Tuesday, September 9, 2008
There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood contains many elements of a great movie; it has a highly acclaimed lead performance, solid supporting actors, an epic story, beautiful cinematography, and socially relevant storyline all set against a wonderfully recreated period atmosphere. But much like PTA’s previous efforts (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), it doesn’t deliver on the promise that it shows. Just like his breakthrough effort Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood starts off brilliantly but goes astray somewhere.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a silver miner in 1898 California. Through an accident one day, he discovers oil deposits at the bottom of his mine. Realizing the potential money to be made in oil, Daniel switches his business. Not long after, there is another accident, this one killing one of his workers. Daniel adopts the man’s infant son H.W. and raises him as his own. By 1911 Daniel and H.W. (now played by Dillon Freasier) have quite a thriving company going on wherein Daniel uses his insatiable greed and snake-oil salesmanship to convince people to sell him their land so that he can drill oil for them, while H.W. stands silently to the side giving Daniel the look of a trustworthy family man.
Daniel and his second in command Fletcher Hamilton (Ciaran Hinds) are approached one night by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who knows that his family’s ranch has oil on it. Daniel takes H.W. to the land and, while pretending to be quail hunting, meets Paul’s twin brother Eli who claims to be a faith based “healer”. While on the land, Daniel and H.W. discover oil leaking to the surface. Without disclosing their meeting with Paul, and without mention of finding oil on the land, Daniel attempts to buy the land from the family patriarch Abel Sunday (David Willis). Eli, however, knows of the oil and antagonizes Daniel until his demands that Daniel pay them $10,000 for the land are met, beginning a lifelong competition between the two strong willed men.
There Will Be Blood has the air and the attitude of a masterpiece, but I don’t feel that it is one by any stretch of the imagination. Daniel Day-Lewis has been praised from seemingly ever corner of the world for his performance, but I’m not drinking that Kool-Aid (much less that milkshake). I never once felt like I was watching a character, I felt like I was watching an actor act a role. I saw no being but saw a whole lot of acting. There were many moments when I could imagine Tony Montana sitting in the audience saying "C'mon man, that's a little over the top." Paul Dano is effective in his quieter moments, but in his "big" scenes he seems to struggle and I don't think he pulled off a good performance overall. Actually, the strongest performance in the movie is that of Kevin J. O'Connor as Henry, Daniel's long lost brother. Henry, Daniel, and Eli are, at their cores, very similar people (they're all con men), but Henry seems to be the only one of the three aware of his nature and not sure whether it's the right thing to be. There are shades to Henry's character that I wish could've been explored more, but maybe it's better to keep him a bit of a mystery.
I had been feeling like the movie was losing it's momentum as it went along (scenes such as the totally useless one with Daniel and H.W. in the bar epitomize my view), but when the final scenes showed up PTA lost me completely. The baptism scene near the end of the movie cannot be taken as anything but farce. The way that PTA shoots it (either in extreme close-up, or from very far away) show that he was trying to show the ridiculousness of Eli's evangelizing and Daniel humiliation at his hands, but instead it played as parody while making them into caricatures of themselves. It completely destroyed any sense of the sober atmosphere PTA had built up to that point. The penultimate scene, one involving a grown up H.W. and an older and more resentful Daniel, struck a completely false note. It felt like PTA wanted us to sympathize with H.W., but although he's been in nearly the entire movie, there is little to no character development for him. It felt like PTA trying to impose a certain scene into the movie rather than putting it in because it worked. Which brings us to the ludicrous final scene that is at such a right angle to the rest of the movie that I can't believe he chose to end it there. I don't remember any other time in my movie going life where I was physically cringing in embarrassment at what was on the screen, but when Daniel screams the now infamous "I drink your milkshake" line, I actually cringed. And again with the part of the final scene involving the bowling pins, PTA shoots it in such a way that the audience can't help but take it as comical, except for it's not funny and the movie is worse off for it.
All of those things said, I know I'm in the minority on this one. The movie does look incredible (the burning of the oil derrick is a magnificent set piece), and has a couple of solid supporting turns from the actors (O'Connor in particular). Much has been talked about the score, which I didn't think was anything special. It sounded like a normal movie score just used unconventionally. As I said, many people disagree with me (I know that I'm in the minority on this), and you may end up being one of those people, if you're not already. But There Will Be Blood simply showed me again that Paul Thomas Anderson is an obviously talented director who just hasn't put it all together yet. I look forward to his next movie, but this one doesn't exactly leave me with highest hopes for it.