Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier
“I have a competition in me,” Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) says. “I want no one else to succeed.” He’s speaking to his brother, Henry (who, it will turn it, is neither his brother nor a Henry), a man he’s only met earlier that day. With only some bare confirmations of identification, he accepts Henry’s story; they are half-brothers, both from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. In the first scene with Henry, it’s late afternoon; in the second, where Daniel reveals his “competition,” it’s very, very dark. There’s something almost bawdy about Daniel’s smile in this second scene, one that takes place at night and lit with red flame like one only hears about in poetry. Daniel seems to be totally indifferent to women, hates virtually all men, but he is very much interested in liquor. For him a bacchanalia is a private affair devoid of sex but full of surprising intimacy, and he engages in one here for the first time.
Daniel has been waiting for this moment, but that can only be clear to the viewer; Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) may well think that this is what Daniel’s like much of the time, although future engagements will certainly prove that hypothesis incorrect. We get to see this strange confession, the ambition and competitiveness that has poisoned and sustained his entire life. It’s that competition which forced him out of a hole in the ground despite a broken leg; in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis’ Bill Cutting describes that force as a “rage” which is synonymous with life itself. The confession itself is no less interesting, because it provides terms for what kind of company Daniel wants. If he could find, drill, transport, and sell oil without anyone else being involved, he would do it that way, and it would be because he is a sociopath, not a perfectionist. In these two scenes, and in a few that follow, it becomes clear that Daniel is a little bit lonely. He is looking for company, an audience, but one that is a part of himself too. His son, H.W. (Freasier) did fine for a while, although H.W. was never his biological son. But then H.W. was deafened by a blowout on the Little Boston derrick, and Daniel started to see him as an anchor around his neck. Henry arrives and gives Daniel an idiosyncratic opening to relate to himself in another person. It’s not really surprising that when Daniel figures out that Henry isn’t who he says he is, he kills him.
Anderson and Robert Elswit (who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for this film) know that in their grizzled actors they have the fodder for a thousand close-ups. There are scenes where you can count the points of stubble on O’Connor’s face, or plot the slope of Day-Lewis’ crooked nose on a graph. The land is beautiful in the way that some of Andrew Wyeth’s starker paintings are beautiful: you still wouldn’t want to live there. And for the shots of the land, often at a distance which makes clear the hardscrabble desolation of the region, there are shots which view the characters as landscapes themselves. I’m particularly fond of scenes with the Bandys, who are fiercely independent and belong to the cultish, faith-healing, exciting Church of the Third Revelation. Both of them have faces that could be represented on contour maps; the younger is covered in acne, and the older is wrinkly and thoroughly aged. Even little girls seem preternaturally old; Mary, H.W.’s future wife, has distinctive bags under her eyes. Comparatively speaking, the youngest looking person in Little Boston is probably Eli Sunday (Dano).
Eli’s first appearance in the film is shocking. Like most new characters (Abel Sunday, Henry, Tilford) he’s introduced from a distance first. The difference with Eli is that we’ve already seen someone who looks very much like him: his twin brother, Paul. Paul alerts Daniel to the presence of oil in Little Boston, gets paid, and gets out of Dodge. When Eli appears, Daniel mirrors our own confusion. Is it possible that “Paul” came to Daniel with a false name and got money out of him first, then returned home? This is an accident in casting – Eli was supposed to be played by someone not much older than Freasier – but it’s a remarkable one. What we lose in the spectacle of a boy preacher we gain in the strangeness of the Sunday twins, but also in the abandon of Dano’s acting. While Day-Lewis obliterated the awards circuit for his portrayal of Daniel, Dano was less recognized. (He would have lost Supporting Actor to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men that year anyway, but performances like Hal Holbrook’s in Into the Wild or Tom Wilkinson’s in Michael Clayton proved that there was at least one country for old men: at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.) Dano’s performance here is a clear breakout role, one which shows cunning and naivete in Eli. He’s smart enough to know that Daniel is offering too little for the ranch, given the oil that’s around, but he isn’t smart enough to bring in competition for the property. He’s smart enough to know that Daniel, once he’s bought thousands of acres of land, is the big cheese. He tries to insert himself repeatedly into the power structure of the area by receiving Daniel’s favor, even trying to get Daniel to introduce him to the assembled folks on the first day of drilling as “a proud son of these hills.” He isn’t smart enough to realize that Daniel is not bound to this plan, and in fact Daniel uses the phrase “proud daughter of these hills” to highlight Mary Sunday instead. He is smart enough to extract a promise of $5,000 for the Church of the Third Revelation from Daniel, but isn’t smart enough to realize that Daniel will never pay it, and definitely isn’t smart enough not to question Daniel about it. (That ends with Daniel rolling Eli around in a pit of mud and oil.) In a boy, this would be merely inexperience; in Eli, who is meant to be at least seventeen or eighteen, this is the sign of a developing delusion of grandeur. Compared to Daniel, who is the Scion of Capitalism, mere inexperience isn’t dramatic enough to pass muster for a rival.
