Paul Thomas Anderson's epic fable of the war between the base and the spiritual, loosely derived from Upton Sinclair's 1927 Oil!, is ambitious, deeply flawed and studded with sequences that achieve pure, majestic greatness.
California, 1898: Alone in the vast, unforgiving desert and to the keening of Jonny Greenwood's horror-movie score, prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) works his hand-dug mine by day and sleeps in a small tent that barely provides shelter from the harsh nights. When an accident shatters one leg immediately after he finally finds silver, Plainview hauls himself to the nearest town, inch by torturous inch, to stake his claim. By 1902, Plainview has struck oil and acquired an infant, and by 1912 when oil has been discovered all over the 31st state, tempting poor landowners with visions of easy money he's made his name as a first-class oilman. He's not a contractor a craven intermediary who outsources the highly skilled work of drilling and rigging to fly-by night workers but a plain-spoken oilman who stands by his work and his crew. He even brings along his 10-year-old son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). But whatever success Plainview achieves bringing in other people's wells, real success eludes him: He won't be able to compete with corporations like Standard Oil unless he can find his own stake. Enter baby-faced farm boy Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who sells Plainview the information that there's oil beneath his family's rocky spread near hardscrabble Little Boston. Plainview snaps up the Sunday land over the objections of Paul's pious twin, Eli (also Dano), and begins empire-building in earnest. Eli, meanwhile, establishes the charismatic Church of the Third Revelation, itself an empire in the making, and the stage is set for a lifelong enmity that warps both men's lives.
Where Sinclair's novel is a sprawling mix of politics, class consciousness, social satire and family dysfunction for all Sinclair's muckraking credentials, it often reads more like an Edna Ferber novel than The Jungle Anderson's film is a stripped-down morality tale that delivers what the title promises. Lewis' performance is equal parts searing greatness and bombast, while Dano's quieter turn as Paul/Eli since Paul vanishes from the narrative early and never returns, it's not definitively clear whether they're actually twins or whether Eli is playing some sinister head game is less flashy but insidiously effective. The long, wordless opening sequence is a tour de force, and there's brilliance throughout, but the excesses of the operatic finale seem forced when compared to much of what comes before. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh