Saturday, January 12, 2008

There Will Be Blood

I feel compelled to weigh in.

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).


Allan MacInnis said...

Jack Vermee writes:

Hello friend Allan, Jack Vermee typing:

Saw There Will Be Blood this afternoon and then (courtesy of the email you sent me) read your review, one part intelligent comment to two parts ill-thought misconception of PTA's masterpiece.

Some quick thoughts, as it is late:

1) I agree with your comments about Day-Lewis as a consummate actor.
Didn't you think he was channelling John Huston's vocal delivery to mesmerizing effect? Huston was born in Missouri; Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview was from Wisconsin. Both mid-westerners. Good choice by Day-Lewis. Oscar-winner if there is any justice.
2) Speaking of "justice"—you completely ignored the secondary drama (and main theme of the film), which is the hellfire conflict between Plainview, the godless capitalist, and Paul Dano's Eli Sunday, the god-fearing demagogue of the new "Church of the Third Revelation." Given that the third horse of the apocalypse revealed in Revelations is the black horse carrying scales—referring to social injustice, amongst other things—don't you think there is some metaphorical/biblical heft to the Plainview/Sunday conflict? Who is the man doomed to damnation? The fraudulent demagogue or the forthright murderer?
3) I think Tom Charity might have mentioned that the "godless
capitalism vs. right-wing religion" theme—tied together from the beginning of the "American Century" as the film demonstrates—is a fine encapsulation of the push-pull of 20th century American life. If not, he should have. This is the most thematically relevant aspect of the film, in my opinion. There is a reason for Plainview's last line—"I am finished." Without spoiling things, it's double meaning refers to both himself and what his actions have wrought, and his work to foil the hypocritical bullshit he has seen in the evangelical religious movement.
4) You should have mentioned that the first 25 or so minutes are
without any dialogue whatsoever—a chunk of film that amounts to almost 1/3 of your average Hollywood movie. The breathing, grunts, and suffering of Plainview carving out his mine and almost dying in the process are the most compelling 25 minutes of any film released anywhere in the world in the last year. (And the matinee crowd at the Scotiabank cinemas was completely enraptured throughout).
5) I don't particularly care for the last 20 "Citizen Kane" minutes,
wherein the embittered Plainview sits in his "Pleasure Palace." But it serves as a setting for a major (NOT FUNNY, as you reported—nobody laughed at the screening today) final scene that is essential to the meaning of the whole film… So, I have one quibble with PTA's amazing work. But only one.

Allan MacInnis said...

To which I say:
1. Yes, the John Huston vocal inflections are nice.
2. No, I didn't ignore it, I mentioned that it was the only stuff in the second half of the film that mattered, and yes, clearly it's what PTA intends the "theme" of the film to be. "Who is the man doomed to damnation? The fraudulent demagogue or the forthright murderer?" Nicely put. Actually, I'm not sure that there's that much of a difference between them - both men are hypocrites, and Plainview's loathing for Sunday seems in a way self-hatred, a recongition of his own loathsome qualities - but still, clearly this is meant to have weight in the film. Didn't miss it, just didn't really care.

Still don't. It's a false dilemma, something that exists for the sake of the movie alone - maybe an apt (if strained) metaphor for American life, but still not enough to hang a film of this immensity on; it's not particularly emotionally engaging on the level of story and it's nothing that moves me to *actually reflect* about life. It's pseudothinking - if you need me to, I'll quote a Ray Carney rant about how films like this don't actually open unto life in any productive way, that the only problems that they work through on the screen are problems they've put there.

3) Your point 3 is an elaboration on Point 2, but, uh, "I am finished."

4) Re: the first 25 minutes - really, was it that long? It is impressive, indeed. I did say that the first hour of the film was very carefully wrought and compelling.

5) Re: is it funny to see Plainview humiliate and murder Sunday? I can only assure you that there WERE titters and laughs in the audience. There were also a couple of little cheers, which I kind of liked the audience for. I suppose if forced to choose between this false little dilemma, I prefer the open murderer to the demagogue myself. It just isn't that interesting or useful a revelation for me.

Gotta get to work.

Allan MacInnis said...

Bumped into this on the Criterion Forum - another nay-sayer, who takes a bit more pains with elaborating the film's weaknesses. I am in accord with her on almost everything except DDL's performance:

Allan MacInnis said...

(Just in case Jack look backs in, on the issue of humour): blogger Filmbrain had a comment posted of note by one Eugene Hernandez:

"i've found the debate about the ending totally fascinating. i happen to think it works and i also find it funny. in fact, at the end of an interview, i recently told P.T. Anderson that I found myself laughing during the ending and he was hardly surprised and he too found it humorous. did you read somewhere that he said it *wasn't* supposed to be funny?"

More here:


Mathew Englander said...

I didn’t identify the voice with John Huston; to me it sounded more like Santa Claus. Perhaps Santa Claus doing an impression of Sean Connery.

Anonymous said...

You can analyse all you like; see references here and there and make all the clever comments in Christendom... but in my humble opinion the film was boring and poorly acted.
What the heck was going on at the end? It was risible, I started to laugh and began asking myself all those questions like "where did they get the money to make this?"
Forget John Huston. A film has to stand on it's own. It has to work without clues or prior knowledge. I don't think this movie does. I bought the DVD (great packaging here in the UK) and was very disappointed with it. I haven't bothered to watch it again.