– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Silence, for a moment – before a great, black liquid jet seems to burst forth from the ground, like a blood vessel being nicked, here and there mixed with small bits of flame and smoke. It pitters down in droplets onto the men below. The one over to the side is laughing, and clasping hands – they’re rich. He’s rich.
Paul Thomas Anderson has an unfortunate name – always with the constant risk of being confused with that English schlock-meister with the same surname. Yet, it’s a minor confusion – where the latter seemed to take all of his inspiration from Roger Corman and co., P.T.A. seems to have aspired to be every great American seventies director at once – and, since 1996’s Hard Eight, his films have shown him to be progressing steadily on his road toward that goal. There is the mark of influence from all of those oft-repeated names throughout his filmography – the Altman’s, the Scorsese’s, the Kubrick’s and so on – and yet, it’s as with all examples of great osmosis: from these, something new has emerged, almost completely and fully formed. His most recent film seems to be a deliberate departure in environment from his earlier films – in contrast to the urbs and the suburbs of a Punch Drunk Love or a Boogie Nights, this is a film that takes place out in the quiet wilderness of Texas in the early 1900’s. It also seems to be his most wide-spanning and “epic,” a character study interspersed through landscapes and textures. Facial hair and redness of the cheeks on grizzled old men that remind one of something from a Sergio Leone film. A lot of people have called this his tribute to Altman, but I disagree – if we’re going to be as mundane as that, then I think this is a film that bares more resemblance to Kubrick than anyone else. But, to discuss his influences in this particular way is pretty superficial, I think – what flavor is the meat on the bones?
The film begins in 1898, in the dark, with a man grinding away at bare rock with a pick-axe. There are grunts of weariness, and sighs of relief – but, no words. Not for the first fifteen minutes. Behind everything, Johnny Greenwood’s almost anxious, unsettlingly focused string-score beings to build to its crescendo – the man has struck silver, down here. For a moment, there is triumph – and, then he falls. And, his leg cracks – this is Daniel Plainview, dirt-stained and wide-eyed. Though he’s unaware of it, he’s just began the long cycle of repetition that winds itself, throughout the film. Of his momentary triumphs, always – always – followed by great disaster, and isolation, and personal degradation. There is no sound for nine years – until 1907, and the first words we hear are “Ladies and gentlemen,” almost a sly wink from Anderson in lieu to his formalist showmanship that’s apparent in all of his films, but especially here. Plainview is a big-time oil-man now, explaining his pitch to a skeptical audience – and, these sequences reiterate what seems to be Anderson’s focus in the film, a lonely, isolated mise-en-scene. Plainview is shot with either his face closed up by the borders of the frame, with the voices of the townspeople filtering in from the outside, or he is joined by H.W. beside him, and that only until the midpoint of the film – when he’s left, Plainview has no one to share the frame with, and that’s when his trouble really starts, I think.
The film’s origin point seems to have been Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, although by the time the finished film has found its way in front of us, very little of the novel’s characters or plot remains – instead, there is the core story here, of the descent into hell of a self-made oil tycoon, something that I’m quite sure Sinclair would be pretty happy with. At the center of the film is, of course, Daniel Plainview – as portrayed by Day-Lewis – now less a toiler than he who we first met at the beginning of the film; an oil-prospector with a John Huston-esque voice that pours rum-thick from the bottom of his throat, with a note to it that seems just a little too insincere for common comfort. Initially, while there is a bit of the cruelty of the businessman about him, especially in the first inklings of his prolonged cat-fight with Eli, he appears relatively restrained – while it’s obvious that he cares not a thing about any of these people, epitomized by his line early on in the film that he “doesn’t need to look past seeing them to get what he needs,” he is at least putting on a face for them, and for his adopted son, H.W., although he’s more sincere and intimate with the latter than the former. Slowly, cracks and fissures begin to form, first through his attack on Eli, and then larger. In one of his only real moments of plain frankness, at one point, he finds himself confessing to his would-be brother during a night in the woods around the fire, that he “has a competition in himself,” and that he “hates most people.” And, one of the great questions about this film, and this character, is – whether or not he begins his long train of descent into the maelstrom after his son’s accident, or whether he’d always been the same kind of monster we see him become later in the film – and, for my part, I think it’s really only with his son that he has any sort of real connection to anybody, and he’s the only child in the film that Plainview seems to see as more than a commodity, although he does serve that function more than once in the course of the film, serving to reiterate the “common values” that Plainview shares with the townspeople. He seems to have a genuine care for the boy, although their relationship seems like less of a nurturing father and a son than a businessman to an apprentice – and, by the end of the film, not even that. This is most obvious in the sequence recounting H.W.’s accident, and the explosion of the derrick – Plainview’s first thought is of the boy, rushing as fast as he can to pull him down, and away from the fire to come.
