Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, loosely inspired by Upton Sinclair's ‘Oil!’ Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier
This landmark film has iconic directors and actors performing maximally, drawing from the pages of Upton Sinclair, the reform-minded novelist of the earliest days of the 20th century. Each has its strong influence on the final product, which will be recorded as an epic, but the movie is so dark in content that the protracted nearly two hours seems much longer than it should be.
Anderson brought us Boogie Nights, which had the theme of elevating the porn industry to high art, with Burt Reynolds resurrected as a star, along with Mark Wahlberg.
Anderson's next major film was Magnolia, which had a memorable teaming of toads and rambling plot of interwoven Hollywood themes.
This latest film is adapted from the novel Oil!, published the year after Elmer Gantry, the full-throated attack on evangelical Christianity, dressed up for fulfilling human foibles of greed and sexuality. Sinclair, like this movie, is at times too long and too melodramatic, with character portraits that are both Biblical and Manichean in nature.
Daniel Day Lewis is said to have been attracted to Anderson's 2002 film, Punch Drunk Love. He is known for utter complete Baptist-like immersion into his roles, typical of My Left Foot, for which he earned an Oscar and Streets of New York.
He does this maximally in this movie as the increasingly dark Daniel Plainview, who in rather classic Sinclair tradition, becomes consumed with greed for money and power. Ultimately, he betrays all human relationships for an obsession with power and control versus the threat of oblivion.
The scenery evokes No Country for Old Men—but that looks like an Eden in comparison. Three hills make up the backdrop for the eerie music of Johnny Greenwood—I swore it was the minimalist Philip Glass, but the themes called up bees swarming and the dissonance of disharmony and discord.
Plainview mines for silver, a lonesome pursuit that pure grit allows him to survive an accident that fractures his left leg.
His growling voice reminds you in timbre and cadence of John Huston. As time passes, he returns and seeks oil. The find causes a co-worker to lose his life, leaving a solitary infant that Plainview embraces and raises as his own.
Soon he's up to his neck in oil, leasing and drilling, selling himself and using the boy to emphasize the family nature of his enterprise.
Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) arrives to direct him to his desolate family farm, and sells them out for a paltry sum. Mr. Dano reminds me of the baby-faced Ralph Reed of the Moral Majority in physical appearance, and evokes the righteousness and self-assuredness of that movement.
He inquires what church Plainview attends, and Mr. Plainview prevaricates that he finds them all equally appealing. He drives a hard bargain, and Plainview pays him but threatens he'll come after him for more than the money if the clue turns out to be false. We never see Paul again.
Plainview and son travel into the wilderness so barren that the water is salty and the land cannot be planted, and the only beast that can graze are goats.
Abel Sunday, the pater familias, allows them to quail hunt, a ruse to survey the tract for signs of bubbling crude. Eli Sunday doubles as a negotiator for the family tract, and bargains for the Church of the Third Revelation.
With Eli, Abel, and Daniel, we had our Old Testament figures, and only Paul to represent the good news brought by the New Testament.
The themes of blood as a signpost of protection, as washing away the sins of the world, and a symbol of conversion are played to lull you into complacency that blood will not be spilled.
We soon learn that Daniel, and Sinclair, have a Marxist view of religion being an opiate and fraudulent diversion for uneducated people, helping them to be fleeced by entrepreneurs like Plainview, and false prophets, like Eli.
Dillon Freasier plays the quiet son, then the injured and deafened son, which is the only glimmer of humanity we see from Daniel Plainview.
Power lust and greed take over. Plainview takes no hostages; you serve his needs, or he has no use for you. Those that deviate are quickly and heartlessly dispatched without a milliliter of remorse or a second thought of consequences.
One has to admire the ferocity of Daniel Day Lewis's portrayal and the Anderson script. The take-home message is dark and sends you out disappointed unless a senseless battering and humiliations of the son and the prophet, and the mad ravings of a greedy, aging, bully are what you paid to see.
We have had perhaps too plain of a view of Plainview to find him likeable, uplifting, or heroic. Like Anton Chigurrh of No Country for Old Men, his brutality and boorishness are testaments to inhumanity and godlessness.
The characters do not change or evolve; they unfold—their faults are like original sins. The only thing missing is lust in the carnal sense of the word, but it is amply made up in lust for money, power, and ultimately blood.
Blind avarice and heartlessness may be back in vogue, but they continue to send shivers down my too-civilized spine, and remain more sins than virtue in my book. Too bad my book is considered as quaint and out of date as Upton Sinclair.
© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.