There Will Be Blood
I was very excited to see There Will Be Blood this afternoon. I've found things to admire in all of PT Anderson's films, was eager to see what his first project in over five years would look like, and was very much looking forward to seeing what Daniel Day Lewis -- who was compelling throughout the vastly disappointing Gangs of New York -- would do with the central character of a ruthless oil man. The source material - the work of muckracking American socialist Upton Sinclair - sounded interesting, too; I'm currently venturing into the book, the trade paperback reissue of which may be the best net result of this movie having been made. Of course, the buzz for it is good; There Will Be Blood is the sort of film middlebrow critics will buy into more than happily, since their standard of comparison (eg., whatever else is at the mall at the moment) is so abysmally low.
I don't have that problem. And frankly, I can't recommend this movie. Day Lewis is terrific as oilman Plainview, Jonny-Radiohead-Greenwood's score is eccentric and compelling -- really exciting at times, in the choices he makes -- and the film is beautifully shot; the feeling of anticipation that it will develop into something staggering stays with you for at least the first hour, as it sets up its business with great craft, period authenticity, and an admirably slow and restrained pace. The peak, about midway through, is where the lonely Plainview confesses to a stranger who claims to be his brother that he has almost no fellow-feeling for the people around him, that he's entirely a creature of hate and ambition, wanting no one else to succeed but himself. This taps into something sociopathic, ugly, and very much present - though seldom honestly spoken about - in the contemporary condition and, given that it is almost a cry of pain and self-loathing on Plainview's part, is quite moving. There was a shudder of self-recognition and compassion that ran through me at that moment, and it almost felt like I'd learned something about myself - the only moment of surprise or self-reflection that the film really inspired.
Alas, it was all downhill from there. Up to that point, I was not entirely interested in or convinced by the peripheral characters, most of whom (including Plainview's adopted son, who seems like he is supposed to be a central figure) are very thinly developed - but I was confident that something would emerge in the final hour that would actually DO something with the material, to justify the investiture of faith and time. A character, after all -- however interesting a portrayal of "American ambition" as Plainview may be - is not the same thing as a story, and I expected a narrative to develop that I would care about or learn from, or at least be INVOLVED in, dramatically. Maybe even something that had relevance to the current state of the world, where we see the impact of Plainview's ambition on the community.
No such luck. There are various plot developments in the second half of the film, but none really seem to amount to anything than reiterating what we've already come to understand about the single central character. The "brother" is dispatched, underscoring Plainview's isolation and mistrust. The relationship with his so-called son goes through some changes, but because we never for a minute feel anything for the character - who exists solely to shed light on his father's cruelty - we don't really care; there's a big scene where Plainview informs his son, with evil glee, that he's really an orphan, but other than dashing any hopes we might have that Plainview might redeem himself, it falls surprisingly flat, since the kid seems a nonentity throughout. There are subplots involving Standard Oil and a pipeline that equally amount to nothing much at all, seem like dramatic business that Anderson is inserting to fill out his film, because he has nothing else on offer. Only two scenes, after Plainview's confession of hate, pack any emotional punch, where the oilman is blackmailed into subordinating himself to a corrupt and ambitious preacher, and where he gets his revenge; but while these moments are entertaining -- the audience was laughing aloud during both scenes, though the comedy may have been unintended -- they also carry with them this sinking awareness that the faith and hope with which you have been waiting for the film to actually amount to something have been squandered: that "this is it," no story, no theme, just, in the words of Homer Simpson, "a bunch of stuff that happened." (And a great performance by Daniel Day Lewis).
Unlike No Country for Old Men, I actually expected to like this film. I'm quite disappointed, and eager to simply forget it. Maybe it's time to start avoiding the multiplexes again...
Edited to add: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Proceed into the comments section, featuring input by film critic and VIFC/Cineamatheque projectionist Jack Vermee, only if you've seen the film or don't care about having plot details ruined. (Really, if you have interest in the movie, I don't recommend going further).