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 ple