Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Company: Paramount Vantage / Miramax Films
Runtime: 158 minutes
The movie starts with Daniel Plainview, a man looking for minerals. On his way digging down, he finds oil and starts a small drilling company. He meets Paul Sunday and starts to negotiate with him about a piece of land that he owns that he can bargain for.
Arriving at the place, he meets Paul’s twin brother Eli, a pastor in the church located in the vicinity. He increases the amount of the land to Daniel to fund projects for the church. Eli’s father interferes, and he was able to buy the land in a bargain.
He establishes a bigger company, hiring people nearby to give them jobs. Eli uses Daniel to further propagate his teachings. But things weren’t that good for Daniel and for the employees. There was an accident involving an employee, and the oil rig explodes and was on fire, bringing Daniel’s boy H.W. loss of hearing.
A man named Henry visits Daniel and claims that he is Daniel’s half-brother. Due to his non-acceptance to the new visitor, H.W. was sent by Daniel to San Francisco. As it turns out, the man is actually not Henry. After this, Daniel joins Eli’s church.
Years after, H.W. comes back to him to fix their relationship. Daniel , now a drunkard but still wealthy, admits that H.W. is not his son. Eli comes back, and Daniel goes with a roller-coaster ride of emotions that will ultimately lead to Eli’s death.
I have to say that I have respect in this film. And I am saying this because it is actually very accomplished. But it also has big holes that distracts my full respect for this.
The direction is somewhat good and intelligent, but most of the times, undecided and lazy.
The good things first: there are scenes in this film that are so well-handled and could compete as the year’s best directed scenes.
The death of the employee as he digs in the pond of oil down below is excruciating to watch because of the brutality, but its unflinching handling of the situation is somewhat fantastic. There is an overwhelming tension in that scene that is already unbearable even if the death didn’t happen yet. It keeps you on the edge of your seat in that specific scene. It’s that intensity on the hold of the direction that makes this specific scene a well-directed scene.
Another one is the explosion of the oil rig. Definitely one of the best scenes ever filmed. It has a startling quality in its entirety – from the shaking rig to the fall of it after it burned. The direction captures the whole ‘being in there’ feeling. And it grabs the essence of the scene and underlines it in its whole length – it wasn’t the grandiose production or the polished technicality of the scene that makes it important. It was the effect of it in the whole movie. It was not the destruction of the rig that makes it important. It is the loss in Daniel’s side that makes it a shocking scene.
And here are the bad things: a lot of the other scenes , even if still intelligent, are definitely lifeless. Many of the conversation scenes – Daniel’s conversation to the Sunday family, Daniel’s talk with Henry about his real identity, Daniel and H.W. in the restaurant, among others – these are well-shot scenes. It has a very good screenplay, but the direction is just a mess. It was never cohesive and the whole thing just turns pointless. Too sad that the weakest point of the film is actually the most important. With poor pacing and unwise decisions, the direction of the movie gives the film its biggest letdown.
The screenplay is well-written. We need not care much about the other characters, as they only help to move the story forward, but let us focus on Daniel Plainview.
I like the fact that Plainview is multifaceted. People call sometimes call Plainview a “psychopathic killer” or a “psychotic”, that’s why I am quite surprised when I watched it for the first time. True, there is something going on in his mind that is stated very well in his lines, but it is not simply some murderous or threatening lines you would usually hear with a character normally called as “psychopathic.” He has murderous capacity, that’s for sure, but is not the character’s biggest “thing.”
He has a life, and he cares for it. We could say that he loves oil more than his life. He cares for H.W. more than himself. Maybe not. The screenplay establishes all of the possible doubts and trust in the character so well that we become involved with him. He’s the only driving force of the film, because without Plainview, the film wouldn’t have succeeded. The screenplay gave him depth, which is why we care for this unsympathetic man so much. In his love for oil and, impliedly, money, he becomes selfish. But why do we care so much for him? Of course, Daniel Day-Lewis had given a great performance, but it is also because of the richly textured character.
