We begin down a hole. It’s 1898 in the Southern Californian desert and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lithe, daddy-long-legs of a man, a lone-gun silver prospector whose tools, as he scratches around in the dark, are a pickaxe, a rope, some dynamite and sheer will. The scene, like many in the film, is gruelling, elemental, horrific even.
He falls, breaks his leg and gains a limp that will stay with him for the rest of this bold, epic film. We hop forward to 1902, and Plainview is digging again, only now he’s on the hunt for something else: oil. He strikes black and brandishes his filthy hands to his accomplices. The dirt under his nails is a badge of honour, and one never to be removed; he wears it years later, even when he’s moping around a mansion, his mind driven loopy by success and paranoia.
Another hop and it’s 1911, and we reach the meat of the movie. A smarter Plainview, a fedora on his brow, is in the shadows of a meeting of folk in Little Boston, California on whose land he wants to dig. ‘I’m an oil man…’ he implores, the first noise we hear from his mouth, not a word wasted, barely a breath not invested in his success. His voice is simple but mellifluous, its stresses and dips unusual but alluring. It’s the first hint in this long, odd and stunning film that this character – this wicked creation, this symbol of a nation, this quiet monster – will lodge in your psyche long after the movie cuts dead on an ending that’s strange and sudden, irritating and pleasing.
On one level, Plainview is a pure businessman – ruthless, self-centred, adaptable. On another, he’s a mystery – sexless, rootless, unfathomable, silent. The questions roll off the screen. Does he care for his adopted son, HW (Dillon Freasier) or does he see him only as a useful face to have around during negotiations? Are we meant to root for Plainview’s individualist tendencies against the expansion of the Standard and Union oil companies? No – as soon as the film hints this is going to be the tale of an underdog, Plainview does something awful. Faceless, corporate behaviour begins to look benign. On yet another level, Plainview reflects, then and now, the power of the church; it’s a local pastor, Eli Sunday (a wily Paul Dano) who leads him to the loot. It’s the same pastor whose pockets he must line and religion he must embrace.
This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s foundation myth – taken from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel ‘Oil!’, which in turn was inspired by men like Edward Doheny, the oil man who went from rags to riches and died in 1935 in the same mansion where Anderson shot his final scenes. Anderson’s story is precisely dated, stretching from 1898 to 1927, and mostly lingers around 1911 as Plainview builds a gushing derrick.
But the beginning of his film feels like the beginning of the world for all its sense that nothing came before. Anderson is arguing that this chasm in the earth, and similar chasms, were the birthplace of America. Little Boston becomes a theatre for his Genesis, or for Exodus, from which the film takes its name. It’s stressed by the primal buzz of Jonny Greenwood’s wonderful score that’s set to the film’s first image of a barren hillside.
Day-Lewis’s performance is as good as the awards suggest: it’s big, it’s wild, yet it’s also restrained by the sparing talk of his character and framed by a film whose ambitions are bigger than his acting. That Anderson, the film’s writer-director, whose ‘Boogie Nights’ was a riot but ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ both noble failures, has come to make this intelligent and enthralling masterpiece is both a little surprising and intensely satisfying.