I caught Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood, at a press screening a few days ago. Anderson is without a doubt one of the best directors working today. Magnolia is my favorite film of all time, and his other three films are varying degrees of brilliant. Coming off Magnolia, he said “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I'll make some clunkers, maybe I'll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make.”
His follow up to Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, further develops the magical realist strain present in the former, and does some really interesting things with film form, so I was excited to see where he’d go next. Unfortunately, There Will Be Blood is easily Anderson’s weakest film, a move towards conventional filmmaking at the expense of the unique voice that shone through in his first four films. It’s not a bad movie, but it doesn’t ignite a fire in me the way his other films do. Watching those other movies, I’m awed at the power of what cinema can do; here, there are some great moments, but the film never quite gets it together, primarily due to the lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, which ultimately sinks the film.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its physicality. In the opening sequence, we see Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview fall down a mineshaft, and the sound and impact of the scene is painful. We’re right there with him as he hits the ground, and the death of a derrick worker later in the film is similarly effective. In those moments, you really get the sense of the danger of this work, but also the sense of discovery. Plainview begins the film as one man in a hole, trying to find wealth, and that pain he feels will be vindicated later in the film.
The film’s strongest material is in its first half. We quickly get a sense of who Plainview is, and are able to segue into the film’s central set piece, his creation of a new Little Boston, a town so rich with oil that it’s literally seeping out of the ground. I love watching works like Deadwood or The Wire’s third season that detail the creation of a new civilization. In those works, we understand how a singular vision can lead to vast changes in the lives of all involved. I was feeling a McCabe and Mrs. Miller vibe, with the wealthy industrialist coming to build a town that would make him money.
The film’s most successful bits center around Plainview recreating the town in his image. There’s an interesting moral position here; on the one hand he is exploiting them for their oil. But, if he builds a school and makes them all wealthy, where’s the harm in that? The opening of the derrick is a moment for celebration, and watching the town gathered, we understand the impact this will have. The quiet moments where Daniel and his son, H.W., hang out with the locals are some of the film’s most successful, capturing a kind of Days of Heaven utopian feel.
And, this is where the film’s central conflict works best. Daniel and Eli Sunday are rivals throughout the film. In the beginning of the movie, that rivalry sears the screen with its intensity. When Daniel passes over Eli to bless the well, you just know shit is going down. Eli is steaming, but can’t say anything, and Plainview is laughing beneath his genial mask.
Things build to the film’s strongest visual set piece, the fire at the well. This is another visceral moment, with H.W. nearly getting blown off the derrick by the force of the oil. There are some beautiful shots of men running to put the fire out as burning oil gushes into the air. The sequence is intense and a wonderful piece of visual spectacle. There are few sights more dazzling than that fiery oil erupting into the sky as the derrick burns. When Daniel abandons his son to go back to the derrick, we know everything we need to know about him. His great accomplishment in the town is burning, everything seems to be falling apart.
At this point, I was liking the film, but not loving it. It was in a position where a strong ending could make it into a masterpiece. Unfortunately, nothing late in the film comes close to matching the intensity or visual spectacle of the burning derrick sequence. That should have been the end of the film. As a visual symbol of Plainview’s destruction, it’s perfect, we don’t need to see any more.
The rest of the film is a series of events that don’t really build to anything. Stuff happens, but I never got the strong sense of forward momentum that the film had at the beginning. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the characters were interesting in and of themselves, but they’re just not. The biggest danger when making a period film is to treat the characters like an alien, unknowable people. These characters are bound by artifice and I have no sense of them as people like you or me. They exist in a kind of mythic world that doesn’t feel emotionally real.
The best period films, like The New World or Marie Antoinette, manage to make the characters emotionally relatable. In The New World, the filmmaking itself conveys the universality of the emotions. The shots cut through the artifice of period speech and bring emotion to the fore. Here, Anderson’s style is less overt than what he used in his previous films. I love the breaks from realism of his previous films, the singing sequence in Magnolia, or the lens flares in Punch Drunk Love. They are not real in the sense of something that would happen in our world, but they let us engage with the characters in a way that just showing events cannot.
This film is well shot, but it doesn’t do a good job of making great cinematic moments. Much like No Country for Old Men, I can’t really fault any of the cinematography, but it didn’t hit me like a good movie should. The film flirted with Malick’s style a lot, even using Jack Fisk as production designer, but comparing the movie to Malick makes its failures clear. Malick creates an intensely subjective cinema, one where you’re absolutely drowning in feeling and beauty. Here, you’re always at a distance from the emotion, the filmmaking doesn’t draw you in.
The score is at fault here too. I heard a lot of hype about how unconventional and effective it is, but it sounds fairly straightforward to me. There’s no anachronistic elements, nothing that jumps out at you, it’s just dissonant, buzzing strings and other similar sounds. It’s nothing like Jon Brion’s Magnolia or Punch Drunk Love scores, which provide momentum and additional aesthetic beauty to those films.
I’d suspect Anderson wanted to go minimalistic for this film, to prove that he could make films without “gimmicks.” But is Malick a gimmicky filmmaker? Is Wong Kar-Wai a gimmicky filmmaker? Those are the guys that Anderson matched up to in his past two films, creating these emotionally immersive, wonder-filled epics. Here, he’s making a much more straight ahead film, and it really bothers me that people are calling it more “mature” or a major leap forward. This is exemplary of a bias in film criticism which holds that movies set in the past are somehow inherently more worthy than present day stuff. This movie doesn’t feel alive in the way that his others do; unfortunately, mature is frequently a euphemism for more conventional. But, as Alan Moore said, reality is much less interesting than fantasy, and the lack of stylistic flourishes hurts the film for me.
