There are a few things to consider with this film: hard work (the bootstraps kind) that leads to a sense of entitlement, a culture or mentality that allows megalomania to thrive unchecked (I might even call this Capitalism), and basic psychology.
The protagonist (and we know he’s the protagonist because he’s the first actor to appear onscreen), Daniel Plainview, is a loner. He has no one except the baby he claims as his own. But when the boy, H.W., loses his hearing, Plainview abandons him to a deaf school in San Francisco, and later when H.W. wants to go off to do his own thing, he admits the devastating truth to H.W. just to cause him pain. He is therefore selfish and seemingly heartless. He knows no compassion at all, except when it serves his selfish purposes (e.g. missing H.W., etc.). Plainview exhibits behavior, as the film progresses, that indicates he is also lonely, though he his surrounded by faithful friends (Fletcher, played by Ciaran Hinds….hail Caesar!) and his son. At the arrival of his ‘brother,’ he is at first skeptical, but then takes him on like it were the natural thing to do, only to ultimately be disappointed and enraged by the man’s deception. His final treatment of his ‘brother’ shows how heartless he is and how far away he is from having compassion for his fellow man. Same with the final scene with Eli at his home’s bowling lanes. He is heartless, and selfish, and out to make or keep whatever money he can. He is also overly concerned with maintaining his perception of his dignity. Ironically, his seeming-antagonist, Eli, though the viewer might expect him to become Plainview’s nemesis, due to his own inability to deal with people on a truly human level, falls way short of keeping the force balanced.
Therefore, Daniel Plainview’s megalomaniacal personality goes unchecked. It was really disappointing to see Eli never really come through with any counter measures against Plainview. Perhaps this is what the director, Paul Thomas Anderson, wanted: to not be so predictable. Or perhaps it was of the utmost importance that Plainview be able to fully develop into the monster that he was.
I can’t help thinking of another great film with an ending and a protagonist very similar to this one: Patrick Bateman and American Psycho. These two films end very similarly, almost in a bizarre parallel universe sort of way: Patrick Bateman, after confessing his crimes, finds that his crimes are overlooked and his peers don’t seem to care that he is a psycho killer (though it is debatable as to whether Bateman really was a psycho killer, or whether it was all in his head, but that’s a topic for another day, right E.D.?!); Daniel Plainview, as the film draws to a close, after bashing Eli’s head in with a bowling pin, tells his assistant/butler, who DOES NOT register a shock at the sight of the crime, that he’s all done with his dinner. The viewer must surmise that the butler will merely clean up the body with the dishes and that will be the end of it. Yes? No? The film ends with the viewer wondering how on earth this is not going to end badly for Plainview, in a going-to-prison sort of way. But then we think of Patrick Bateman and perhaps we know what will happen: nothing. Nothing because sometimes megalomania goes unchecked. Sometimes people want to keep their jobs.
If Plainview represents the American Dream (that pull yourself up from the bootstraps and drag your mangled ass across miles of desert for the possibility of getting rich sort of thing), and if the American Dream requires you to do whatever it takes to make it to the top, including murder (and dragging your ass…) then it is reasonable to surmise that Plainview is representative of all of the Capitalist moguls and tycoons and robber barons who have exploited all the resources they could in order to grace the Society and Financial pages.
But I think that’s too simple. Honestly, the film can’t just be about how ridiculous it is that super rich capitalists can get away with anything and everything just because they worked hard to make their millions/billions. I mean, really?! Could it be that simple?
I mean, Eli was an insufficient nemesis. There was no real nemesis to counter Plainview’s hubris. Even Standard Oil couldn’t give Plainview a tear in his stockings. There were NO checks or balances. Not even God, in this film, could really counteract Plainview. I mean, he’s in plain view! He’s right there. Somebody do something! But no. Nope. Everyone was weak.
I suppose we should consider the title: There Will Be Blood. Blood will be shed. Guaranteed. Not, There Might Be Blood.
As a viewer, I had higher hopes for Eli in terms of his nemesis potential, despite his inherent weakness as a human being.
Finally, the extradiegetic music in this film was very persistent in its setting of the mood as somber, dangerous, and high-anxiety. Even with a simple pan across a train station when no narrative action was presumed to be taking place, there would be music indicating impending danger. One must suppose that the point of this was to lead the viewer to believe that the whole scenario was fraught with danger.
Danger! There will be blood shed! Danger!
Hmmm…Thompson definitely tried to take this narrative and show us something. I’m just not sure it was something profound. Perhaps I haven’t thunk on it hard enough.