There Will Be Blood (2007)

'There Will Be Blood' Character Study of Daniel Plainview

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

What may be the most memorable character in modern cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s masterpiece There Will Be Blood, gave us Daniel Plainview. Made in the image of an American businessman of the late 1800s and played by acting powerhouse Daniel Day-Lewis, the story and performance is a dream for viewers that crave compelling characters.

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From the film’s introduction, the setting and music strongly inform us of who Daniel is. Virtually silent, presented is a man radiating resolve, sharp focus, and a constant need to seize his goals. These are defining moments of Daniel’s nature and a glimpse into his mentality and what is to come. Its illustration of character study, particularly Daniel in correlation with H.W., Eli, and Henry, is one of the film’s most significant merits. Nonetheless, find out here why Daniel Plainview is an exceptional practice of great character storytelling. 

Daniel & H.W.: Love Lost

THERE WILL BE BLOOD: Fathers and Sons

Hence, in the following early scenes, we see Daniel emerging from an overtly isolated man to a man with a crew, and finally a man who seems to take on a father’s responsibilities. In concert, we do not know much about Daniel’s personal life. Other than that, he has no wife, kids, friends—only H.W. (Dillon Freasier), close associates, and appears not to be concerned with anything other than drilling and making a profit. Daniel is charismatic and confident with his words, giving speeches many times throughout the film. Each one is echoing with cadence and taking on a theatrical quality ingrained in the 19th century. As such, during a significant scene of the first speech, H.W. is revealed at Daniels side, yet the camera slowly tracks in to emphasize him instead of Daniel speaking. 

This shot first prompts us to look closer into Daniel’s motive behind his relationship with H.W. It represents the eyes of the townspeople listening to the speech, and now us. We are left wondering if he is a family man that can be trusted as he demonstrates to be. It is also important to note when discussing their relationship that at some point, Daniel acquired enough power that he did not need H.W. anymore to persuade trust from his peers or profit. Nonetheless, H.W. becomes the closest thing to an intimate relationship that Daniel has throughout There Will Be Blood, making their connection that much more intriguing and provoking of analysis. Besides, there are later scenes that could support either assumption.

One crucial moment that keeps Daniel’s feelings for H.W. blurred is the scene when he sends H.W. away on the train. The first thought that comes to many is how could he abandon him when he needed him the most. However, we get a glimpse of Daniel’s raw, tender expression as one tear drops from his eye when he tells H.W. he will return. It happens so quickly viewers may need to rewind several times to catch it. Thus, we soon see he is noticeably trying to keep his composure, to ensure that the truth and affliction stay concealed. Remarkably riddled with guilt and anger (at himself), Daniel walks quickly from the train to his car, all while H.W. calls for him. Time passes by without H.W., and once he returns, it shows another situation in which Daniel is emotionally vulnerable and affectionate. He hugs H.W. as if relieved of his intense loneliness and guilt. Showing just how much Daniel indeed relies on H.W. for comfort.

Although the pivotal scene depicting this bond is their exchange towards the closing act, where during their last conversation, Daniel feels betrayed by H.W. for wanting to leave and start his own oil company. This kind of anger and bitter shouting can only develop from a place of feeling wounded and abandoned. He is undoubtedly alone now. Daniel changes many times throughout his interactions with H.W., appearing to struggle with his need for connection, his reclusive nature, and his drive for wealth and power at all costs.        

Daniel & Eli: One In The Same

Though, Daniel’s greatest antagonist, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and their many conflicts with each other help us to realize Daniel’s philosophies and behavior more profoundly than with any other character. With H.W., Daniel was shown ‘acting’ as a father but never really becoming one and leading to their relationships strain and undoing. However, with Eli, he provokes Daniel’s spiteful side, exposing both character’s most private reflections that come to the surface when they interact. As a result, their disunity traverses the struggle between power, religion, morality, and capitalism.

Eli uses the church and religion as a veneer to ultimately be seen and treated as a profit to attain riches and recognition for himself. And not to better the church as he protests. On the other hand, Daniel uses the Sunday family in a capitalistic fashion by exploiting their land and ignorance of the oil industry. In which we see Eli challenge when conditioning for more money to his church. Between this first interaction, we understand that Daniel and Eli see right through one another, and they both share an affection for wealth and power. So seeing their feud, it is easy to assign Daniel the role of the deceitful character. However, Eli Sunday proves to be just as fitting of that role and, to some extent, worse.

