Recently, for the second time in my life, I watched Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood "for the first time." What I mean is, after I see a film for the first time in the theater during its initial release, the next time I watch the film is when I really start to notice things and analyze it closely. In other words, that second time around is when I find myself really starting to appreciate the film (given its worth appreciating).
What struck me about There Will Be Blood is not surprising: the film is incredibly powerful, largely thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Daniel Plainview–the oil man protagonist of the film. Lewis is positively gripping as Plainview. I am in agreement with this author, who writes: "Plainview, has at some point we never see poured himself into a mold.
He’s beside himself from the beginning, remote-controlling himself from
an undisclosed location. Day-Lewis method-acts a method actor character." And to be more precise than what I just said, what I found to be truly gripping was the character of Plainview himself (which, of course, is probably due to Day-Lewis' portrayal of him).
This led me to wonder about a simple yet interesting question: what is so appealing about Daniel Plainview? In one sense, he is an awful human being. He is ruthless, anti-social, envious, spiteful, and full of hate. However, I find myself rooting for Plainview because he is so deeply aware of himself. He is completely honest about himself, both with himself and with others. When social convention calls for a trivial breach of the ethic of frank speech, Plainview is clearly in pain. He knows exactly who he is and does not apologize for it. He is resolute; authentic. So while in an important sense–the sense of what is morally praiseworthy–Plainview is despicable, in another important sense–the sense of ethics as a self-fashioning and process of self-understanding–he is in fact admirable. One finds oneself cheering for Plainview as he brutally pummels Eli, the conniving preacher and charlatan.
An analysis of one particular scene best expresses what I mean here. When Plainview's "brother...from another mother" first shows up at his camp, he is initially suspicious (as he is of all), but ends up confiding in him. Their conversation that evening after dinner is a (the only?) direct account of Plainview's psyche. "I hate most people," he tells his new brother. "I have a competition in me...I want no one else to succeed." The appeal of Daniel Plainview comes from his ability to utter these words in complete honesty–he means exactly what he says and somehow the viewer can have no doubts about this.