When we first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) he’s dragging himself in and out of a pitiful pit of a would-be 19th Century silver mine, going through what ought to be the work of a team of men with his own two hands. It’s a task that ultimately breaks him – literally – when a nasty fall lands him alone at the bottom with a broken leg. It’s the first time (the actual opening is about 25 minutes long, free of discernable dialogue) that Plainview seems to be vulnerable… or even human, and it will be the last: Halfway to buried alive, he finds the evidence of silver, claws his way out of the Earth and drags himself across the desert to stake his claim. Soon he’s traded silver for the new fortunes of oil, reborn as a sly businessman trekking across the American West gobbling up oil-rich land from unsuspecting farmers one step ahead of Standard Oil; winning them over by framing his monomaniacal paranoia as a kind of get-my-own-hands-dirty pioneer gumption. For added effect, he keeps his almost-entirely silent son H.W. at his side as the “partner” in his “family business.”
The spark of inspiration here comes from “Oil!”, a 1920s Upton Sinclair evils-of-capitalism tract that never quite did for the oil-biz what his own “The Jungle” did for the meat-packing biz. Writer/Director/Producer Paul Thomas Anderson tosses the names, most of the side-stories, strips out the fairly dated politics and messageering and zeroes in on his (re-named) lead for what amounts to an epic character-study. Given it’s origins, the film constantly threatens to tumble over into message-movie territory – and it’s not hard to imagine a kind of two-way critique of quintessentially American hangups over capitalism and religion breaking out once we meet Plainview’s nemesis in manipulative false-prophet “holy man” Eli Sunday (Paul Dano.) But that moment never really comes as the film is content to observe it’s central monster absent much commentary on anything around him.
At first it seems like even the NAME “Plainview” must have some kind of ironic meaning, but soon enough it starts to creep in that it’s actually quite descriptive: Daniel Plainview ISN’T complicated – he’s EXACTLY what he appears to be… to the audience, anyway. That, in a nutshell, is going to be a problem for a lot of audiences. We tend to be pre-conditioned by DECADES of modern and post-modern storytelling to expect that strange, even evil beings will eventually be “explained” by some flaw or past wrong – that the ‘point’ of watching a character behave reprehensibly is to eventually be told what his “Rosebud” was.
This movie isn’t like that. There is no Rosebud, and there doesn’t seem to be anything important that’s secret or hidden (from the audience) about Plainview: He announces himself to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention as a creature for whom drive and conquest are goals in and of themselves right away, and while we might be surprised at some of the levels his mania reaches none of it seems “quirky” or outside the realm of possibility.
All of which leads to a pretty basic question: Is it REALLY worth spending 2-1/2 hours of movie watching a fascinating but largely unlikable nutcase cut a swath of bodies, blood and oil from one end of his life-story to the next? As it turns out… yes. The key here is that Anderson uses the period setting to establish an important distance between the modern audience and his 19th Century characters: Plainview’s carefully-measured “reassuring” tone and demeanor whenever he’s conducting “business” are, to us, the unmistakable voice and poise of a con-artist… but to the “simple” folk he wishes to swindle, it’s bought entirely at face value. Scenes of Eli Sunday’s similarly blatant church “performances” being swallowed hook, line and sinker help drive this point home: These are people of a different time and place, they don’t or can’t see what we see, they have no clue what either of these men actually are.
So, we’re not ONLY watching Daniel Plainview do exactly what we know he’s going to do, we’re watching everyone else figure it out only too late or not at all – something like seeing “Twister” from the weather’s point of view. Of all the characters, only Eli seems to approach him with a basic understanding of what he’s really up against, the implication being that they’re both con-artists working different versions of the same game… Plainview still holds a crucial edge here, though, as he seems to fully comprehend their similarlity while Eli may not.
Easily one of the year’s best, and a must-see.
FINAL RATING: 9/10