If I had seen this film before this past week, it would have been my #1, knocking 3:10 to Yuma off my top ten (sorry about that…)
In 1898 a lone man digs through the earth. Undaunted by the elements, the sheer hardness of the earth and the seemingly impossible task he has set for himself, he strikes oil. Yet a few years later, he has assembled a team of men who go from place to place, buying land, drilling for oil, and then selling the operations. We assume the child growing up in the camp belongs to one of the men, but the man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) begins to present the boy as H.W. (Dillon Freasier), his son.
What makes Plainview different from the suits at Standard Oil? He offers to drill on time and to deliver results.
A strange, intelligent young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) shows up in Plainview’s office and asks for money in return for information about land where the oil is seeping through the ground. Plainview tries to outsmart Paul who says he wants the money for his church. Plainview and H.W. go to check out the land and find the oil. Then they encounter Eli (Paul Dano) who humiliates his father and manages to get more money from Plainview that his father – for his church of the Third Revelation.
Now the die is cast forthis primal struggle between two men dominated by raw ambition and arrogance, greed and lust for power to play out against the landscape of the beginnings of the American oil industry, bubbling crude, black gold and fundamentalist American religion. What makes this story, based on the Upton Sinclair novel, “Oil”, so chilling is that through two extraordinary performances, the film shows that neither greed not pride under any guise, or individualism no matter how rugged, or any sacrifice, no matter how religious, can offer existential meaning or the freedom that was the promise of America in the first place.
Daniel Day-Lewis is remarkable as the oilman; his performance a tour-de-force. Paul Plano who seems to play twin brothers (but is he?), is an astounding match for the older man. They both play men who get life and the American dream all wrong, with tragic, meaningless, violent results. Humiliation is just one of the weapons they use against the other. This is a gripping moral tale that reminded me of how I felt after I watched The Fountainhead with Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper, based on the book by the objectivist Ayn Rand: sad and warned at what can happen when a person chooses self over others, over and over and over again – to step on others, to anihilate them, to get what they want. In the words of Plainview, who has a clear vision of what he wants, but not what he gets, says as an echo of the redemption that eludes him because of his own choices, “It is finished.”
A comparison between Rand and Sinclair’s view of America deserves further examination.
What is particularly interesting is how relevant and timeless this tale is. Also, it is white men in a white man’s world; only one woman has even a remotely significant role and shows the one time Plainview seems to show good, but even then, his motives always seem to serve his own wants and perhaps his desperate need for love.
The absence of love, of altruism, in the story matches the stark landscape – an outward manifestation of the interior realities of the two main characters.
It should come as no surprise if Lewis is nominated for and wins an Oscar for best actor, and Plano for best supporting actor. In some ways this was like watching a two-man play; all the other actors, including Ciaran Hinds as Plainview’s assistant, are almost superfluous. Someone said that Day-Lewis is an actor’s actor. Here, he certainly proves he has the power to blow away the competition, as he did with the Golden Globes a couple of weeks ago.
The direction and writing by Paul Thomas Anderson, the sound, cinematography, editing; this film has all it takes to make a clean sweep at Oscar time. But it’s a strong year and the field populated by excellent films and talent, so we shall see.
The film lasts for about 160 minutes, but I never looked at my watch. This is a film lover’s film.