Running Time: 158 min
Rated: Rated M (Moderate Violence and Themes)
This film is advertised as a story about family, greed, religion and oil, centered around a turn-of-the- century Texas prospector. Such a description fails to even hint at its power and complexity.
At one level, it is about a ruthless man's rise and fall through absolute greed as he isolates himself from everyone around him in his drive to compete as a successful oil magnate. At another level, the film is about a clash of morality, involving an almost equally driven Evangelical preacher who leads a fervent religious community where the latest oil field has been located. Daniel Day Lewis as the oil magnate, Daniel Plainview, and Paul Dano as the preacher, Eli Sunday, ably battle it out.
It is significant for this movie that both lose and in the loss there is arguably an anti-moral feeling to the movie as a whole. Forced to compromise, Daniel apologizes publicly to the religious community for deserting his adopted son but the way the apology is depicted makes it clear that the conversion is used deliberately for the sake of vengeance by Eli. Later, Daniel wreaks his vengeance by humiliating Eli by forcing him to deny his faith in a replay that mirrors how Eli manipulated him in the past. Salvation of any kind in this movie is deeply problematic. We have moral corruption of one kind in Daniel, and eventual moral degradation of another kind in Eli. The resolution where Eli loses his life to Daniel in a graphic and violent final scene offers searing political comment on the state of American Society, consumed by addiction to materialism. This is a movie where so-called salvation of greed, fanaticism and hypocrisy is given a powerful but an unrelenting and one-sided look.
Based on a novel by Upton Sinclair called "Oil!", the film is marvellous to look at and to listen to. Paul Anderson's direction is tight and assured, and the film is magnificently photographed by Robert Elswit. It is hard to forget the opening scenes at the mine where the grimyness and risks of shaft-life are brought vividly to life through superb photography, editing and control. There is always enormous tension that surrounds survival on this film's mine sites, and not a word is spoken for some 20 minutes at the beginning of the movie until the wail of a baby breaks the silence. A powerful contemporary and classical musical score is used to starkly contrast environment and action.
The acting on all fronts is virtually without fault. And scenes shot in California and of Texan landscape are almost surreal in their vast sweep and isolation, sharing much in common with the brilliance of the recent Coen Brothers' movie, "No Country for Old Men." Rarely has mining and all its accompanying tragedies been more compellingly portrayed.
For Daniel, there is the saving light of his affection for a boy H.W. (played by Dillon Freasier), who is taken-in by Daniel after the mine accident in the film's opening scenes and shamelessly exploited by him to help create respectability and manipulate his financial access to the oil fields. When the boy is rendered deaf in another mine accident, Daniel turns him away because he is no longer useful.
The closing scenes of the movie of fluctuating hate and affection between Daniel and the grown boy are riveting and heart-rendering. There is affection there, but if the bond is enduring it struggles to show itself and it is a sign that the character of Daniel Plainview is never really explained. What made this man as awful and vicious as he is? Why was he so morally corrupt? We never really come to know.
The film has been dedicated to Robert Altman. Altman would be honoured by the power of the movie, though Altman's films generally deal more humanely with the foibles and inconsistencies of life. But something that Altman and Anderson share in common is the ability to produce layers of meaning and complexity in their movies, layers in this film that go to the multiple meanings - sacred, religious and profane - that are necessary to explain the deliberate subtlety of the movie's title.
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Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.