Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Very few filmmakers are burdened by as high of expectations as Paul Thomas Anderson. Boogie Nights and Magnolia have made him the kind of guy who is seemingly capable of anything. This is turning out to be a theme of the Fall 2007 movie season. This fall has seen two other films by filmmakers who also work under the kind of ridiculously lofty expectations PTA faces—Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers. Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is generally regarded as an artistic flop—at least by Wes Anderson’s standards—while it’s widely acknowledged that the Coens have returned to greatness with No Country For Old Men (with the possible exception of the last twenty minutes). So where does PTA’s much-anticipated There Will Be Blood fall on this Spectrum of Expectations?
The answer is: somewhere in the middle. That’s about as definitive as I can get with this strange creation coming out this holiday season. PTA has taken a huge risk leaving his beloved San Fernando Valley behind with There Will Be Blood. His last three movies—including his two masterpieces, Boogie Nights and Magnolia—have taken place there. He’s finally left his comfort zone of sprawling, multi-character epics packed with perfectly-chosen music and virtuoso cinematic flourishes to ply his craft on another kind of film. There Will Be Blood is set between 1898 and 1927, and slavishly follows one dominant character: Daniel Day-Lewis’s oil wildcatter Daniel Plainview. Anderson’s shooting style shifts to reflect this radical change in period and subject matter. Shot out on a Texas ranch made to stand in for turn-of-the-century California, he gives us a much more static, patient camera that reflects the slower pace of life back then. And instead of the 70s hits of Boogie Nights or the Aimee Mann originals in Magnolia, we get a tense orchestral score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Daniel Day-Lewis is in just about every frame of There Will Be Blood—including the wordless opening fifteen minutes, which observes him down in a mine, digging for his fortune all on his own. If you’re going to tether a movie so tightly to one performer, Lewis is probably the one to choose. He gives a performance here as original and commanding as his turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. It’s hard to praise Lewis without resorting to clichés, since he embodies pretty much everything you want in an actor. His Daniel Plainview sports the Bill the Butcher mustache, but is a wholly unique creation. He speaks in the overly fussy enunciation John Huston spoke with, a control freak in command of every breath and vibration that escapes his mouth.
Lewis’s performance is similar to his turn in Gangs of New York in more than just the awesome mustache: his performance is so good that it partially—but not totally—masks some of the movie’s deep flaws. Gangs of New York just didn’t give Leonardo DiCaprio enough to do to compete with Lewis’s scene chewing, resulting in one of the most unbalanced films in memory. The problem in There Will Be Blood isn’t that Lewis totally overpowers the protagonist—he is the protagonist—but that PTA just doesn’t get down to basics and tell a sound, well-constructed story.
This is the classic American rise-and-fall story, wherein our hero carves himself a fortune out of nothing, but falls prey to the demons that drove him to those pinnacles in the first place. It’s a theme most familiar from Citizen Kane—a pretty direct reference for Blood—but runs through all the great America epics (The Godfather Goodfellas, Gatsby, etc.). If you’ve seen the preview, you know Daniel Plainview’s base drives: he has “a competition” in him. He wants everyone else to fail, wants to make enough money so he won’t have to deal with other people anymore.
The expected story that goes along with this theme—very familiar in the Western genre—is the bully who’ll stoop to any low to take every last breadcrumb for himself. In the face of fierce competition, his iron will forces poor dupes off their land, sucks away the oil who’s rights legally belong to someone else, and swallows up the little guy. And Daniel Plainview does have an iron will. He just doesn’t really have to flex it all that much here. Most of the story is curiously static. Plainview shows up at a poor family’s rock-and-sand ranch and offers to buy it at a low—though fair, by the standards of the time—price. And they sell. Then he starts drilling for oil. He finds it. Everything pretty much works out for him. The story follows this pattern throughout. Even when Standard Oil—that’s Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the biggest corporate bully of the Gilded Age, and that’s saying quite a bit—shows up, the expected fireworks don’t really transpire. Plainview’s only real “competition” is a young evangelical preacher played by Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano. It’s a fine turn, and his unshakable religious beliefs offer a nice juxtaposition to Plainview’s amoral selfishness—but Plainview’s selfishness just isn’t pronounced enough in most of the movie to make him one of those truly memorable epic tyrants.
Therein lies the great flaw at the heart of There Will Be Blood. Its theme just isn’t really borne out by its actions. Without the memorable speech by Lewis about the “competition in him” that’s already familiar from the trailer, it would be difficult to spot the theme at all. And the lack of true obstacles for Plainview to bull his way through is what makes for a fairly unengaging story. Lewis is of course a force of nature, but he’s almost too good in this movie, just like he was in Gangs of New York. No one can stand up to him—he just acts everybody else right off the screen. PTA had to replace the actor playing Paul Dano’s part—the second biggest in the film—halfway through, and that’s not the least bit surprising. It’s not really Lewis’s fault—Anderson just doesn’t put the work needed into any other characters to make them feel in any way, shape, or form like true rivals.
Daniel Plainview just plain needs someone to truly come into conflict with. Although I enjoyed watching the meticulous period recreation and the way Jonny Greenwood’s score constantly unsettled whatever you were seeing, most of the events felt arbitrary in the way that stories without any true conflict or drama always do. The movie could have ended at half a dozen points and I wouldn’t have been disappointed. “What happens next?” is the basic question anyone hearing a story needs to constantly be asking themselves, and it’s just one that you don’t ask enough during There Will Be Blood.
It’s impossible to write this film off as a failure, however. It’s not. For all the slackness of the first three-fourths of the movie, it’s got an ending that will drop your jaw to the floor. It’s almost the polar opposite of No Country for Old Men in that way PTA kind of plays possum for most of the movie in order to catch you off guard with a fire and brimstone ending. Whether you can play possum for three-fourths of a movie and get away with it is another question.
It’s been almost ten years since PTA’s last great film, Magnolia, came out, and it’s nice to see him swinging for a grand slam again. He doesn’t quite make it in There Will Be Blood, but watching him try for it is still worth the price of admission.