Doodad Kind of Town

"There Will be Blood"
January 13, 2008, 6:41 pm
Filed under: Paul Thomas Anderson

Fourteen hours after seeing “There Will Be Blood,” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I thought of it. It’s certainly provided for hours of lively debate with the friends who accompanied to the multiplex last night.

Much like “No Country for Old Men,” it’s a wildly uneven, 2 1/2 hour ride. Some scenes are brilliant, and some are just about incomprehensible. There is a great performance by Daniel Day Lewis, but some key performances are completely off the mark. And, as was true of “No Country,” I came away from it with a nagging sense that something vital was missing. It clearly aspires to epic status, but to my mind it doesn’t quite succeed. And I’m not sure if that’s because the protagonists in its pivotal conflict aren’t evenly matched in terms of cleverness or power – or because the conflict isn’t presented so that the audience has a stake in its outcome.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson based “There Will Be Blood” very loosely on a 1920s Upton Sinclair novel called “Oil.” Its central character, Daniel Plainview (Day Lewis), is obsessively single-minded about building wells and drilling for ever-larger stores of oil. Human relationships are not his forte; he’s all business. (As he admits, “There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking… I can’t keep doing this on my own with these… people ” – and he spits the final “people” out like it was tainted food.) As portrayed by Day Lewis, you can see the complicated nuances beneath his driven work ethic. Whether he’s giving one of his “I believe in plain-speaking” speeches to the folks whose oil-rich land he’s looking to buy up, or interacting with his young son, there’s always a hint of some very deeply buried ability to be a good and decent person -although that ability fades as the film progresses and Plainview descends deeper into his own meglomania.

Plainview’s son appears out of nowhere in an early scene at a silver mine. No mother is ever shown, and we’re told later that she died in childbirth (although even later in the film, we learn that he may not be Plainview’s son at all). There’s an extraordinary scene early on where Plainview rides a train with his baby son beside him in a open, leather box. The baby tugs inquisitively at Plainview’s moustache, and Day Lewis regards him throughout this long, silent scene with an amazing display of bewilderment, affection and irritation. The child actor in this scene couldn’t have been more than two years old (if that), so you know the scene wasn’t scripted as it plays, and it’s all the more remarkable for that.

The struggle at the center of “There Will Be Blood” is between Plainview and a young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) from whose family Plainview buys up a large parcel of land to drill on. Sunday wants oil money to fund his Church of the Third Revelation; Plainview promises the money, but doesn’t deliver it.

Sunday is as obsessive and single-minded about Jesus as Plainview is about oil – but Dano is an actor whose screen presence and power don’t begin to equal that of Day Lewis. And that’s where the whole film starts falling apart for me. If you’re going to have a showdown between a Man of God and a Man of Commerce, then they’ve got to be believable equals – otherwise who’s going to care about the outcome? It’s clear from the moment Sunday shows up that Plainview is going to eat him alive, no matter where God enters into the picture. Plainview is a force of nature whereas the preacher is just a skinny, whiny kid. (WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD!!!) The cockamamie coda of the film (which Dana Stevens of Slate has memorably dubbed “the bowling alley beatdown” ) is a particularly unsatisfying denouement. There’s no fun in watching a bully easily take out a much weaker opponent. We already know Plainview has become a soulless monster, and watching Day Lewis rage and hurl bowling balls at Dano not only does nothing to deepen that knowledge, but adds a weird layer of cuckoo-bird dark comedy that is completely out of step with everything that’s come before.

Furthermore, it’s hard to care what happens to either Plainview or Sunday. Each man, in his own way is greedy and corrupt; there’s nothing noble at stake here. Watching two despicable people duke it out for money and power is a bit boring. You need someone to side with in this battle, someone whose welfare you can be concerned for. Apart from Plainview’s son – who’s a bit of cipher here, more a prop than a defined personality – “There Will Be Blood” offers you none.

(And for what it’s worth: during a confused period of my life, I spent some time in a charismatic prayer group, so I’ve seen a few wild-eyed religious fanactics perform the act of “laying hands” on the afflicted, casting out demons, speaking in tongues and so forth. I found Dano completely unbelievable when doing those things in his church scenes. He’s more like an overcharged high school kid playing a crazy evangelist in the school talent show. If you want to see a charismatic preacher done right, rent “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall.)

To be fair, there is ample evidence here that Anderson is maturing and growing as as filmmaker. This is certainly a well-crafted, well-shaped film, and it’s considerably more accomplished in its execution than, say, “Magnolia.” (I have to admit, though, that I love the sprawling mess of “Magnolia” far more than I love the polish and assurance of “There Will Be Blood.”) I also liked Jonny Greenwood’s original music, which underscored and heightened the tensions in the story. But ultimately “There Will Be Blood” seemed to me just one more of the overhyped sensations of 2007, yet another film that is dazzling in its execution, but dismally empty at its core.


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