Monday, January 07, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood is a serious accomplishment, but I am going to have to put it in a category with Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men (and P.T. Anderson’s earlier Boogie Nights): nearly perfectly crafted movies that were not for me.

The main factor, perhaps an unfair one to blame the movie for, was the trailer and the reviews – which all had me ready for an apocalyptic epic with a main character who was in the tradition of Milton’s Satan, Captain Ahab, and the Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. “Apocalyptic” was a word used in more than one review, as was “force of nature.” One review did compare Plainview to Ahab and one used the word “satanic”. “Epic” was also a word tossed around. The idea of that kind of film set in the early part of the twentieth century that pits a religious evangelical religion against capitalism in the form of two powerful men essentially building California got my attention immediately. The trailer, packing the film’s best music and imagery – fire, blood, violence, religious enthusiasm – into something pounding toward a stunning climax of misanthropy, confirmed this for me. Plainview’s voice alone is amazing. Magnolia was too much like Short Cuts to be a good movie in its own right, I thought, but the scene with the frogs was pretty amazing – something totally unnatural breaking in and changing everything was stunning. Punch Drunk Love did my favourite thing: take a stale genre, and make its clichés – will the couple work it out? Love conquers All – persuasive, dangerous and powerful again. P.T. Anderson is going to do something stunning here, I thought.

He does do something stunning, I guess. Certainly the camera work, landscape and the music go a long way toward that “epic” feel, as does the two hour and 40 minute running time. (As a side-note, I did like the music, though I think Neil Young wins for best music in a western in Dead Man). And it’s not like I hated There Will Be Blood, or could not tell that is was an amazing movie in its own right. But it is not at all what I wanted. Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview is not Satan, Ahab, or the Judge. (If you have not read Blood Meridian, but have seen No Country for Old Men, the Judge is a bit like Chigurh, if Chigurh danced and played the violin, and talked philosophy). Daniel Plainview, in the film, is not the Satanic figure of awe that he is in the trailer. He has a satanic energy, a dark drive, to be sure – this is what the reviews seize upon. But his energy is only directed toward oil. Ahab’s energy is directed toward the whale, but in the context of the whale’s place in the cosmos. God, or Nature, is Ahab’s true opponent. Ahab is Shakespearian. Plainview is Sinclair-ian. Plainview is selfish in an uninteresting way, myopic, drunk, childish, interested in petty humiliation, and his misanthropy is not apocalyptic or Gnostic – he just doesn’t like people. “Cruel” is too dramatic a word for him; “mean” is better. He thinks he is big, but the movie shows him to be small. Similarly Paul Dano’s preacher Eli Sunday. The trailer shows him for a moment preaching and you figure, having seen Magnolia, that this preaching scene is going to be a 20 minute, single take, tour-de-force – but it is not. It is a short scene, and more than a little silly, intentionally. Like Plainview, the film shows Sunday to be smaller than he thinks, and than I was lead to believe – petty, childish, stupid, and small. The trailer got me thinking this would be a clash of the titans, and I got something else. I blame P.T. Anderson less for this than I blame the reviewers and maybe the guy who cut the trailer. Though to be fair, my experience may be the point – maybe the film wanted to show me that capitalism and religious evangelicalism are just petty things from petty people. I guess I already figured that, maybe. If you read my earlier review of Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth (linked in the tool-bar on the right) you can see why this movie was not for me.

I think I would have preferred a movie a lot like this one, but where Plainview is more like The Judge and where it ends, with no warning after nearly three hours of perfect realism, with God smiting everyone with fire from the sky. Someone make me that movie.

Two final notes:

The more I think about Southland Tales, the more I like it.

I think it is possible I am crazy here, and that There Will Be Blood is not at all how I described it. I will continue to think on it. This is a first reaction.


Casey Malone said...

Sometimes I leave a film, like No Country for Old Men, and I understand what the film is trying to say clearly and appreciate the craft. Other times I leave a film, as in the case of There Will Be Blood, and I say to myself "There's something here, but I'm not sure what that is."

From here on out in my comment, There Will Be Spoilers.

It's funny to me that many reviews call Plainview Satanic*, or evil, or in your case mean. I think that for the majority of the film, he's simply cunning, something that perhaps culturally we associate with a certain level of cruelty. But I saw him as a very well spoken buisnessman, shrewd but (in my estimation of early 20th century oil-mining,) fair to those he dealt with.

Plainview knew what he wanted, and how to get it, and did so in what seemed to be as upfront a manner as he could. He doesn't appear to cheat Paul Sunday or any of the people he deals with. But he's wealthy, and confident, which leaves him with few disadvantages. Compare this to characters in films like the Ocean's series, who are clearly liars, and thieves, but they're the underdogs and equally charismatic as Plainview and we laud them as heroes. Eli Sunday is no less evil than Terry Benedict, so why do we condemn Plainview?

He does become a monster, a wasteful murdering drunk, by the end of the film. But this clear shift of character comes when he's forced to sell out to his enemy, and in my estimation was driven by 20-odd years of self loathing and destruction. Plainview got what he wanted, but had to give up his integrity and beliefs, so what good was any of it?

