Based loosely, so they say, on Oil!, a muckraking, boat-rocking, banned-in-Boston novel by Upton Sinclair (a writer partial to exclamation points in his titles), this is a kind of anti-epic, an anti-Giant, about a miserly, misanthropic, nothing short of murderous American oil man in the first decades of the last century: warped beyond recognition as an exemplar of the enterprising capitalist. (The accompanying music credited to Jonny Greenwood of the British rock group Radiohead, edgy, skittery, dissonant, helps set the tone: not music to Build an Empire By, such as a Dimitri Tiomkin or a Max Steiner might have composed, but instead music to Squirrel Away Nuts for the Winter By.) The hard dirty work, at the outset, of digging a well all by his lonesome is vividly and wordlessly captured by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, yet it’s hardly adequate to explain or excuse the character’s subsequent aberrance, and his particular animus towards a hayseed faith healer (the initially very young and insufficiently aging Paul Dano), each of whom has his own inflexible reasons for not deferring to the other: the Self-Made Man versus the Man of God. Daniel Day-Lewis, ever the risk-taker, even if the risk (immurement in Victorian melodrama) is much the same as in Gangs of New York, makes of the protagonist a real and repellently compelling figure when he’s not breaking the spell with his John Huston rollercoaster cadences. (Why would this depraved money-grubber, we keep asking ourselves, be impersonating the director of The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whatever?) But two and a half hours, if all we’re going to do is gape, are a long time to spend in the company of such a man, a good hour or more too long. There will, as promised, be blood, though not any time soon, and never all that much. Kevin O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds. (2007) — Duncan Shepherd
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