This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Adam Cook’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
There is little point reviewing the film as it will turn into a outpouring of gushing praise. However, I will briefly say it is a film of towering brilliance with a stunning performance from Daniel Day Lewis and excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly the never better, Paul Dano. The near wordless twenty minute opening is one of the finest character introductions I’ve ever seen. Along with the beautiful cinematography and discordant score it is a beginning of raw power and magnetism: a perfect illustration of pure cinema.
As I said, I do not want to review the film, instead I want to look at the two central relationships at the heart of the story: Plainview and his relationship with his adoptive son, HW, and his relationship with preacher, Eli. Naturally there are spoilers ahead...
Plainview and HW:
Daniel Plainview is a man of many contradictions. He expresses his hate for everybody but clearly yearned for a family connection with his brother. Yet, if he truly desired family contact, why did he not seek his sister out at any point? The only relationships we witness him cultivating are business ones. Even when talking to HW it is rarely about anything other than business. It is deliberately vague whether his adoption of HW was through altruistic kindness or simply business savvy - the scene on the train with HW as a baby could point to either argument: On the one hand there appears to be a genuine father-son bond and on the other HW is sitting in a suitcase as if Plainview has packed him up like any other tool of his trade ready to conquer the next town with his silver tongue and snake oil.
When the oil derrick goes up and HW is injured Plainview seems to be genuinely concerned for his adopted son’s well being. Yet as soon as he realises the injury is not fatal his attention reverts back to the oil and HW is left laying on the table forgotten. Could his initial concern have been solely for what HW represented as a business asset rather than a sign of fatherly affection?
During the baptism his words "I have abandoned my child" sound heartfelt but much of what leaves his mouth also appears mocking and sarcastic. Nothing can be taken as read where Plainview is concerned, particularly what leaves his lips. At the end of the opening sermon he turns to Eli and says, "That was one goddamn helluva show" demonstrating that Plainview is fully aware of Eli's lack of honesty.
When Plainview sends for HW again it is only after this humiliation at the baptism. He need to reassert his authority on the community again so repents for his 'sin' by bringing his son back into the fold. Their reunion is not in private but in front of workers laying the pipes. Once again it could be argued that it is no more than an elaborate show for the community.
Even in the restaurant he is more concerned about the appearance of the family unit rather than how his son actually is. Soon after this all their dealings are done through the interpreter, just like Plainview used the realtor to buy up the land for him in Little Boston. The pretense of parental love is dropped and he deals with his son as he would any other business associate. By the end of the film, when he becomes spiteful towards HW, is it as a hurt father or a competitive businessman? Whilst the audience hopes it is the former it is never truly clear. He tells Henry, "I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed”. HW wanting to leave is a 'victory' against Plainview just as Eli 'won' against him in the baptism. Plainview has a nasty streak where defeat is not an option, in anything. Even the line, "You're killing us with what you're doing. You're killing my image of you" that he says to HW at the end could be referring solely to their business relationship. Us being the Company and his "Image of you" being the illusion that they are a family in order for them to excel at obtaining oil leases.
The family angle was key to Plainview's success but notice how as soon as his 'brother' appeared he shipped his son off and when he killed his brother he brought his son back to live with him. The appearance of family is more important than anything rather than the connections, love and security they provide emotionally.
Plainview and Eli:
It is the Plainview and Eli conflict that is at the heart of the film, representing the bloody struggle between business and faith; the cornerstones of modern America. It is a wonderful conflict because Eli mirrors Plainview in so many ways. They are both showmen, sellers of false futures and downright liars. Eli is a thorn in Plainview’s side that has no obvious remedy because he is dealing in forces beyond those Plainview can promise. Daniel Plainview may sell fortune and gold to the community but salvation is beyond him.
What is perhaps the most interesting is that the rivalry is all in Plainview's head. Plainview clearly gets his own way for most of his life and has had to deal with far smarter and more ruthless people. But Plainview got ahead as an oil man because he exploited the public by advertising his family man credentials. Eli too manipulated the same individuals but with faith. The only other people we see Plainview have problems with are people in the oil business. Faith and religion is something he does not know how to truly compete with. During the beginning Plainview has the upper hand and you can see that in the beating he gives Eli, but when he needs Bandy's land the tables turn in Eli's favour.
Why I feel the final and bloody meeting works so well is that the last time Eli and Plainview met was in the baptism scene. Soon after Eli leaves to spread the word and Plainview is left to brood over this humiliating defeat. It is over the subsequent years that this defeat has gone unavenged, eating away at him which then culminates in the murder. He said numerous times that he does not tolerate being beaten and when he has nothing left to win with (his home, the symbol of all his wealth and power, is ultimately his tomb) he resorts to using his hands, just like he did in the opening scenes as he digs in the earth to find his fortune. It is a wonderful, almost surreal, depiction of him coming full circle.
There is the second reading of the conflict in that Plainview is essentially killing himself at the end too. He and Eli deal in lies to get what they want. They trade on their virtues and what they can bring to the community at large (wealth and salvation, respectively). But they are essentially the same person so when his son deserts Plainview his humiliation and then beating of Eli is almost self flagellation for all the wrong things he has done.
The Sunday twins, Eli and Paul, are also an intriguing addition. Originally supposed to be cast as two separate actors, the decision to only use Dano adds an extra layer of ambiguity in whether Eli and Paul are one and the same. There are telltale signs that they may be the same person. In Plainview’s basement bowling alley Eli pour three drinks: One for Daniel and two for himself. It is an almost incidental detail but sticks out due to its oddness. There are dialogue exchanges which don't exactly dispel the idea that they are the same person either.
Plainview: You're not the chosen brother, Eli. It was Paul who was chosen. He found me and he told me about your land. You're a fraud.
Eli Sunday: Why are you talking about Paul? Don't say this... don't say this to me, Daniel.
Plainview: I did what your brother couldn't. I broke you and I beat you.
Paul was the chosen one (read: chosen side) because he sided with capitalism rather than religion just as we have the symbolic bludgeoning of religion by commerce at the end. His final line "I did what your brother couldn't" seems as if he is saying that one side of Eli's personality could not prevail over the religious side. He was too conflicted whereas Plainview is unwavering in his belief of the dollar.
Plainview tells Eli that he paid Paul ten thousands dollars and he is now a prosperous businessman but it means nothing. Do we believe he did this? Nothing he said in the preceding three hours was true. If he did give Paul the money then when did this deal transpire? When Plainview turns up in Little Boston he is shocked that Eli is not Paul but Plainview never comes into contact with Paul again (onscreen at least). It could be interpreted that he is just telling Eli that if he did choose capitalism rather than God then he could have been rich by now. Not that his 'brother' is in fact successful or even real.
For those still reading then I apologise for the rambling nature of the ‘review’. None of what I have written will come as a great revelation to anybody but I wanted to attempt to examine the contradictory and ambiguous nature of the film, which for me is the reason it is a stonewall classic.