Unlike anything Anderson has ever done before, this sprawling epic about greed and corruption has its flaws (at 2 1/2 hours, it's in need of editing, for one thing), but features a riveting performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, spectacular cinematography by Robert Elswit, and a marvelous score by Jonny Greenwood.
Day-Lewis, who is in every scene of the movie, plays California oilman Daniel Plainview. We meet him at the turn of the century -- 19th to 20th, that is -- when he is a struggling silver miner; in the 15-minute wordless sequence that opens the movie, we see just how determined Daniel is to succeed, and we're present for his first discovery of oil. By the 1920s, Daniel is a dominant force in the California oil industry, and now has a young son (whose mother, we are told, died in childbirth).
That son, H.W. (played very nicely by Dillon Freasier, making his film debut), is essential to Daniel's success, humanizing his father in a way that Daniel desperately needs; for all of his charm and persuasive ability, Daniel is a cold, misanthropic man, and much of the movie is devoted to showing us how Daniel deliberately sets out to destroy every relationship in his life.
Daniel's principal antagonist is the preacher in the village that springs up around one of his major oilfields, a smooth talker -- one might even call him oily -- named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, as verbal here as he was silent in Little Miss Sunshine). He is, in a way, Daniel's doppelganger. Just as Daniel insinuates his way into people's trust with promises of wealth, Eli promises salvation; both men are far more interested in their own personal welfare than that of anyone else, though. The confrontations between Eli and Daniel are among the movie's best scenes; they include a baptism that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.
Day-Lewis seems to have deliberately adopted the voice and delivery of John Huston for this role, which is a bit jarring at first, but it's effective; everything Daniel says feels like a speech, with every inflection and word choice precisely calculated for its effect on the listeners.
Jonny Greenwood's score is not the lush orchestral period piece you might expect; it's a dissonant score dominated by strings and percussion. There are wailing clusters reminiscent of Penderecki's Threnody and clattering woodblocks that go in and out of phase like something from early Steve Reich; it's a perfect aural counterpart to the harshness of the California landscape.
The movie is longer than it needs to be, and I think Day-Lewis goes wildly over the top in the final scene, ranting and growling in a way that feels out of character for Daniel. But it's immensely ambitious in a way that few movies are these days, and that alone makes me willing to forgive its flaws. It's a big movie, and there are images and scenes that I'll carry with me for weeks.