In a pivotal moment, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) turns away from his only child, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), emotionally abandoning the boy, who deafened by an accident at his father’s oilrig, has now become a burden.
Plainview’s heartless response, like a telltale scab on a leper, leaves little doubt that his soul has been corrupted.
It’s never quite clear what role Plainfield’s spiritual malignancy plays in calling down these and other unanticipated tragedies upon his ventures, but a connection suggests itself in this beautifully crafted and ultimately haunting offering from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson.
The frightful and disturbed character that over time reveals itself through the person of Plainview avoids repugnance by virtue of its very gradual emergence, a controlled release by Oscar winner Day-Lewis.
We first meet the protagonist alone in the desert, mining for silver at the turn of century. Working in a vertical shaft, under a makeshift apparatus, the scene makes clear his quest is a dangerous one.
A mishap sends him down the hole, breaking his leg. But the discovery of a rock fragment by his head tells him he has found what he was looking for, his excitement eclipsing the pain.
His arduous crawl out of the mine and trip to the assay office where he lays prostrate, unable to stand, cements the element of self-reliance. The act of imposing his will, even on himself, proves intoxicating, foreshadowing the path that will define his life.
Acting on information concerning undiscovered oil fields, the now somewhat successful miner takes his young son (the mother died in childbirth) and travels to the reputed promise land, calculating a return on investment that outdistances anything he could imagine.
Setting up operation, the future oil tycoon shows small deference to the way of life among the surrounding hardscrabble community of Little Boston. There exists little to stand in his way except for the young baby-faced pastor of a holy-roller church, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).
As the self-appointed leader of the community, Sunday finds excitement in challenging what he views as Plainview’s unopposed, legalized pillage of the community’s resources.
During these captivating confrontations—subtle and cunning psychological warfare—the religious man proves a worthy adversary.
Anderson’s screenplay adaptation comes from writer Upton Sinclair’s “Oil”. Sinclair’s greater body of work, published in the early 1900s, took to task the business practices and the excesses of capitalism. It has been argued that his critics focused too much on his politics and not enough on the complexity of his characters. That’s certainly not the case here.
Something far deeper than greed consumes Plainview. That it remains somewhat a mystery only enriches this most courageous work.
Productions with this intensity and character seldom make it into wide release, more often relegated to an art-house status. That it has transcended the usual stigma associated with works of depth and complexity speaks volumes, even more than the awards and nominations it has already gathered.