Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s visceral oil epic evokes the ruthless legacy of mavericks such as Howard Hughes. It dwells on a patch of the early American century — the boom days of Standard Oil — in which men worshipped what William James in 1906 called “the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” From it arose “moral flabbiness.”Anderson traces the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a self-styled “oil man” who begins prospecting in turn-of-the-century New Mexico.
Plainview, infected by commerce’s shrewdness, is a dissonant product of the frontier kiln He’s a huckster and a genius who uses his fresh-faced young son H.W. as a PR tool. “I have a competition in me,” he murmurs. Competition is too tender a word. Plainview secures oil-rich California tracts by conning shady evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). When “beloved” H.W. is deafened by a rig explosion, the elder Plainfield trundles him off to San Francisco. “I have built up my hatreds over the years,” he tells his estranged half-brother (Kevin O’Connor) before the story curves further into the abyss. It’s three decades of hard-knocks Americana, quiet rage kindled by greed, painted on a vast canvass that Day-Lewis lords over with cruel and churning incessancy. Metaphors don’t relent: Oil derricks explode like hell-fires.
Ultimately, though, the movie is about the price of success and the willingness to yield whole to the bitch goddess’ irresistible temptations. Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil” (a muckraking anti-tycoon tale) kick-started Anderson — maker of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” — into trying, perhaps too hard, to make the great American movie. But it is Lewis, refining and extending his “Gangs of New York” role, who brings home Plainfield, an insecure ruffian whose insatiable vanity matures into isolation and folly. It is an exceptional, slow-to-unfold portrait of a man, and a time of man.