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Paul Thomas Anderson‘s reworking of Upton Sinclair‘s novel Oil! is considered by many to be one of the greatest cinema achievements in theatrical history with its star Daniel Day-Lewis delivering what amounts to be his crowning work to date, a master class in acting that has come to define his career-long ambitious commitment to the craft. While the story itself is oppressive and its ending controversial, the movie is a difficult watch, though its legacy remains intact, the years continuing to showcase its timelessness and value.
The story follows a miner named Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), beginning in 1898, a loner who one day discovers oil and after some setbacks and tragedies, adopts a boy and takes on a family personification in order to lure investors into his expanding empire. This is in direct conflict with his inherent individualistic and self-serving core, and drives him deeper into madness. It’s a long, hypnotic and terrifying odyssey that begins with a remarkable and significant sequence that shapes everything about what follows.
It starts with a harrowing single whine of violin strings (from Jonny Greenwood‘s score) that pulls us from a black screen into the dusty, sunlit hillsides of New Mexico before right back into an abyss of shadows as we see an as yet unidentified man (Plainview) in a narrow, vertical shaft striking rocks with a pick axe. Sparks fly and there seems little progress, but he is undaunted and maintains his steady swing.
It then cuts to his sharpening the axe blade, heaving the hefty file over the dulled metal’s edge, holding the tool between his legs in the cramped, dark hole before returning the pointed tool back to the rock in repeated blows. He pauses for a moment though, and digs with his fingers, plying loose bits from the jagged stones and tossing them into a metal pail at his feet. He then ascends from the pit and is seen squatting over a nearly dead fire in front of rustic tent pressed to the ground with piles of rocks. Thunder rumbles over head and a distant lightning strike glints in the background. He sips from a tin cup unmoving and a date flashes on the screen: 1989
So far, not a word has been spoken, only the wind, the strike of his axe and the haunting echo of the now dissipated violins mark the passage of time with sound. It cuts to later, the man back in the hole, this time with candlelight, and he’s unearthed a chuck of silver, rubbing it clean and letting it shimmer. This prompts his next move, a stick of dynamite, of which he wedges into a crevice and ignites.
As the sparks jitter and sparkle up the twisted fuse, the man calmly climbs out of the shaft into the day and using a rudimentary rope and pulley system, attempts to haul up his tools, though they are too heavy and the struggle fails when the dynamite blows and the hole fills with dust. It’s important to note, that on his back is shotgun, though this is shed as his efforts to retrieve the pail end.
With the air still a cloud of debris, he eagerly returns to the makeshift ladder leading back to the hole. A bit down the descent, a damaged rung gives way and he plunges into the dark, landing with a ferocious thud on the rocks below. The camera cuts to black for a few breathless seconds before opening on the man’s face, waking from unconsciousness, gasping air in frightful pain. He lets out his first word, an agonizing, “No.”
His leg broken, his body beaten, and his way out unsteady, he nonetheless crawls to the dynamite blasted breach in the stone and rifles through the crumbles where he finds a hunk of silver ore and whispers in hefty breaths, “There she is. There she is.” He then scrambles out of the shaft and on his back, drags himself to the assay’s office in a nearby town and stakes his claim as the unnerving violins return.
The five-minute sequence is a brief but illuminating study into who and what Daniel Plainview is, a man of relentless pursuits and insecurity, mistrust and ingenuity. We learn in stages, as he births himself out of the dark, his humble beginnings where he forages for scraps in the stone, which leads to a better albeit crude improvements with candle light and a pulley system and TNT.
We see on the surface, a figure unmoved by the forces of nature around him, a storm on the horizon a way of life as he hacks out his existence in the dirt, casually sipping black coffee in the face of troubling weather. These are hints to his stubbornness and calculated indifference to what could and should stop his progress, but won’t. There is no storm strong enough to tip his position.
The fall from the rim however is the metaphor for his future struggles, that he must fail and face catastrophes and strife if he is to earn that which he so desires, and more so, he must lift himself out of it if he is to survive. He is a loner, a man unguided and unmoved by others, the gun on his back the symbol of his unhealthy relationship with loyalty and trust, that what is his must be his and none shall share in that glory. That he takes it off to try and lift what is a two-person job, which then fails and leaves him broken, is perhaps an internalized sign that all things going forward will be more restrictive and in design with his own self-sustainment, even as he amasses a small number of workers in his future endeavors.
What’s so impactful about this opening shot is the tone it sets, the themes of hubris and blind faith in a singular vision, the resolute sacrifice of body and soul to the acquisition of even a modicum of wealth, later to be part of the film’s message on the nature of capitalism. With high-tension direction and atmosphere, nearly no dialogue, and a scaffolding visual narrative, this is a breathtaking introduction to one of the most profoundly haunting characters in cinema.