Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano. Rated PG. Opens Friday, January 11, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
After a number of opéra bouffe runs at social satire—Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and Magnolia—iconoclastic auteur Paul Thomas Anderson here turns in a masterpiece of gothic minimalism, set in a distant past that clearly informs our poisoned present.
Oil is the essence of this toxification. It pumps through the veins of a Texas prospector played in a landmark performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Daniel Plainview starts out looking for silver, as we see in a stunning, almost wordless sequence that displays the brutal architecture of mining in the 1890s. What begins in dust, however, turns to black gold as Plainview hits gushers, eventually turning his eyes to the untapped reserves of the California coast.
One agent of this change is Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), a mysterious young man who directs him to a particular property out west. Heading there with his young ward, H. W. (offbeat Dillon Freasier)—the closest thing to a human connection he has on Earth—he meets, and swindles, the pious Sunday family.
The clan also contains Paul’s identical twin, would-be preacher Eli (Dano again), who sees an opportunity to build his own evangelical following. The rest of the tale, very loosely adapted by Anderson from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, pits Plainview’s soul-dead mercantilism against Eli’s theatrical self-promotion.
Just as Plainview’s fundamentalist counterpart has an enigmatic brother, a weak sibling (Kevin J. O’Connor) to the oil man himself makes a cryptic arrival. He asks for little but offers the boss a distant, fleeting glimpse of family life.
The latter part of the film, elegantly if bleakly shot in widescreen by Anderson regular Robert Elswit, underlines connections with Citizen Kane, especially as the aging Daniel slips into alcoholic decadence.
However, the film’s downbeat denouement is slightly unsatisfying, as a final confrontation between our antihero and Eli plays like mere symbolism after the concrete and strikingly event-filled happenings of the previous two hours–plus. But a perfect finish would have been hard to find for an epic you really don’t want to end.