My guess is that Anderson felt Day-Lewis would provide the film with all it needed, and his goal as a filmmaker was to just stay out of the way and let Lewis do his thing. Unfortunately, Day Lewis, in my opinion, is not a very good actor. Now, that may be blasphemy to some, so let me explain. For me, acting should be about becoming a character. The best performances are the ones that don’t feel like performances at all, where you assume they just found this guy on the street and put him in the film. However, critics and awards organizations don’t usually award those performances because they’re not showy, if a person seems just like the character they’re playing, it means they’re not acting right? That’s probably why The Wire hasn’t got any acting awards.
Anyway, Day-Lewis is a frequently awarded actor, and has this mythology about his total commitment to every role. This is the guy who sat in a wheelchair for three months for My Left Foot, lived in the forest for a year killing deer for Last of the Mohicans, and apparently he actually took a time machine and lived in 1911 for this role. That’s devotion, right? But, it’s this very devotion to the role that distances me from his work. He always seems to be so intensely into the role, I think more this guy is acting up a storm than just looking at Plainview and thinking, huh, this is a troubled, nasty guy. The performance itself becomes a kind of spectacle, the intensity is so powerful that critics mistake that for good acting. But, to me, the intensity is such that I’m taken out of the film, it’s an extra-textual intensity, not motivated by what’s in the film. I never get the sense of Plainview as a human being. Day-Lewis may stay in character all the time on set, but no one in real life stays in character all the time. We shift and change depending on the situation, and I didn’t feel that capacity for varied emotion from the character.
This didn’t really become apparent until the film’s final scene, when Day-Lewis goes so far over the top, I got completely taken out of the film and started watching a guy yelling and going nuts. Should he not prepare so thoroughly, should he be less intense? Not necessarily, obviously the performance works for a lot of people, but this just isn’t a kind of acting that works for me. Anderson’s gotten some phenomenal performances in his previous work, from all kinds of people, and I feel like he lost control of Day-Lewis here. Compare Day-Lewis’s performance to Adam Sandler’s in Punch Drunk Love. I felt more genuinely scared by Sandler’s intensity because it boils beneath the surface the whole film, only coming out in occasional spurts. There’s no room to be over the top, but we’re always worried he’s just going to lose it. Because Plainview has essentially no foils and no limits, there’s no danger in him completely losing it.
In the case of the last scene, I guess we’re supposed to be worried about Eli Sunday, but Paul Dano is such a non-presence in the film, I don’t really care. The problem with his character is that the moment where he sells his soul doesn’t feel weighty enough. It’s a sadistic act by Daniel, but I never emotionally engaged with Eli, so I’m distanced from the whole scene. Daniel has changed a lot over the last sixteen years, Eli not so much, or at least not that I can tell. He has become more like Daniel, but only in one scene do we see that in action.
I think what Anderson was going for was to show us the pain Daniel feels at H.W. betraying him taken out on Eli, but knowing what he was going for doesn’t excuse the failure of that scene. I think he was going for a Kubrick-style, almost comedic ending, but it just doesn’t work. Day-Lewis’s performance in that moment kills it for me. It’s already an underwritten finale, and I feel like he’s trying to bring this film to a close by himself if it kills him. There’s an intriguing bizarreness about the scene, and who knows, maybe on another day the ridiculous over the top-ness would have worked me. But, on this viewing, it didn’t. I wanted something stronger for the ending, I wanted a moment that matched the burning derrick, but nothing ever came close to that. There’s a few good scenes in the second half, but on the whole, we get no sense of what Daniel did to the town, no sense of how the lives were changed, and no real sense of the man himself. For all Day-Lewis’s bravado, Daniel remains essentially unknowable. Perhaps it’s a bold choice not to let him open up, not to show us his feelings, but it leaves me distanced.
I wouldn’t call the film a failure, it’s a solid three of four stars, but from Anderson, it’s a major disappointment. It’s not a step backwards so much as it’s a step away from emotionally real, cinematically dazzling storytelling, towards a more traditional period epic. People have hailed the film for recalling classic Hollywood epics, but most of those movies weren’t good ones. They weren’t as strong as the intensely personal epics that Anderson crafted with his previous three films. There’s no moments in this film that come close to the manic “Jesse’s Girl” scene in Boogie Nights, pretty much any scene in Magnolia, or the gorgeous color flood kisses of Punch Drunk Love.
Now, you may say I’m criticizing the film simply because it’s different from those other films, doesn’t live up to what I want PTA to be. To that, I say, if this movie wasn’t by Anderson, I probably wouldn’t have written half as much. I want to understand how such a great director could misstep in this way. In some ways, it reminds me of Tim Burton’s Big Fish. That was a good, solid movie, but it lacked the personal spirit that infused his best work. People really responded to it, but I don’t know that anyone loved it in the way they loved Edward Scissorhands.
Who knows how things will go? Perhaps this will mark the ascent of Paul Thomas Anderson, beloved Oscar-winning epic filmmaker, or maybe it’s just a palette clearing exercise before he returns to more personal work. Ultimately, I can only say how I responded to the film, how I responded to the Day-Lewis performance and where the film succeeded and failed.