But, it’s greed that seems to fester and convalesce over Daniel, like a sickness – after sending H.W. away to San Fransisco, he begins to snowball farther and farther downward, losing touch with those around him. He comes upon Eli, who asks for the money he’d promised to his church – and, knocks him down, physically dragging him into the mud, browning his face with sludge. “Well, aren’t you a healer?!” he asks. “When are you coming over to make my son hear again?” He shoves mud in his mouth, and tells him that he’s “going to bury him under ground” – later, he out-and-out murders the impostor claiming to be his brother in the forest and hides his body under the soil. All the while, his small empire gradually begins to build itself – everywhere, in sequences backed by pieces of score that remind one not a little of the sharp, progressive string tones of the 1920’s. It’s when H.W. returns that his seeming regression is placed into stark focus, in the scene at the cafe. Plainview’s chin is covered in two-day old stubble. His face is redder, and ruddier than usual. But, he has his boy back beside him, and for a moment or two there’s a glimpse of humane emotion poking out beneath the cold, slick surface layers. Several of his associates enter the cafe’, and take a seat just opposite him. And, after hearing them mention his name and give him a glance one or twice, he saunters over to their table – his limp that he gathered in the first scene of the film implicitly made more obvious here – and lurches downward, at face level. And, he can’t seem to manage his words – they all come dribbling out like a drink from a man whose drank just a little too much; he’s become a spectacle to the rest of the restaurant’s patrons. “You — look like a ffffffooool,” he manages outward, and that’s the best he can manage.
The John Huston influence on Plainview’s personality, and the film itself, seems well-stated, as well as Edward Doheny, on whom Sinclair’s original novel was based – this is a film that is, among other things, a harsh criticism of capitalism, and its relationship to a particular brand of religious faith, embodied by the holy roller minister, Eli Sunday. Two things that should, ideally, be diametrically opposed, and when brought too close together, seem to infect and entangle themselves in each other’s woes. This is played in many fashions, throughout the film – with Eli’s congregation being placed at one end of the town, and Plainview’s oil offices at the other. Or, one could even see it as a battle between the evangelists of two faiths, if one so chose – that of god and that of Mammon. They seem to recognize in each other something of the same – Eli perking up almost immediately at Plainview’s mention of buying the farm, demanding more than his initial offer, with an eye on one-upping him. After Plainview’s first physical attack on him, he goes even so far as to leap over the dinner table and attack his father – “it was your stupid son, Paul, who led him here. … stupid father to a stupid son,” he says, repeatedly, still caked with mud. Eli Sunday comes by way of Paul Dano, and his is as much a ground-up characterization as Plainview’s, in smaller amounts. An awkward, girlishly shrieking snake-oil salesmen behind the guise of a minister, and a self-convinced prophet. Anderson originally envisioned the character as a young boy of twelve or thirteen, and that element of his composition still seems to linger around him – there’s something about him that seems so oddly childlike, behind the eyes. And, yet – so alive and aware, in the worst way; his manipulations are almost as far reaching as Daniel’s, through the townspeople. And, what’s more, he seems to be every gangly, wee-voiced guy you knew from high-school, rolled into one.
Anderson’s films have been compared favorably to Kubrick’s before for their constant emphasis on tracking shots and almost artificial silences dropping throughout conversations, in between sentences – particularly in the case of Punch-Drunk Love; and here, that’s a comparison well-earned, as Anderson moves his camera out into the parched country-side of rural America in the early twentieth century. And, this is a film defined by the pervasive artificiality of it’s two figureheads – Eli and Plainview – who seem to circle and bat at each other throughout the community, whose true colors only seem to emerge when engaged in turmoils or violence of some kind or another, either against themselves or each other. But, Anderson’s Steadicam isn’t as intensely focused as Kubrick’s – never attached to one character, wondering off as they seem to see fit. It seems to become a character in itself throughout the film, with Eli at one point casting it out of his holy-roller church. This seems very much in line with the film’s gradually emerging theme of the emergence of the twentieth century up to date and with a vengeance, and it’s effect on the town – this gradual reticence expressed by Eli toward the camera, and technology in general, will dissipate, quickly enough.
