I still feel sort of icky. This flick hit me like that slasher/sex-with-fat-chick-nightmare one has after a night cuddling a bottle of cheap Sherry after snorting an Ambien. Never mind. At once horrifying and calming, I can say with assurance that I've never had an experience like this at the multiplex. Much has been said of PT Anderson's quest to demonise capitalism and religion with this movie, but those elements didn't compute for me. Instead, on purpose or not, he ends up creating an engrossing mood so powerful that the mood overshadows the plot, sometimes to it's detriment. More often than not, what I felt I was watching was an experiment to see how alternately uncomfortable and comfortable he could make the experience for the viewer, but with such thematic and visual flair that one easily forgets the "rules", whatever they are, of movie making.
The landscapes and set pieces are gorgeous. In one scene, some of the most innovative work I've ever seen involves simple silhouettes as we see the oil derrick ablaze with the alien outlines of oil workers set against massive flames. Soon, we're on the bucolic central California coast, swimming under golden hills. Then a brutal act of violence. Scene after scene, Andersen sets out to disturb the viewer, with the help of RadioHead guitarist Johnny Greenwood's at times ultra-dissonant score. I was happy to pick out moving passages from Estonian composer Arvo Part and some Brahms as well. I must say that much of the score seems heavily derivative of Hungarian composer Gyogi Ligetis' work with quartets. Massive passages seem like they owe themselves to Ligeti's 3rd Quartet in particular. I don't know if it was part homage to the man or not, but I couldn't help but notice the raw similarity. The score mostly succeeds, and does so very well. I liked that against the more jarring passages, we also have some nice theme work to provide respite. It follows the film with incredible accuracy, many times becoming a charachter in the scenes alongside the absolutely bat shit, insanely incredible performance by Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview. No wonder he so rarely makes a film. It looks exhausting. Completely restrained one moment and a torrent of rage the next, his will be a performance that's studied by movieheads (like me) and actors for decades to come.
Paul Dano has been hailed in his portrayal of Eli and Paul Sunday in the film. Me, ehh, not so much. While Dano does an admirable job and plays the part within his abilities, he fails to convince in the more flamboyant scenes. It's in these moments that we are supposed to take Sunday on as the films' counterweight, but Dano fails to convince. His visage is all prairie-Bakersfield, but his delivery is anything but evangelical. In fairness, there are very few souls who could counterweight Day Lewis in this meaty opportunity.
As a person familiar with Central Valley/NW Mojave oil and mining history, it was disappointing to see the plot-tool treatment of the religious congregations. The pious, rather than playing an essential role in the development of the region, are like the "unknown" Smurfs that littered the background behind Papa, Smurfette and co., just so much blue in the background. Reduced to stiff mannequins shouting hallelujah, we get nothing from their presence other than people for Daniel Plainview to hate and Eli Sunday to con. On to the last movement, we see Daniel Plainview as a wretched-old-rich-man cliche ending with the cherry on top, when PT Anderson exorcises his personal hangups with religion as Plainview simply bludgeons them to death with a bowling pin in a fit of rage that had many audience members laughing out loud.
Despite its shortcomings, what unfolds is an absolutely singular movie experience that sticks to your ribs for a long while, on par with Aguire the Wrath of God and Badlands, neither of which were perfect either. I highly recommend this movie. I know it's a cliche, but it is a masterpiece. As I left the theater, I half expected to see caked-up oil gook under my fingernails and I still, three days later, feel a little dirty.