From the moment we first encounter H.W Plainview, there is oil.
H.W is brought down to the edge of a lake of oil, where his father marks his forehead with a streak of oil; as if to signify how important this commodity would become in H.W’s lifetime. H.W is essentially born into oil, both he and it are products of the same generation. Being adopted by Daniel Plainview fully inducted H.W into the oil industry. Daniel showed him what oil looked like, smelled like and how to find it. H.W would sit in on all of Daniel’s business meetings and interact with Daniel’s associates. H.W becomes part of the company and Daniel recognizes this: “…very much a family enterprise.”
It is oil that begins H.W’s future and also aids in its partial ruin. Out of all the characters in this film, H.W the most poignant representation of the hardships that post-Civil War industrialization brought along with it. Aside from causing the death of his biological father, oil makes H.W deaf. Daniel abandons him shortly after to focus on the current drilling operation. The hatred built between H.W and Daniel spurs H.W to leave his adopted father’s side to strike out on his own years later, an altercation in which Daniel declares H.W to be his competition and cuts their familial ties once and for all: “…a bastard from a basket.”
Each major event in H.W’s life revolved around oil, thus resulting in physical anguish, betrayal and alienation. H.W’s situation was true for many of the people who lived during the 2nd Industrial Revolution. Greed, death and deception were the common demons hundreds of families faced. H.W Plainview is a true testament to the notion that the immense success capitalism can bring is equally met with high risks and even greater sacrifices.