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Posts Tagged ‘There Will Be Blood’

I don’t know about you, but when I watch a film for the first time, afterwards I’m usually sure of two things: whether or not it’s any good, and whether or not I like it (the two don’t always necessarily coincide: see The Transporter, or any number of Japanese kaiju movies). This isn’t always the case – it took two goes for me to get my head properly around Brazil, and quite a few more to understand where Beneath the Planet of the Apes was coming from. But both of those are films I first saw over twenty years ago, and recently things have been a bit more straightforward.

Well, anyway, recently I sat down to watch for the first time Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 movie There Will Be Blood (NB: title is correct), and at the end I had the unfamiliar sensation of really not knowing what to make of it. Now, I have to confess that my appreciation of this particular Paul Anderson (let us not speak of the other one at this time) is mainly due to seeing Magnolia on the big screen almost by accident one afternoon in 2000. I went mainly on the strength of a glowing review from Dr K, because this wasn’t the kind of film I usually watched at the time – but verily, my mind was blown. It is still one of my very favourite films, and as a result I will make an effort to see anything else Anderson directs. (I didn’t see There Will Be Blood when it came out because I was living in Italy at the time and, due to the dubbing, couldn’t cope with anything that had a more complex plot than Alien vs Predator 2.)

So, anyway – mostly set in the early years of the 20th century, this film tells the story of Daniel Plainview (a characteristically committed and mesmeric performance from Daniel Day-Lewis), a miner turned oilman in the south-western USA. A lengthy, silent prologue shows the extraordinary demands this life has made of Plainview, which goes some way to explaining what a remarkable character he has become. Now prosperous, he is tipped off to the presence of oil deposits in a remote California valley, and heads there to investigate. Attempting to buy up the land without revealing its true worth, he discovers it is owned by the family of a devout young preacher, Eli (Paul Dano) – and Eli suggests Plainview could get the land rights he desires if he funds the construction of a new church for the valley. Not a believer, but relentlessly pragmatic, Plainview agrees to the deal – however, the clash of the two men’s personalities and philosophies will continue for many years to come…

There’s moment, early on, in which Plainview essentially baptises his child with crude oil, and at that point I thought ‘Ah hah, this is going to be about the clash of God and Mammon, the strained relationship between the exigences of the morality of big business and  the demands of a religious life’ – and a very timely and potentially interesting subject for a movie that would be, given it was made when there was a fundamentalist Christian oil tycoon in the White House. I still think I was probably right – the clashes between Plainview and Eli recur throughout the film, each wringing increasingly humiliating concessions from the other as time goes by – but I’m sure if this is really the only, or even main, theme of the movie.

There’s such a lot of other stuff going on – Plainview’s son is badly injured in an accident at the oil well, his long-lost brother turns up looking for help, that sort of thing – which doesn’t have much to do with anything but illuminating the further recesses of Plainview’s character.

And what a character he is. In some ways absurd, in others sympathetic, in still others terrifying, he is an extraordinary creation and having seen the film I can’t imagine anyone else but Day-Lewis bringing him to life so vividly. When he was up for the Oscar he eventually won (deservedly) for this film, I had an – erm – heated discussion with a friend about him as an actor. My friend declared he was the greatest actor in history, and ordered me to consider his track record. I retorted that it’s probably easier to give really good performances when you only do one film every four or five years, and all his parts are a little bit samey – you couldn’t imagine Daniel Day-Lewis playing the lead in a Richard Curtis movie as well as Hugh Grant or Colin Firth, could you? My friend snorted passionately (he is Irish – like half of Day-Lewis – which may explain the strength of his advocacy) and said that Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn’t want to be in a Richard Curtis movie. What, I replied, so being a snob makes you a better actor?

I don’t know, let’s make him do some more movies – Mark Strong probably has a few spare projects he can’t squeeze into his schedule – and find out how good he really is. Personally I would thank Mark Ruffalo for his efforts and blackmail Daniel Day-Lewis into playing the Hulk in the next movie the character appears in. The results would certainly be interesting and it would show once and for all just how serious the great man is about this method business he’s so famous for.

Sorry, I’ve gone off on a bit of tangent there, but I think I’m entitled as it isn’t like the film doesn’t seem to be meandering around a bit either. Day-Lewis’s performance is astoundingly good, as are those of everyone else involved (apart from Dano, featured players include Kevin O’Connor from a lot of Stephen Sommers movies, Hans Howes from lots of minor roles, and currently-appearing-in-everything Ciaran Hinds), and the film is breathtakingly filmed and composed. Anderson has an effortless, restless mastery of form and here he opts for a lot of very long takes and travelling shots that give the film an easy gravitas. There are lots of interesting things going on on the soundtrack, too, courtesy of Jonny Greenwood from some band or other.

But despite the impressive performances and dialogue, the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the compelling score, this felt to me like a good film missing the strong and driving narrative it would need to make it a truly great one. This isn’t a slow film and it is filled with incident, but it doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure or any sense of how it’s going to proceed. Jumps in time happen unexpectedly, and the actual climax – such as it is – comes rather as a surprise.

Could it have been the case that Anderson became so enraptured of Day-Lewis’s performance he just decided to build the film around that? The easiest way to describe the movie is as a character piece, the study of the dissolution of one man’s character due to his driving obsession. It still feels like there should be more to it than that – towards the end it just feels like Anderson pointed the camera at Day-Lewis and Dano and said ‘Go crazy, guys, I’ll just keep rolling’ – it certainly feels more like a masterclass in the outer extremes of method craziness than any kind of structured narrative.

And yet, and yet… and so we return to the questions I discussed at the top of this piece. Was I impressed with the quality of There Will Be Blood? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt – this is the work of masters of the craft. But did I like it? This is a tougher question to answer, and I’m wondering if my fondness for some of Anderson’s earlier movies isn’t influencing me to go easier on him than I normally would. (I remember feeling exactly the same after seeing Punch-Drunk Love, which is probably quite telling.) I think I will just conclude by saying that this is quite a challenging film to watch, and an even harder one to genuinely like (as opposed to simply admire), but in the former case the effort is definitely worth it.

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