As often as Daniel strikes Eli down, it appears that Eli will get the last laugh. We’ve seen Eli drive the devil out of a woman before during a church service (she’s a nice old lady with arthritis), and so we know what the performance looks like. Daniel is coerced by Bandy (who knows that Daniel has killed someone) into being baptized by Eli. Eli decides to take that opportunity to humiliate Daniel, and to some extent he’s pretty successful. Daniel, without any way to back out of the baptism, has to go ahead and repeat what Eli tells him to do. Most powerfully, Eli forces Daniel to admit in front of the congregation that he has abandoned his child after H.W. is deafened. It’s a scene which contains toothsome nuance. Eli is either enraptured by the Holy Spirit, or he is totally himself and recognizes that he has a golden opportunity to literally smack the devil out of Daniel’s face. Daniel either comes to recognize the full impact of what he’s done to H.W., who is a defenseless boy put on a train by himself not knowing his destination, or he bellows “I’ve abandoned my child!” over and over again in one of the loudest fits of passive-aggression ever recorded. Eli’s face is mostly hidden during this sequence, facing away from the audience or too far from the receding camera to be seen easily. It’s Daniel’s that we focus on, reddening and slackening as necessary. At the beginning of the scene he is as neat as we’ve seen him in any part of the movie; by the end, of course, he is blustering and flushed and wet and disheveled. It certainly seems like Eli gets the last laugh, or at least it does until Daniel beats him to death with a bowling pin sixteen years later.
That nuance is present in most of our interactions with Daniel, though admittedly the stakes aren’t quite as high. Think of his presentation to a group of people who are interested in him as the man for the oil job. He provides a strong list of qualifications, and they are qualifications which are borne out, in some way or other, in the film. “I believe in plain speaking,” he tells them. “If I say I am an oilman, you will agree.” His tone is relatively convincing, and he looks to be a fairly straightforward 1910s businessman on his way up. It’s much the same when he gives his spiel to the Little Boston folks, but with some additional touches for Day-Lewis and a marvelous montage from Anderson. His workers bring their families with them, Daniel says; the workers are depicted coming out of their tents with no sign of a child or dog or wife. That means education follows, and a school will be built; the derrick goes up and never once do we see a schoolhouse or teacher for a common child. Daniel has the rare discomfiting gift of telling the truth and appearing totally untrustworthy, or alternately telling a lie while sounding credible; Day-Lewis can and does act that without the winking that other actors (cough Bradley Cooper cough) appear to be addicted to. Daniel Plainview should be a monster, a villain, a rogue and a blackguard. He is wickedness itself. “I have a competition in me,” says the ultra-capitalist, a line that Bill Gates or a Walton probably found themselves nodding with in the theater. “I want no one else to succeed,” and he means it. It is not merely enough for him to hope that others will fail; eventually he makes inroads to ensure that a competitor’s plan will fall through.
The ending is admittedly a touch odd, and your opinion on it is probably the differentiating factor between “one of the three or four best films of 2007” and “best American film of the 21st Century.” I’ve alluded to it already: in the late ’20s Eli is desperate for money and visits Daniel in the hopes that he can leverage the oil from the Bandy tract (which was never officially bought up by Daniel in the ’10s) into a business deal to help him out. Of course, Daniel says. What are old friends for? Just go on and say, “I am a false prophet and God is a superstition,” and we can start drilling immediately. Eli is hesitant, but he does it with a list of qualifiers. But Daniel is unsatisfied, just the way that Eli was unsatisfied with Daniel’s confessions “before God” fifteen years earlier. Eli has to repeat himself over and over again, in different tones and volumes and levels of theatrics, and then Daniel drops the bomb; whatever oil is underneath the Bandy tract has been taken already due to drainage. There’s nothing to get at. The blasphemy, the self-abasement, the cowardice: it was for nothing. It is a perfect Plainview strike, one which aims to cut down the opponent at the knees, a cold fusion bombing. This is the first half of Daniel, the ruthless businessman whose strategy is total domination.
The second half is itself dominated, although not necessarily to Daniel’s detriment; Daniel is an alcoholic in the ’20s, and in the ’10s, and probably before that as well. It’s a subtle element of the movie, and it accelerates after the great leap into the future. Daniel has always had a problem with alcohol, and late in the 1911 section of the film, Daniel is at once embarrassing and still has the capacity to embarrass others. At a restaurant, after some time with shots of whiskey, Daniel is overtly affectionate with H.W., throws a napkin over his head and yells about what an idiot Tilford is for failing to do a deal with him. He isn’t satisfied; there wasn’t enough of a response from the next table over. He decides he has to go over there to Tilford’s table and gloat, which he does, drunkenly and shamelessly. He finishes with a power move which is, of course, the symptom of his weakness: he picks up another man’s shot and downs it. It is in this frame of mind that Daniel strikes at Eli in the last scene of the film, where he famously proclaims that he drinks Eli’s milkshake before, yes, chasing him around the private bowling alley and killing the would-be prophet.
Whatever one hopes from the ending, it’s hard to imagine a different one. Is Daniel going to be redeemed after all this time? Is he going to have an epiphany? Is he going to feel his loneliness? The film has eliminated all of these possibilities, and good riddance to bad rubbish. Daniel enters the film as a force of nature and only builds in strength. Fueled by alcohol and decades of bitterness, with all barriers of on-site control and friendship done away with it, only an ending which exacerbates his evil can be satisfying. And this one, as cartoonish as it is, surrounded by blood and a corpse and bowling pins and a hastily eaten meal, punctuated with the Mobius strip pun of “I’m finished,” matches the man, too worn down and soused to even get up again. Justice would just bounce off of Daniel Plainview, but at least there’s a chance for cosmic irony.