Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Based on the novel Oil by Upton Sinclair. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, and Dillon Freasier.
As the last days of Gilded Age fade into the early 20th century, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) works his way up from silver miner to oil man, taking his baby son H.W. from place to place as he buys up drilling rights in small towns. When a young man sells information about an oil deposit on his family's ranch, Daniel heads out to Little Boston, California, to scope out the land, pretending to be on a camping trip with H.W., now a little boy. The ranch is owned by the Sunday family, whose son Eli (Paul Dano) plans to head an evangelical church. The relationship between these two in the community that grows around the well-the oily man of God and the Godless oil man-provides many of the movie's most interesting moments, and certainly its most effective visual: cutting between Eli's bland face and shiny cross and Daniel's oil-covered silhouette against the burning derrick of the gushing well. But if Daniel is the devil here, Eli is no angel. If anything, the two men are eerily similar, each pursuing his own path to power.
But to say that the movie is about the relationship between these two men would be misleading. Nor is it about the relationship between Daniel and H.W., who becomes his father's partner even as a little boy, although this is also an important element to the film. The movie is about greed and soulless ambition, and a man who embodies both. The problem for me is that although plenty happens-H.W. is injured, a man (Kevin J. O'Connor) appears claiming to be Daniel's brother Henry from Fond du Lac, Daniel agrees to be baptized in order to secure a lease for his pipeline-each event is an incident that doesn't really lead anywhere. In a movie this well made this can only be deliberate. But for me, the lack of a story arc was, in the end, unsatisfying: a ruthless man lives a ruthless life and ends up ruthless and alone.
Daniel Day-Lewis is always interesting to watch, even when he's chewing the scenery (which, for my money, is most of the time). His portrayal of Daniel Plainview as a man with almost no redeeming qualities must also be deliberate. In a way, it's a fascinating portrayal: there's not a subtle moment in anything Day-Lewis does, and he never once succumbs to the impulse to show a glimpse of humanity underneath Daniel's amoral character. The few tender moments with H.W. feel hollow, and it's clear that H.W.'s real purpose in Daniel's life is to give him the "family man" image he needs to further his interests. His moment of candor with Henry only reveals that there's little going on beneath Daniel's surface. "I want no one else to succeed," he tells Henry. "I hate most people"¦. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone." That pretty much sums up Daniel, and there's little doubt that he'll get his wish.
The film is carefully photographed, every shot deliberate and artful. The soundtrack plays with silence in interesting ways. The film's opening scenes-Daniel alone in an underground tunnel, searching for the silver that will bankroll his ambition; the early oil wells and first moments with H.W.-are all done without a word of dialogue. This silence is later echoed (so to speak) when the world is experienced through H.W.'s damaged ears. Incidents and visuals also resonate throughout the movie, including the interesting choice to have the same actor play Eli and the brother who originally sells out his family's ranch. But for all its artistry, for me the film ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Although the story, such as it was, held my interest-I didn't want to miss any of it as it was unfolding-I realized when it was over that I wouldn't have minded missing the whole thing.
Here's another big-budget, sweeping period piece, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis to boot. Many critics loved it, but I'm not the only one who found it hollow and unsatisfying. I'd be disappointed if it won Best Picture, but with No Country for Old Men and Michael Clayton in the running, there's little chance of that.