Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)
A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.
The first thing worth noting is that Anderson has finished other films with similar tonal shifts. Indeed, he seems to enjoy pushing his films both over the top and out of this world in their final moments. His last two pictures both started relatively small and naturalistic, but built towards grand, fanciful scenes of magical realism. Magnolia, an Altman-style California character drama, ended with a literal plague of frogs descending upon Los Angeles, and Punch-Drunk Love ended with a dream-like flight out of L.A. to a confrontation with a surly pimp in mattress warehouse. Anderson, in other words, has never been much for restraint in his finales.
And it seems to me that restraint—emotional restraint—is what finally does Plainview in. Lewis’s phenomenal performance (favored, correctly, I think, to win an Oscar) is centrally about one thing: domination. He’s a conqueror of men, land, and fortunes—not because he particularly cares for any of those things, but because he is driven to conquer simply for conquering’s sake.
And for Plainview, the will to conquer and dominate requires emotional constriction of the sort that is ultimately unsustainable. For most of the film, he’s a sharp tactical manipulator, coolly and calmly assessing his opponents—which is to say everyone—and how he can best them. But such a drive must, at some point erupt, must blow up, and is likely to result in the sort of hysterical violence found in the final scene.
There’s a reason, I think, that Plainview is drawn to oil; they share many of the same qualities, and they grow more alike as the film goes on. Like him, it is a source of great power, great wealth, and great misery, always pulsing, always flowing, always threatening to explode or ignite when others try to control it. One might even say the violent, oddly spectacular explosion in the final scene was inevitable: Like so many of the oil wells he built through his life, eventually Daniel Plainview was bound to blow his top.