Long sequences, composed with the rhythm of a metronome, tracking Plainview’s parallel success and loss – through ambient silence and constant, harried commotion, the two of them seeming to alternate at Anderson’s will. The most interesting of these being the one spanning a day and a night, where H.W. loses his hearing – Anderson utilizes sounds and lack thereof astoundingly in this scene, helped along by Greenwood’s pulsing score, which seems to reach it’s overall crescendo as night falls on the derrick – Plainview’s relationship with H.W. is put into stark focus here, as everything else revolves around the two of them, Plainview rushing toward the townhouse just outside the range of the derrick’s field. And then, he looks back outside, and the flames begin to intermingle with the oil, igniting it all in a constant, hellish blaze upward. After he’s laid the boy down on one of the small tables inside, he rushes back outward, cutting the derrick’s support cables – and Anderson follows the character into the next day, the oil still burning as hard as it ever had, taking down the whole of the derrick’s structure with it’s intensity. Dynamite is loaded into a barrel, and – with Plainview finally and completely alone in the frame’s focus – the top is blown off, cutting off the oil’s flow.
After a short stint away in San Fransisco, H.W. has returned – but, as mentioned previously, it isn’t the same as it was. He seems to recognize why his father sent him away, because of the potential liability he represented – and, his father, in his own way, seems to have acknowledged this, as well. H.W. returns once again as an adult, near the end of the film – now completely deaf, and almost without the ability to speak. He wishes to go to Mexico, and start up his own company with his wife, Mary – the little girl we’d seen him playing with earlier. To be away from him, and be back out into the fields. He means no ill will by this, something he constantly repeats. But, suddenly, his father’s vision of him seems to have switched, almost mechanically – he’s business competition, now. Harsh words, coming from a mouth that seems almost dulled with misuse – “why, you’re nothing but a bastard,” he says to him. “You have none of me in you, you realize.” It’s almost a reflex to him, at this point – but, his son seems wise to his new machinations. “I am glad I have none of you in me,” his interpretor translates.
The film’s last sequence finds Plainview subjecting Eli to the same humiliation and subjugation that he’d thrust upon him, earlier in the movie, during his repentance in the church. Plainview, now openly misanthropic and physically uncouth, wandering around as sweaty and unshaven as he was in the film’s initial prologue, constantly pulling from his glass of whiskey, rebukes Eli as he comes to him in an hour of need, telling him of the money he’d squandered while on the road with his new radio show, and of the depths he’d fell to. Perhaps Plainview might be able to broker a deal on the recently-deceased Mr. Bandy’s land. He makes Eli kneel before the heavens themselves and proclaim that he is “a false prophet, and god is a superstition!” repeatedly, louder and louder. And still, Plainview refuses to help him, instead opting to take this final opportunity to sink his teeth in – telling him that:
“Yes, it’s uh, it’s called drainage, Eli. See, I own everything around it, so of course, I get what’s underneath it…do you understand Eli, that’s more to the point, do you understand? I drink your water. I drink it up. Every day, I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy’s tract. You can sit down again. …. I did what your brother couldn’t, I broke you and I beat you. It was Paul told me about you, he’s the prophet, he’s the smart one. He knew what was there, he found me to take it out of the ground. You know what the funny thing is? Listen, listen, listen– I paid him $10,000 cash in hand, just like that. He has his own company now. Prosperous little business. Three wells producing $5000 a week. … DRAINAGE! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry, I’m so sorry. Here: if you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw, there it is, that’s the straw, see, watch it! My straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake: I – drink – your – milkshake! I drink it up! Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you, Eli? I am the Third Revelation! I am who the Lord has chosen!”
And, then he chases him around the indoor-bowling alley, beating him to death with an old, scratched-up pin. He sits there, for a second – overcome, seemingly. And, then there’s a sound. His servant at the door – and, it’s here that the camera seems to finally move out into an objective focus of the man, seeing him surrounded by blood pooled on the alley floor, and the violence he’s created. He spits something onto the floor, and looks up at him.
“I’m finished!” He says.
Of the articles abound on the film around the infinite web, the ones I personally found the most interesting were Tom Charity’s look at the film over at Cinemascope, as well as Jamais Vu’s photo essay on the movie. There was also Lorenzo Wang’s (ha ha) analysis of the film, which is quite a read, as well.
Conversely, Glenn’s pick for #2, Terrance Malick’s beguiling The New World, can be found here.