Just saw There Will Be Blood yesterday, and it’s all that I’m going to be thinking about for a while, so here goes. Warning: this is commentary, not a review. Reviews are supposed to help you decide whether to see a movie, and have an obligation to avoid spoilers. If you’re looking for a review, here it is: go see the damn movie as soon as you possibly can. Then come back and read the spoileriffic ramblings after the jump.
There Will be Blood is definitely a wonderful movie. I’m not *quite* sure it deserves the critical glad-handing that it’s receiving—I didn’t walk out of it feeling shook the way that I did with No Country for Old Men or The Departed—but it’s still kind of astonishing. To my mind this marks P.T. Anderson’s graduation into ‘serious’ filmmaking. Not that he wasn’t making great movies before this, but the earlier films that I’ve seen are all kind of provocations. Boogie Nights has its subject matter and the Mark Wahlberg stunt-cock. Magnolia has its karaoke sing-along and its rain of frogs. Punch-Drunk Love is a romantic comedy starring Adam freaking Sandler. There Will Be Blood is the first of Anderson’s films not to rub our noses in its own brilliance.
That’s not to say that it isn’t daring. The first ten minutes or so are essentially without dialogue, and play like something out of Matthew Barney’s dippy Cremaster* movies. (A grunting lithely-muscled workingman obsessively carves away at a rock wall, mysterious liquids (oil, spit), processes (mining) and phallic symbols (god, where to begin) are ritualistically documented.) And although the rest of the film is less experimental, it never (as my girlfriend pointed out) really congeals into a narrative. Even for a character study, the plot is kind of aimless. In a more tightly constructed film, when we jumped forward through time, we would see Plainview’s ruthlessness coming back to bite him in the ass. But in There Will Be Blood, like in real life, a lot of actions don’t have any noticeable consequences. You’d think that when he beats up Eli Sunday, the film would turn into a kind of battle between the two men over the hearts and minds of New Boston. It doesn’t. You’d think that eventually it would come out that he’d murdered his “brother.” It doesn’t. You’d think that when Plainview threatens to kill the Standard Oil rep, it would eventually lead to the collapse of his business empire. Or something. But it doesn’t. By contrast, Citizen Kane, which sets the standard for the rags-to-riches-to-psychological-breakdown genre, is all about showing the consequences of Kane’s actions. But at the end of the day, it’s perhaps less about Kane’s character than about the way his character fits into society. It’s all told through other people’s perceptions of Kane, and we’re told in no uncertain terms that those perceptions matter immensely, both to Kane and to the reporter/audience-stand-in. Plainview, on the other hand, could give a flying fuck what people think of him. And for the most part, so could the film. My one sentence plot summary of Blood would be: “things happen, and Plainview reacts.” We basically never see anyone react to anything that he does. (The only exceptions are Eli Sunday and Plainview’s son, and even here the film doesn’t tend to dwell on it.) How different would it have been, if the film had ended with Plainview getting arrested for killing Eli? How different would it have been if Plainview’s butler had even reacted with shock or horror (rather than bemusement) upon discovering the crime? Instead, Plainview simply says “I’m finished,” and the film is happy to let him have the last word. The line could mean “I’m done for,” it could also simply mean “I’m done.” Day-Lewis’ reading is quite unambiguously the latter sense.
I also have something to say about the soundtrack, but I’ll save that for another post – this has gone on too long already. Still, I do want to take a moment to nominate Paul Dano for some kind of special award from the academy. It’s not that he out-acted Daniel Day-Lewis. Even in scenes like the exorcism, where Dano is crawling up the walls and Day-Lewis is standing silent in the corner of the room, you know who’s in charge. Dano’s achievement is more like that of Chuck Wepner, an undistinguished heavyweight boxer known as “the Bayonne Bleeder” whose claim to fame is managing to stay upright for fifteen rounds against Muhammad Ali in his prime. (the fight, which you can see here, inspired a young Sylvester Stallone to write the screenplay to Rocky.) Look, Leonardo DiCaprio is actually quite a good actor, and Cameron Diaz is perfectly capable, but in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis squashes the two of them like bugs. Day-Lewis’ performance in Blood is easily as impressive, and as gonzo, as anything he did in Gangs, but Dano manages to hold his own. For two and a half hours, he wades in swinging – his performance is easily as histrionic as Day-Lewis’ own – without once looking like an idiot. Dano keeps his milkshake, and that’s no small accomplishment.
* Yes, I went there.