As he will do throughout, Anderson then brings us forward a couple of years to the late 1870s, where Plainview has converted his few ounces of hard-won gold into an oil prospect. There in the desert, with a few swarthy riggers, he makes his first strike – his raw hand covered in the blood-black oil, raised triumphant over his head, a powerfully simple image that calls to mind Kubrick’s hooting apes, champions of their own prehistoric wasteland, giddy with the thrill of discovery.
Now suited and booted, Plainview hones his tactics, adopting a young orphan HW (played with uncanny calm by Dillon Freasier) to establish himself as a family man, and with the help of his lieutenant Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds), builds his business throughout the West. One evening, Plainview is visited by a young man who tells him, for a fee, about a place where the oil is seeping out of the ground. With H.W. in tow, Plainview sets out, camping at the run-down Sunday family farm under the pretence of hunting quail. Soon he has bought the land, and the land around it and (in a scene largely improvised by Day Lewis) met with the townspeople and convinced them of his good name, his good intentions and promised them prosperity and happiness. Plainview has a master plan, to become independent of the oil distributors by buying all the land from the wells to the Pacific and building his own pipeline. His empire is nearly set, but he faces an opponent from the other side of the divide, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) a young firebrand preacher with a mission to bring God to the people of California. Sunday doesn’t trust Plainview but needs his donations to build his church, the first roots of a complex and destructive relationship that Anderson, with consummate skill and remarkable economy, establishes as a living, breathing contest, between the emptiness of God and the fruitless pursuit of Money, fought by two compromised, untrustworthy men.
Then, a series of incidents that bring us forward through the narrative. H.W. is injured in a derrick explosion and is cruelly sent away by his father to school in San Francisco. A man arrives at camp, claiming to be Plainview’s half-brother. A farmer, whose land stands between Plainview and the sea, refuses to sell. The preacher gradually builds his congregation, and sets himself against the oil man. In an exceptional year for cinema, this film stands proudly beside the Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men as exemplars of today’s American cinema and shares with that masterwork the idea that money, and the pursuit of it, corrupts even the strongest of us. More than that, both films look to address the American character writ large through the notion of ‘finders keepers’ established by the first European settlers and distorted through the centuries by acquisition, accumulation and the pursuit of individual greed. In drilling his way to success, Plainview isn’t just chipping away at the ground; he is excavating himself.
There is so much more to say. Last week, Day Lewis won an Oscar for his performance, the finest of his career and one of the most exceptional in the history of cinema. He is in almost every scene and you cannot take your eyes off him, his fierce fighter’s stance and his rolling, soothing voice. The photography from Robert Elswit, another Oscar winner, is breath-taking in its simplicity, its sense of scale, composition and colour. Anderson corrals it all into an undying work of inestimable genius, in front of and behind the camera; a dangerous, daring film that you simply must see.