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Review: There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood
There Will Be Boredom Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier take taciturn turns in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 158 minute near-miss epic.

The critics are falling all over themselves expressing praise for There Will Be Blood, Paul Anderson’s tale of California roughnecks in the early years of the 20th century oil industry — likening it to Citizen Kane as an epic portrayal of grand themes with larger-than-life characters — but their ardor seems to me a bit forced, evidence more of a longing for qualities that the film promises than an accurate acknowledgment of the film’s lost potential. With few exceptions — most notably Stephanie Zacharek of Salon — it’s clear that the critics want this to be a great movie, just as Anderson clearly wanted to create one: there is a telling aside in an interview with Daniel Day-Lewis in the New York Observer in which he discloses, “Paul thought we were making a blockbuster. I thought we were making a film that would have us sort of drummed out of town with bell, book and candle.” It’s neither a blockbuster nor an abomination and I think it’s more than a bit ironic that Anderson chose to shoot the film in Marfa, Texas — the location that George Stevens used for Giant. In both cases, an ambitious director tried to leverage the vast Western landscape as a suitable canvas for stories meant to depict great American themes and both missed their mark with stories that couldn’t quite fill the frame.

Like many movies I’ve seen recently (Sunshine, for example), this one starts out promisingly — in a long practically silent prologue Anderson introduces Daniel Plainview, a lone prospector risking life and limb in pursuit of silver. Time passes and, still completely silently, Plainview has moved on to oil prospecting, now in the company of a few other quietly determined men and, inexplicably, a baby boy. A freak accident kills the boy’s father and the cinematic introduction ends with Plainview adopting the baby. It is an economical and artful introduction to the character and his foibles. When next we see father and son, Plainview is a successful wildcatter roaming the West in search of the next big strike, his trusted “H.W.” at his side looking every bit the scion his father intends him to be. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Plainview broadly — with crinkled eyes and an absurdly mannered dialect that doesn’t match that of any other actor in the film. Reminiscent of his Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis’s Plainview is not merely a larger than life character, he is, unfortunately, a larger than movie character. The story does not demand as much as Day-Lewis brings and this is never more obvious than in the scenes with young Freasier, who can silently convey meaning with just the slightest adjustment of his small face.

Anderson completes the dramatic setup by placing Plainview into conflict with Eli Sunday an ambitious young preacher, played by Paul Dano, who enters into a Faustian bargain with Plainview — selling him rights to the family lands for prospecting, in return for riches that will be used for evangelism. People writing about the movie have made much of this dramatic construction and its implications about God and Greed and America. But Anderson can’t deliver — rather than a dramatic exploration of the subtle interdependence of Christianity and capitalism that so informs American culture, we instead get a broad, almost comic, treatment of American corruption: the honestly corrupt businessman and the dishonestly corrupt preacher. Their conflict culminates in a bizarre and brutal confrontation at the very end of the movie that approaches slapstick in its obviousness.

There Will Be Blood is 1/3 of a great movie. The other 2/3 is a detailed character study of a man who lives and loves with fatal effect and an opportunity to watch Daniel Day-Lewis do what he does best. For fans of Day-Lewis it’s almost enough to make it worthwhile.

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