Saturday, October 27, 2012

There Will Be Blood (2007): When the Critics Baffle You

I rushed to see There Will Be Blood when it came out in cinemas in 2007. I’d been disappointed with Punch-Drunk Love but that was a small film - I regarded it as just a stop-gap measure - and this time Paul Thomas Anderson was back in epic mode. I felt excited at the prospect of witnessing something as good as Boogie Nights or Magnolia, both of which I’d loved. I came away distinctly underwhelmed. This was particularly frustrating because my opinion was so against the grain; it was virtually impossible to find a critic anywhere who wasn’t proclaiming it one of the masterpieces of the decade. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men was out around the same time and apart from its confused ending, it truly was a great film: gripping story, superb acting, brilliant direction that filled you with tension and dread. Yet it was overshadowed. Everyone was saying There Will Be Blood was the deeper, more powerful film. And I just didn’t get it.

Recently I watched PTA’s film again to see if I was wrong. I really tried my best to look at it with fresh eyes and discover what it was that others had seen that I had missed. I didn’t, which is no big deal in itself, but when your opinion is so at odds with everyone else’s, it is baffling and does make you wonder about your connection with your fellow man! Here are a few of my objections to the film:

Quite a few reviews said that Daniel Day-Lewis, in the main role here as Daniel Plainview, has a ‘voice borrowed from John Huston’ and when I read that I said ‘Yes! That’s it. They’ve put the finger on the main problem without even knowing it.’ (They didn’t usually express it as a criticism). The first time I saw the film I kept wondering ‘Why is Day-Lewis putting on a funny voice? When’s he going to stop? Surely he’s not going to do the whole film like this?’ He’d kind of been going in the same direction with his oversized performance in Gangs of New York, but this was a step too far. It wasn’t just a strong accent anymore; it was an actual silly voice - the most prominent example of an actor in a major motion picture doing a deliberately artificial impersonation for the entire running time since the days of Monty Python. I found it far more distracting than his rendering of Christy Brown’s voice in My Left Foot and it had far less inherent story justification. I mean: did your average American oilman at the turn of the century talk like this? Perhaps one or two did, but this character certainly didn’t need to. And why would anyone choose to do so? If Day-Lewis had simply used his own normal voice, which is so much more pleasant to listen to, then I think I would have found it a lot easier to forgive the film its other faults. You accept the ‘John Huston voice’ in John Huston himself because it’s his voice, but here it seems completely unnatural, and it nearly scuttles the movie. I eventually got used to it, and by the second half it wasn’t bothering me so much, but there were other issues…

Because it’s a double whammy really: both main roles have major problems. I’ve never seen Paul Dano in anything else and I don’t want to judge him too harshly. I’m going to say the flaw is in the role not the actor. But he’s quite unremarkable to look at. You wouldn’t be surprised to find him behind the counter at your local burger joint, because his face is neither ugly nor handsome, and has no interesting quirks, and he’s too young for it to reflect any sense of experience. This is not a bad thing in itself. It just means he has to work hard to make an impression on screen. It can be done. But I don’t think Dano manages that here. When we first see him (as Paul) he’s demanding money from Plainview and he’s uppity and terse for his age. The rest of the time he’s Eli (Dano plays both roles, which I thought was unnecessarily confusing since as far as I noticed there was no mention of them being twins - but perhaps I missed that bit) and as Eli he’s an off-putting character throughout the film, without any visible charms. When he starts going on about religion he becomes even more tiresome. And between him and the other guy doing the funny John Huston voice, the audience really has no one to identify with.

The plot of There Will Be Blood is for the most part not bad. It kind of moves along. But again ‘unremarkable’ is the word that springs to mind first. I’ve seen a thousand stories which are better-paced, and had more tension and drama. And there’s a major problem with the central conflict: it’s unbalanced. Paul Dano as an actor is not a worthy adversary for Day-Lewis, and Eli is not a worthy adversary for Daniel Plainview. (DiCaprio only just managed that role of younger opponent to Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, but even in 2002 he had far more acting chops than Dano). I was engaged at one point when there was clear tension over Eli’s role in Plainview’s life. Eli is so young - he looks about 20 - yet he’s so pompous and at one point he acts like a 60-year old bishop, trying to tell Plainview how he should be introduced at a public occasion, assuming that the blessing of his ‘church’ - which exists as a large thing in his mind long before it becomes a reality - is wanted and needed. But that was just one small scene; there needed to be a lot more of that, of Eli getting under Plainview’s skin.

My least favourite scenes of all in the movie are those when Eli is preaching to his flock. Even though we always see these through the sceptical eyes of the non-believer Plainview, I found them as annoying as if I had really been forced to attend that church. Eli is just too young and callow and I found it hard to believe that anyone would accept him as their spiritual leader. These scenes reminded me of Elmer Gantry (1960) - itself not a great film by any means - but they don’t even have the minor pleasure of watching someone like Burt Lancaster ham it up. Maybe it’s just that this kind of ‘Oh Praise The Lord’ evangelical Christianity is so alien to me as a European. But I couldn’t work out what the congregation were even doing there, why they’d go anywhere near that silly little stuck-up boy who thinks he’s a religious authority.