There Will Be Blood': The Story Behind The Original Eli Sunday

Eli’s corrupt nature is illustrated in a few key scenes: when he demands money for his church, praise after completion of the derrick, and when he visits Daniel at his mansion. These scenes display Eli’s corruption and how he functions as a parasite—enlightening Daniel’s virtuous qualities. Eli’s motivation is to attain wealth or recognition; he does not value respect or hard work. He would instead prosper by using other people’s accomplishments and resources. Thus, Eli’s behavior allows viewers to see that Daniel is not only self-interested but too, possesses the qualities of an enduring, hardworking, brilliant, polite yet shrewd, and skilled individual that treats his workers well. At the least, Daniel does demonstrate some honorable qualities that get overshadowed by his grand misanthropic nature throughout There Will Be Blood.

Eli, conversely, is repeatedly shown being disingenuous with everyone around him. Accordingly, not allowing the viewer to gain compassion or understanding for him as they can with Daniel. Eli’s corrupt behavior does not seem to have a source of where it comes from; it merely is his nature. Therefore, the closing scene of There Will Be Blood imparts these two characters’ dynamics in their rawest, further exposing their varying corrupt capacities. We see Daniel express how he detests Eli’s conceit and contemptible tendencies when he describes him as “sniveling,” thick, and nonsensical. The opposite of Daniel. Daniel demands that Eli recite that he is a false prophet and that God is a superstition. Eli quickly renounces his beliefs in an attempt to do anything to attain wealth. As a result, Eli Sunday becomes the most perverse character as he does not contemplate his penchant for deceit; Daniel does.

Daniel & Henry: The Tragic Drifter

Finally, the character of Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) is significant, too. He helps to support and show Daniel’s afflictions and capacity for compassion. Introduced, Henry approaches Daniel, claiming to be his half-brother. Once Daniel learns that he has a brother, he becomes more open and trusting almost instantly. He feeds and gives Henry a job while providing him a place to stay. They develop a relatively close relationship as they drink, attend meetings, survey the land, and spend time together—each scene slowly revealing Daniel’s deepest yearnings.

Notable scenes that explore these connotations are when Henry and Daniel are drinking and sharing their ambitions and motivations in life. Henry is noticeably unambitious and content with only working to survive and does not care anymore. In contrast, Daniel is ambitious and desires to have enough wealth for isolation. The key revelation is when Daniel unveils his sincerest sentiments about people and their role in his life. Exposing, they are not much other than to serve as a stepping stone to his goals.

He says, “I look at people and see nothing worth liking. I want to make enough money so that I can get away from everyone” and “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.” Even after expressing this, Daniel still later says to Henry, “Having you here gives me a second breath of life” and “I can’t keep doing this on my own.” In this scene, Daniel decided that Henry is someone he can confide in, trust, and his equal. A sentiment that did not seem possible with a character like Daniel Plainview until Henry appears.

Consequently, Henry’s character can bring Daniel’s calculating side to the forefront and his vulnerability. Later on, we see them attending a personal business meeting together, surveying the land, and going for a swim. These are things friends and partners do. So, when Daniel finds out that Henry is a fraud, the reaction says it all. He plots to kill Henry, does, and then cries with torment and a loss of hope while looking at his real brother’s diary in agony and defeat. It simultaneously shows that Daniel genuinely wanted and thought he had a family and is not just a ruthless salesman. Henry’s betrayal was his last undoing.

Daniel and Henry’s demise is so critical to his story of isolation and his character as a whole because it allows us to see a man that yearns for connection in which he lost faith along the way. Henry was his last hope, resulting in his descent into madness. Daniel’s relationship with H.W., Eli, and Henry all help to delve deep into the many facets of Daniel’s character, exposing his tortured psyche’s depthsInteractions with H.W. and Henry show us a man wounded, feeling betrayed, and vulnerable with snippets of tenderness. Though, Eli brings out the ruthless, cold, intolerable, and dangerous side of Daniel. Together, all three help to paint a fascinating, complex, but dark portrait of Daniel Plainview and his journey into isolation.

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Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview

Ciaran Hinds as Fletcher

David Willis as Abel Sunday

Kevin J. O’Connor as Henry

Sydney McCallister as Mary Sunday

David Warshofsky as H.M. Tilford

Sunday Colleen Foy as Adult Mary

Dillon Freasier as H.W. Plainview

Russell Harvard as Adult H.W.

Paul Dano as Eli Sunday

Colton Woodward as William Bandy


Paul Thomas Anderson

Drama, Thriller

Rated R for some violence

158 minutes


Cinematography: Robert Elswit

Editing: Dylan Tichenor

Soundtrack: Johnny Greenwood

Distribution: Miramax

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