I so wanted to see this film at the cinemas, but before I could get around to it, it was gone.
Having seen it, I will say one thing. The film had very little to do with what seemed to be peddled in the trailers. All I went on was Daniel Day-Lewis reprising a scary bastard in the mold of his Bill the Butcher from ‘Gangs of New York’, meeting the incendiary topic of how the oil barons came to be. The film is partially about that, but a surprising amount of it is a picaresque where you find yourself rooting for this bastard of a hateful man to be able to drill his wells and make his pipeline and beat the big bad Standard Oil and so forth, all on the account of his seeming humanity of adopting the baby son of one of his companions. But more on that later.
What’s Good About It
You can spend a long time looking for a film that’s deeply satisfying to watch. It doesn’t come along regularly and when it does, you’re always taken by surprise. I expected the film to be more grim, but it is more darkly funny than grim. The film oozes with good craft and good writing, and there are moments in it that you know you won’t forget.
Even the much parodied “I drink your milkshake” scene at the end is full of surprise and invention. There is something deeply baroque about the narrative and the story’s concern that you don’t quite expect the turn of events. In the end, we are faced with a main character who is at once a protagonist for the forces of industrialisation come full circle to venting his fury at the humiliation once exacted from him. It’s morally complex and deeply thought-provoking, and any film that leaves you with a cathartic resonance like that is great.
What’s Bad About It
Not much. It’s a trifle long and you’re never sure which part of the plot the central conflict is meant to hang upon, but then it’s fun to sit there and wonder where all the drama and fracas is going. It’s a great film. Picking faults with this one is picking nits and not worth the time. Go watch this thing if you haven’t seen it.
What’s Interesting About It
The character of Daniel played by Day-Lewis adopts an orphan who he then uses to pitch his image as a family man. Several times in the film, he makes the explicit point that the adopted son is there for show, but goes on to show great passion as a father. Daniel’s ploy works in most parts of the film as he pitches his deals to land owners and sets forth to dramatic effect.
We see many scenes where Daniel shows love and care for his adopted son H.W. (whose real name we never learn), that we as audience are also sucked in by Daniel’s apparent humanity. His rage at Tilford in defense of how he runs his own family and how he accepts Henry as his half-brother (until he finds out he’s not his brother) all build towards our understanding of the man that allows us to root for his interests in the story. In other words, we as the audience are just as big dupes as the people who buy his “me and my son H.W.” routine. It’s an interesting construct.
What’s also interesting is the dogged exploration of the physicality of drilling for oil. We see a progression of skills and apparatus applied to the task as we visually understand the difficulty of drilling for oil. In as much as oil has underpinned our modern civilisation, it is this very technology that has underpinned the oil business itself and it is a fascinating view. It’s a film that goes to the core of materialist dialectic as it plays out in American soil.
By the way, I own shares in a company that makes drill bits for these things. Howard Hughes’ immense wealth started from making such drill bits. It’s a good business to be in as we exhaust oil reserves, hunting ever more for the final reserves. I’m oddly comforted by this film.
I Drink Your Milkshake
This is the scene that leads up to the milkshake analogy:
Eli Sunday: Daniel, I’m asking if you’d like to have business with the Church of the Third Revelation in developing this lease on young Bandy’s thousand acre tract. I’m offering you to drill on one of the great undeveloped fields of Little Boston!
Plainview: I’d be happy to work with you.
Eli Sunday: You would? Yes, yes, of course. Wonderful.
Plainview: But there is one condition for this work.
Eli Sunday: Alright.
Plainview: I’d like you to tell me that you are a false prophet… I’d like you to tell me that you are, and have been, a false prophet… and that God is a superstition.
Eli Sunday: …but that’s a lie… it’s a lie, I cannot say it.
Eli Sunday: When can we begin to drill?
Plainview: Right away.
Eli Sunday: How long will it take to bring in the well?
Plainview: Should be very quick.
Eli Sunday: I would like a one hundred thousand dollar signing bonus plus the five that is owed with interest.
Plainview: That’s only fair.
Eli Sunday: I am a false prophet and God is a superstition. If that’s what you believe, then I will say it.
Plainview: Say it like you mean it.
Eli Sunday: Daniel…
Plainview: Say it like it’s your sermon.
Eli Sunday: This is foolish.
Eli Sunday: I am a false prophet! God is a superstition! I am a false prophet! God is a superstition! I am a false prophet! God is a superstition!
Eli Sunday: Is that fine?
Plainview: Those areas have been drilled.
Eli Sunday: What?
Plainview: Those areas have been drilled.
Eli Sunday: …no they haven’t…
Plainview: It’s called drainage. I own everything around it… so I get everything underneath it.
Eli Sunday: But there are no derricks there. This is the Bandy tract. Do you understand?
Plainview: Do you? I drink your water, Eli. I drink it up. Everyday. I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy’s tract.
It’s a fantastic scene, and it’s surprising to see that this is actually what the central conflict in the film is about. While the narrative meanders over the vast tracts of Daniel’s Oil empire, it comes down to a single pipeline, and the pipeline must be built through the land of a man who asks Daniel to join the church. The event is clearly the greatest humiliation visited upon a proud man and it happens so close to the end of Act 2 that we just don’t see it as the turning point.
That Daniel doesn’t and will not find succor from the baptism is obvious. What is not is the amount of seething hate he harbors for 20 odd years to visit upon Eli with vengeance; and it is a brutal, nasty, blood-curdling, dark, volcanic fury of vengeance. Daniel Day-Lewis is even scarier than Bill the Butcher; there is absolutely no ‘give’ in the most emotionally sadistic scene I’ve seen. And the thing is that it’s so breath-taking because it is during this very scene we are shown what very matter for which we’ve been watching the film.
I don’t know how many films or scripts that can pull this sort of thing off where they keep the audience sucked in for 140minutes without actually giving away which shell the pea of dramatic concern is sitting under, and then unloading with a furious finish. It’s a remarkable achievement. I’m hard pressed to think of another film that does the same thing.