In fact there are large parts of the film which don’t feature Dano at all, so perhaps you could argue he’s not essential to it, that it is in fact all about Plainview, in which case what’s his trajectory, what’s the point of his story? At the end of the film, it’s 1927 and he’s a rich man living in what looks like an English country-house, he drinks too much, and he’s withered and bitter, and I got the impression that the film was trying to say he was some kind of tragic anti-hero paying for his hubris and his mistakes. But in fact he’s only really an unpleasant character in these last 20-30 minutes. So that idea of him paying for his mistakes doesn’t really make any sense. It hasn’t been foreshadowed at all. At this late stage he nastily mocks his deaf son’s sign language and gets angry when the boy, now in his twenties, says he’s going to start his own oil business, because that will be competition for him. He also tells the boy his true origins and claims to have been using him all along.

But didn’t he look after him all these years? And for most of the story the boy seems fairly happy. I’ve read some reviews claiming the boy’s deafness - after an accident about half-way through the film - highlights Plainview’s coldness and meanness. But in fact he does probably what most men in his position would have done at that time. The way he abandons his son didn’t strike me as particularly cruel, in fact it seemed to be done with regret, and anyway the boy was only sent away to a boarding school, something millions of other kids have put up with. One of the most famous moments in the film has Plainview in Eli’s church shouting over and over ‘I’ve abandoned my child! I’ve abandoned my child!’ with apparent regret, but he’s there under duress and it’s difficult to know how to take this scene. If the main point of the film is that Plainview is a man who prefers to work rather than spend time with his family, that’s not exactly high drama is it? That’s just an everyday life situation. (There is the little matter of the man Plainview kills but it’s someone who was cheating him, and anyway that sub-plot surely can’t be intended as the engine of the main narrative, can it?)

I did like the symmetry at the end when Plainview demands that Eli admit he was a false prophet. Plainview was forced to go against his own beliefs and join Eli’s church and now he wants Eli to betray himself in an equally painful manner. But the acting by both parties in these bowling-alley scenes is dreadfully false and the script - all that ‘I drink from your milkshake’ nonsense - is just embarrassing. Although PTA does kinetic action scenes really well (think of the havoc caused by the frogs in Magnolia, or the William H Macy shooting or the firecracker scene in Boogie Nights) what his real forte is above all else is just showing the problems of normal human interaction, and giving us people who are hurt or angry or anxious or embarrassed. Those two films had such things in spades and the biggest disappointment of There Will Be Blood is that it has nothing to compare to them in this respect.

There are some incidental pleasures to the film. An actor I like very much - Ciarin Hinds - is in it, although he has hardly anything to say or do. There is one set-piece - the sudden gushing up of the oil which injures the boy and the subsequent fire - which is undeniably exciting. Occasionally the photography and the music grabbed me. For example near the start when Plainview and his son come out of a meeting with a bunch of rowdy townspeople the night sky is blue and the effect is striking; for a few seconds the film looks beautiful. And Jonny Greenwood’s unusual score was much praised and generally I agree that it works well. I like it fine in the opening scenes, even though it calls a lot of attention to itself, and I really like the more conventional theme played a little later when Plainview and son go up to Eli’s house for the first time as ‘quail hunters’.

Having said that, I found the music one of the most perplexing things about the film, because it’s so varied and so haphazardly applied. Sometimes it’s clanging and thumping, sometimes it’s rhythmic drumming, sometimes it’s sad and mournful, sometimes it’s shrieking Psycho-like violins, sometimes it rises to an alarming crescendo as at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey, sometimes it’s a very pleasing, Philip Glass-like theme. But I often couldn’t work out why a particular piece was matched with a particular scene; it often doesn’t correspond to the action and you wonder if the composer had even seen the film first or was it a set of pre-existing pieces he wanted to fit in somehow. For example the music in those opening scenes is very, very powerful and dramatic but the action itself is not: Plainview falls down a hole in the ground, is hurt, you think this might be a 127 Hours-type predicament…but in fact he soon pulls himself out and recovers.

I recently heard a theory that the film is an allegory for America’s involvement in Iraq. Plainview represents the big oil companies degrading the environment and Eli represents the Christian Right and how they back big business and interfere in politics. Maybe that explains the ending. Perhaps it was supposed to say something about how big business destroys religion. But that’s the problem with having allegorical subtexts: to make things fit your allegorical pattern you have to twist the story into awkward knots and you have to forget about what constitutes a realistic and satisfying human drama. After watching There Will Be Blood and writing this piece I went and read five glowing reviews of it from the New York Times, The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly etc etc but that was a profoundly unilluminating exercise. None of them made a convincing argument, or pointed out anything I had missed. So I am still completely mystified as to why people think this film is a masterpiece.



  1. here's one reviewer who saw the nakedness of emperor anderson:

    1. Thanks. Glad to know I'm not the only one!