It is six days since I watched There Will Be Blood and the film is still rumbling restlessly in my head, like an oil well about to explode skywards. This movie is one of the most singular pieces of film-making that I have ever seen. It is unsettling, arresting and at times even rather funny. And a note to the Coen Brothers – Paul Dano’s greasy young preacher is a much more disturbing character than Javier Bardem’s lumbering, taciturn killer in No Country for Old Men. Watching his depiction of a charlatan evangelical exercising power over a small community was rather like chewing tin foil, so viscerally did it manage to set the teeth on edge.
Eli Sunday, Dano’s character, is part of the twin axes on which the film turns. Little Boston, where Daniel Day Lewis’ character Daniel Plainview begins to drill oil, is in the grip of two of America’s chief preoccupations – money and religion. Both the struggle between these powerful motivators and the grubby accommodations which they reach form a theme of the film which climaxes in a spectacularly powerful denouement. Without wishing to give the ending away, the climactic scenes in turn fill the cinema goer with amusement, then almost with a vindicated sense of revenge and finally with appalled horror.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s film ranges from the dirt and claustrophobia of mines and the oil industry to the epic expanse of the Californian desert. For the opening 15 minutes there is no dialogue at all. We join Day Lewis hewing an airless hole with a pickaxe and other rudimentary equipment. Daniel Plainview is a silver miner who chances upon oil and ruthlessly, obsessively converts this discovery into a fortune and an empire. He adopts a dead colleague’s son, HW, and his relationship with the boy as his father is at once loving and deeply exploitative.
Despite his growing wealth Plainview remains an isolated figure throughout the movie, fuelled by his obsession for oil and a misanthropic disgust for the rest of humanity. His moments of doubt and humanity are manfully overcome through force of ambition and hatred. A relationship Plainview establishes with a man purporting to be his long-lost brother comes to an abrupt end and the moments of guilt and affection inspired by his son are instructive, but ultimately short-lived, moments of weakness. But Day Lewis’ character is nevertheless compelling. He is equipped with a remarkable stentorian drawl and a hunched urgent walk.
The voice he deploys in persuading investors to support his ventures and in acquiring the assent and property of small communities in order to drill for oil on their land. Little Boston is one such community and its heart is a curious church presided over by Eli Sunday with his exuberant performances of casting out devils. Plainview has to reach a reluctant arrangement with Sunday in order to continue to exploit the large oil reserves lying underneath Little Boston. There are a number of extraordinary confrontations between the two men throughout the film.
Meanwhile an accident caused by successfully striking the oil deafens Plainview’s adoptive son HW and the oilman’s response to this misfortune provides another dynamic for the film. At no point is Plainview entirely unaware or oblivious to his son or his injury, but his fixation with oil is a much more potent preoccupation. This is a subtle approach to the relationship and allows some possibility of redemption for Plainview throughout most of the film. It is this type of ambivalence which I believe makes this film so much more compelling than No Country for Old Men.
To compelling characters are wedded thoughtfully expounded themes. The relationships between oil, religion and money I have already touched upon. These are threads which connect early 20th century America with the contemporary country and indeed with world geo-politics. Of course the film is exploring the origins of an industry which many would contend is fuelling both literally and metaphorically the present war in Iraq. Anderson will have been aware of the allegorical significances which could be attributed to his movie.
But the film is much more subtle and complicated than a mere morality fable about the corrupting influence of oil and money. It is drilling into much more profound and elemental territory concerning the fabric of the world we live in and the people who live within it. This is startling, dark and lapel-grabbing stuff. CW is correct in his assessment on The Dreaming Arm that the meaning of this film is confusing and elusive. But unlike No Country for Old Men, to which the film has stood comparison, this is not because there is a moral and philosphical vacuum at the heart of the film – but because there is so much going on. This film will repay close and repeated viewings. I understand it to no greater a degree than CW, but I am bound to say that nevertheless I loved it.