Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) is an ambitious oil man. He’s spent his adult life out in the desert risking his life to dig mines and pump oil from the ground. With his young son and partner, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) he gets a tip from young man Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about a place called Little Boston full of oil . Daniel and H.W. venture out there claiming to hunt for quails and try to get on good terms with the Sunday family, who own a sizable ranch. Paul’s tip proves accurate; oil just seeps from the ground. So Daniel offers to buy the ranch from the Sundays with no mention of oil, hoping to get a cheap price (i.e. swindle the poor family off their oil goldmine). But Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also Dano) knows about the oil and ups the price, wanting to put it toward his church. Daniel sees that Eli is going to be quite the obstacle.
So tables start turning in Little Boston go create the oil well. At the opening ceremony, Eli wants to give the well a proper (and public) blessing, but Daniel just kinda glosses over that. When tragedy strikes, Eli turns it against Daniel and says it could have been avoided with his simple blessing.
The middle of the film just kinda drags for a while. It’s the setup, the tragedy and the end that act as the meat. That middle bit with the brother helps us expand Daniel’s character a bit, but feels like a limp leaf of lettuce on an otherwise delicious sandwich.
The soundtrack is composed mostly of a string quartet to add their input on the overall unhappy mood. They play very long violin chords that just kinda hang and hum in and out of pitch. Then as a more action arises they play something a little more plucky. The whole feel is very simple and nothing in the film that needs a sweeping orchestra.
The film is very visual, no words spoken for nearly the first twenties minutes. First, we must see process of finding oil, watch the hard labor, the bodies in motion, the rickety rigs, the black glistening goop being brought up in buckets. Only then can we appreciate the voices that come later and truly understand the oil spewing from the earth, into the sky and raining back down.
One of the best scenes is when the oil well explodes or gushes, I’m not sure what the technical term is. Anyway, the music starts like a very subtle Jaws theme and suddenly a rope shakes out of control and H.W. thrown about twenty feet backwards. Oil spews up to the sky and rains down. The music turns to a racing heartbeat of percussion as Daniel runs with H.W. When the spraying oil goes up in flames, the camera moves across field running with the men running to the burning well. The inferno burns into the night, beautiful and terrifying. Or perhaps it isn’t night, there’s blue sky, a red glow from fire and the frame nearly outlined in black smoke. There’s something eerie and less human about oil covered faces glowing in light of the flames and silhouettes against the fire. If you want to see why this won cinematography, this scene says it all.
Don’t beat me with your bibles, but in this film, religion is used as a tool to get ahead. It gives Eli power and authority in his community and later in the film it gives Daniel a second chance to be accepted and trusted by the community he once wronged. That’s just how it is here: plain, simple and bleak.
Hang in there though, the ending is worth the wait and finally fulfills the title.