The film opens with a visceral, nearly dialogue-free fifteen minutes that shows the arduous labor and dangers attendant upon wildcatting for oil in the late 19th century, yet even here we have a sense that there is something askew in Plainview’s drive for success, something false about his forthright manner and his displays of affection toward his infant son, H.W. We then jump forward thirteen years to 1911, to a point at which Plainview, accompanied by H.W. (Dillon Freasier), travels to New Boston, a settlement in the California desert, where he bilks the locals of their land and begins drilling the field that will make him wealthy. The drilling is dangerous. Accidents occur, people die, and H.W. is injured in a well explosion, losing his hearing as a result. Caring for a deaf child doesn’t suit Plainview’s style, and what he does to solve this problem is our first clear indication of the depth of the man’s iniquity.
During this long middle section, Anderson peels and picks away at the layers of Plainview’s personality, gradually exposing the sociopath beneath. “I hate most people,” he says at one point. “I want to earn enough money so I can get away from everyone.” But Plainview is more than a mere misanthrope, and he proves this by his casually malefic actions toward the people of New Boston, among whose number he finds his great enemy, the teenage evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), eldest son of one of the bilked families, a boy every bit as manipulative and false as Plainview himself. By slighting Eli, Plainview guarantees a vendetta and, eventually, Eli humiliates him publicly and coerces him to accept Christ and be baptized by means of withholding a vital lease that would allow him to build a pipeline to the Pacific. Into this situation comes a derelict (Kevin J. O’Connor) claiming to be Plainview’s brother--he tells him that their mother is dead. Grudgingly, Plainview takes him in and before long confides in him his true feelings about mankind. When he learns the man is not his brother, he is quick to exact his revenge. The movie’s final half-hour takes place in 1927, when Plainview, his goal of solitary wealth achieved, mad as a fly and living alone except for a manservant, is visited at his estate first by H.W. and then by Eli, events which build to the pictures’ stunning climax.
Robert Elswit’s camera lingers over the ramshackle buildings and scarred landscapes of the film, lending them a parched beauty, and the symphonic score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenway, effectively deepens the picture’s moods. The performances are uniformly strong, notably Kevin J. O’Conner’s pitiable conman and Paul Dano, who brings a combination of canniness and hysterical energy to the role of Eli. But it’s Daniel Day-Lewis’ embodiment of Plainview that commands the film. Delivering Anderson’s lines in an orotund tone that brings to mind John Huston’s evil tycoon in Chinatown, he projects an almost demonic presence that grows more pronounced throughout the two-and-a-half hours, and yet he appears, during the movie’s last scene, to collapse back into human form. I have no idea how he pulled off these extreme transformations, but I’m certain I witnessed the purest alchemy of an actor’s art. I watched the movie at a Writer’s Guild screening in New York. Usually after these gatherings the talk is of the screenplay, and there was some of that, for sure, with people remarking on the quality and precision of the dialogue; but the lion’s share of the conversation related to Day-Lewis’s performance. It takes a hell of an actor to make a roomful of writers give primacy to a performance over the written word. Daniel Day-Lewis proves in this film, if he has not done so before, that he is one hell of an actor.