And also, it was actually smart to start the film with no dialogue. So, the writing is far better than direction. Now, I said it.
The cinematography is terrific. It has the picturesque landscapes and some shadings of white in it, but everything looks sinister. The overwhelming black blending with a little amount of white made it all work. In every shot, there is a mystery, like everything is dangerous. It’s as if this massive hell of a movie is still confined in Plainview’s eyes, and I really like it because it becomes more of a personal journey for Daniel rather than just a showcase of sweeping shots.
The editing is okay. Some scenes edited with such veracity and artistry, like the above mentioned scene about the oil rig. Still, there are some scenes that the editing could have worked for the better. Some scenes are definitely overlong and needs some trimming, but still, it was good.
The sound is actually good. Sometimes, too clear for me to hear things I should not hear, but still fine.
The musical score makes an interesting case. I acknowledge the courage showed in the music. It was definitely non-traditionalist, and I appreciate the effort. But that doesn’t mean that I liked it. I respect it, but I thought that it actually distracted my focus in some scenes. There are also scenes where it worked, but as a whole, I would really have another music score for this film.
The costume design is also good. We see a lot of people in oil. But we also get to see some nice, but not noteworthy dresses there.
In contrast to that, the production design leaves a mark. No explanation needed with that. It’s just one piece of fine work. The oil rigs themselves are pretty impressive. Indoor scenes create a sense of paranoia, suffocation, and claustrophobia in it. In the case of the bowling lane in the end, it’s like “there is no way out there.” And when you have a character like Daniel Plainview, a psychological ticking clock, it terrifies you. And the whole place feels like it is Plainview – dark and sinister, maybe light at sight, but disturbing and dangerous.
The acting is, well… it could be narrowed down to Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano.
Paul Dano is good. He plays two characters here, and unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to draw the line between them. He plays twin brothers Eli and Paul with such similarity and monotony that I actually got confused who is who. On my first viewing of the film, I never actually thought that there is a twin thing. I thought it was just Eli all the way. Maybe it’s the screenplay’s fault of not giving any contrast to the two, but he had the chance to create two different characters. That’s my only criticism on his performance. The rest is really something.
His subtler moments actually are good. He gets to solidify Eli’s presence as the sort of conscience to Daniel in the scenes of quiet tone. Even in the ending, his restrain is actually beautifully done. And there are the loud moments, which are for me, the ones that made me believe Paul Dano can do great acting. His scenes at the church look liked Oscar-begging, but it’s so realistic.
On the other hand, Daniel Day Lewis’ performance turns into a dramatic caricature when he gets noisy. His milkshake scene is an Oscar clip right from its start, and I can feel Daniel is acting hiss ass off that scene because it’s so over-the-top. Actually, it worked, but I was looking for subtlety under that. I mean, even if you’re already so noisy, you should still make it grounded to the reality. It’s just so delicious, yet so theatrical and, yes, unnatural. It really is good, but the over-the-top scenes create a deliciously unnatural performance.
But the subtle moments are actually good. It’s a creepy facade, but I can feel the humanity. He looks so tough and somewhat murderous, but whenever something bad happens, he reacts to it discreetly, but we know he’s upset. When he’s being forced to say that he has abandoned his child, it’s somewhat heartbreaking and so real. His pauses in between his shouting of the guilt in him is like an accumulation of stress. He can’t admit that, but he’s forced, and it’s a terrific scene. It’s a mixed performance, but actually, you can just forget the bad part, just wash the memories away, and you get a hard-hitting performance. When you have a powerful performance, you can just forget any flaws.
While it really has a fair share of accomplishments, I just can’t pass the idea that it’s deeply flawed, and, well, distasteful. I don’t know. It really is something, and I understand the praise, but maybe it’s just… not for me.
For this, the movie gets:
What are your thoughts, dear reader?