Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview
Paul Dano as Eli Sunday
Kevin J. O’Connor as Henry
Ciarán Hinds as Fletcher
Dillon Freasier as H.W.
Mary Elizabeth Barrett as Fannie Clark
Colleen Foy as Mary Sunday
John Kerry as Oilman
Coco Leigh as Mrs. Bankside
Hope Elizabeth Reeves as Elizabeth
Rhonda Reeves as Elizabeth’s Mother
Paul F. Tompkins as Prescott
David Willis as Abel Sunday
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
An extreme departure for P.T. Anderson, this violent and jarring oil epic is an achievement in cinematic storytelling that’s hard to ignore due to the impressive versatility of Anderson or his leading man.
After finding oil, California miner Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) turns oil drilling into a lucrative business that’s going well until he encounters Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the evangelical minister of a small religious town called Little Boston, kicking off a decades-long feud between the two men for the oil underneath the town’s ground.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movie in over five years is about as complete an about face from his quirky romantic comedy “Punch Drunk Love” as one can get, yet it falls into line with the general tone of movies this year including “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “No Country for Old Men.” Even so, it’s not as much a Western as it is a Southern gothic film about the early days of the oil industry and how greed corrupts men from different backgrounds.
When we first meet Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, he is a scruffy, unkempt California miner who hasn’t shaved in months. After a lucky break when his mining dig produces oil, we silently watch Plainview’s business building itself, the film’s first words of dialogue don’t appear for nearly 15 minutes when years later, Plainview is going from town to town with his well-groomed son H.W. giving a speech about him being an “oilman” who can help the town reap the profits of the oil found underneath their land. One such opportunity finds Daniel in the small religious town of Little Boston that’s impossible to pass up, but Daniel’s reticence at making good with the town’s evangelical leader Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) proves to be the venture’s biggest undoing. The rest of the film is driven by the backlash of the agnostic oilman’s decision to snub Eli’s request to bless the town’s oil drilling venture, and how Daniel reacts to the things life and nature throw his way to threaten what he’s built up. From a derrick accident that causes his son to lose his hearing or his estranged brother Henry showing up to help in the family business just as the deservedly suspicious Daniel is having his most significant success, Little Boston’s wealth of oil comes with a great price.
Those awaiting P.T. Anderson to show up with another quirky dramedy might be shocked by the serious and often brutal nature of his latest, whether it’s the deadly accidents that take place during the drilling process or the fierce rivalry between Plainview and Sunday that gets progressively more violent as the film progresses. Not that Anderson’s films might ever be considered “light comedy”, but one would be hard-pressed to see this film and draw any through-lines to his previous work. (Noticeably absent is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has starred in all four previous Anderson films.) The influence of Robert Altman on Anderson’s work continues, this time drawing inspiration from Altman’s 1971 “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” but one could just as easily draw parallels to Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” if Anderson didn’t do so much more with his own attempt at creating an epic period piece.
The first thing that immediately impresses is the amount of detail put into examining the early days of the American oil business, the technical aspects of drilling and how the industry flourished with big corporations and big money making it harder for entrepeneurs like Plainview to make a living. When his first oil derrick in Little Boston catches afire, a layman might immediately presume the worst, but in fact, Plainview realizes the blaze signifies an “entire ocean of oil” beneath the town.
Without any question, this is one of Daniel Day-Lewis’ finest performance, a powerful man cut from the same cloth as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” and it’s what makes the film so memorable. Even more than Bill, this role gives the actor a chance to show off his infinite range of emotions, and while anger and pride tend to be the most prevalent ones, it’s the way Day-Lewis creates this irresistible slow-build, often using merely a glance or a look that explodes into the most amazing display of fireworks. His frequently erratic behavior also offers a number of amusing though awkward laughs.
A rather uneven counterpart, the normally quiet Paul Dano plays a dual role as Paul and Eli Sunday, the former being the twin brother who invites Plainview to Little Boston, but Eli is so manic and schizophrenic, especially while leading his flock, that some might assume they’re one and the same. Despite the film’s epic subject matter, it always comes down to the friction-filled relationship between the two men, leading to violent confrontations that get progressively more insane, leaving the biggest impact on the viewer than anything else. At least once or twice, both actors go a bit over-the-board, and while Eli makes a strong foil for Day-Lewis and he does give as good as he gets, Dano is clearly the weaker actor when it comes to showing range.
As amazing as the film looksregular D.P. Robert Elswit is one of the few key returning Anderson collaboratorsthe atonal accompanying score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is something that leaves a far more lasting impression, a jarring even abrasive collision of strings and percussion that might seem out of place for a period Western, but it also adds so much to the film’s dark and manic tone, particularly in the friction between the men and the decline into madness that comes with Daniel’s lust for wealth and power.
Far too obvious to ignore are the film’s subliminal metaphors about America’s current situation in Iraq with Plainview playing the part of America, going into a foreign territory out of greed for oil, oblivious to the religious community and paying the price for not taking them into consideration.
Despite these strong themes and the amazing performances, the film is just way too long, and when it cuts forward nearly twenty years just after the two-hour mark, one can justifiably fear it turning into a 3-hour butt-number. By that point, Plainview has regressed into a reclusive Howard Hughes like alcoholic state, living alone in his immense mansion. After getting into fight with his now-grown son, we’re given one last extended meeting between the former opponents, but in trying to create a satisfying resolution, Anderson and both actors take things too far overboard, creating the exact opposite effect. With nowhere else for the story to go, one can probably forgive the film’s one questionable decision in ending things so abruptly after such an unforgettable scene.
The Bottom Line:
P.T. Anderson’s fifth film might not exactly be the most logical evolution or follow-up to his last three films, but those who enjoy quality filmmaking should be able to appreciate his ability to evolve. This rich and riveting story about how oil and money corrupts and ultimately destroys is endlessly fascinating despite the seeming simplicity of the premise.