems that work is the only thing that kept the oilman from going mad. The pursuit of wealth and power is everything for Daniel. Once the game is won, he has nothing left to live for. Plainview's terrible energy only desires one focus - the lifting up of himself above all his fellow man and to see them flattened beneath his boot. No other character since the turn of the century has so powerfully portrayed such a bestial inhumanity and hunger for power. Only time will tell how long it is before a worthy rival rises up to finally unseat Daniel Plainview from his hard-fought perch at the top of the mountain.

(The author would like to extend a special thanks to his wife, Leora, whose surprising suggestion of a There Will Be Blood viewing during a recent 'Movie Night' inspired this article.)


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#1 Awesome article. Chris Morgan 2011-01-07 15:58
Thoroughly enjoyed it this mate. TWBB is one of my favourite movies, and Daniel Plainview stands among the most villainous of all cinema's evil elite. He's a fascinating character, and you've dissected him very nicely. Well done indeed.
#2 RE: Daniel Plainview - greatest cinematic villain of the 2000s dave 2013-05-12 18:49
Fantastic article. You really hit the nail on the head.
#3 Very well written Darthnixa 2013-06-20 20:35
Great article! Can't imagine TWBB without Day-Lewis.
#4 RE: Daniel Plainview - greatest cinematic villain of the 2000s Kevin 2014-01-07 03:16
Ref paragraph 11, line 5; the scene where Plainview is sitting at the picnic table, holding the young "daughter of these hills" he exhibits some goodness when he tells her that her father won't be hitting her anymore (just loud enough for the father to hear, and to serve as a warning to him). Other than that I agree that this character is amazing, and hope Day Lewis comes back to the screen to play another villain before he gets too old to bring the same amount of passion/intensity.

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