He says to his son at the end that he was simply window dressing, but I don't believe it. The character isn't generally deceptive in the movie from my point of view, so why would he lie to not only his "buisness partner" H.W., but also essentially to himself? Even when H.W. sets their bunk on fire, Plainview doesn't beat him (something he had put a stop to with Mary Sunday and her father, in a show of his kindness and power), he simply doesn't know what to do with him. So when his son marries into the family of his enemy and leaves for Mexico, Plainview lashes out.

If this seemed rambling, or a little directionless, I would point you to my comment about not know quite what to make of it. Is this movie about how combining capitalism and religion corrupts both? Niether men, Eli or Plainview, have any dignity or integrity by the climax of the film. Or is Anderson asking us about our perceptions of what makes someone good versus evil, and what it would take to skew those perceptions?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think that Plainview, despite his wealth and joy at the end of the film, is a tragic character, and comparisons to Satan or Ahab are more from lazy writing and analysis than anything in the text.


*Maybe this stems from the shot of Daniel from the perspective of Eli during the great oil fire that burns down Mary's well on the first night. In in, Daniel and his assistant are dark against a raging inferno, their silhouettes distorted from the heat. It was clear what imagery Anderson was going for, hell, demons, etc... but I believe this shot was more telling of Eli, and what Eli thought of Plainview and the entire Oil-mining affair rather than anything about Plainview himself.

Geoff Klock said...

Early in the film he says he is a family man, but we never see him really act like one. He does rush to save his child, but then he returns to the oil and leaves the kid in a soundless terror. Then he abandons him on a train, claiming he will be back in a minute. That is more than not knowing what to do with the kid, although that is a problem. He is not fair -- he misrepresents himself to the Sundays right from the start (Quail hunting), and then never pays the money he was supposed to. He cold cocks a 14 year old man of god for even asking about it. He does not let Eli bless the well, and instead steals Eli's words to use in his own way. These are all examples from early enough in the film that I cannot see this film being about a man of integrity being corrupted. His protecting of Mary is too small to make up for these things. I also would not describe Plainview as having "joy" at the end of the film, unless you mean an evil joy in breaking something that fades the moment it is over.

Casey Malone said...

"I also would not describe Plainview as having "joy" at the end of the film, unless you mean an evil joy in breaking something that fades the moment it is over."

That is, actually, what I meant. As the film ends, he's thrilled at the destruction of his enemy and jumping around excitedly.

As far as abandoning his child on the train, I thought he seemed visibly distraught by all of this, and happy enough to see his son upon his return.

As for Eli, maybe I'm letting my own distaste for the character cloud my view of the events, but I saw this as a territory war. Eli told Plainview, not asked, that he had to bless the well, Plainview's well. Plainview simply wasn't going to let Eli boss him around. While I recognized this slight, I didn't see it as anything more than the start of the conflict between the two characters.

As for the cold cocking, again, maybe I let my distaste for Eli color my view of this event, as I kind of thought he had it coming.

I could simply be reading this wrong, as I said, I don't really know what to make of the film.

scott s said...

I had the same expectations about the narrative, especially after reading the NYT magazine article about Daniel Day Lewis' "existential" character. That guy is so annoying and ridiculous when he talks about his "craft," and i wasn't particularly impressed by him in "gangs of new york," so I was a little resistant to the Daniel Day Lewis worship. But he completely blew me out of the water. I think he gave a mythic performance in an intentionally un-mythic character.

I think Geoff's point about plainview is right, that he's unsatisfyingly human. As moviegoers, we want him to be an unwavering Ayn Rand capitalist, ruthless, cunning, etc But he's not... he just competitive and doesn't like other people. His passion, like capitalism, is a pretty boring and meaningless pursuit.

The best part of the AV Club interview with PT Anderson is when they ask about Plainview getting so many laughs. Ahab is a pretty silly character, but he doesnt get too many laughs. Neither does Satan or Judge Holden. I think this is exactly the point; and I think the movie inverts the gnostic ubermensch in the same way that Punch Drunk Love remixes the romantic comedy.

Not Ultros said...

Spoilers follow.

It is interesting to me that most of the comments on this thread, regarding the "scale" of Daniel Plainview's evil, have neglected to mention his murdering his "brother." As soon as he suspects he's being tricked, he murders this person in cold blood (and thus creates the circumstances that require his baptism, one could argue). Plainview almost seems to want to be more evil than he actually is (because he hates people so, sooo much).

Did anyone ever else read him as a repressed homosexual, or am I looking way too deep into this?

Also, forgive me for being thick, but did anyone else get really confused at the relationship between Paul and Eli? Please spoiler away, because I'm still scratching my head at that.

Regarding the Judge, are we all pretty annoyed that Ridley Scott's adapting BLOOD MERIDIAN, or what?

Erin said...

Totally procrastinating applying for jobs. Totally spoilers.

*I think attempts to fit Plainview into a satan/Judge mold are misguided, and the previews and posters, coupled with the recent release of No Country for Old Men are partially at fault. I didn't see any of the three previous, so i walked into the movie with nothing. About an hour in I realized that there was going to be a loose pitting of the religious vs the capitalist and i sort of wiggled excitedly but the parallel of Eli denouncing god for money with Plainview roaring repentance yanks them both out of simple religious archetype land. More than good and evil or morality i feel that it's a movie about american religion and about a particular type of american.

* Daniel Plainview's story is almost Pilgrim's Progress in reverse. He wants to be good, or at least be next to good, maybe in the lee of it, but he's forever being thrown into the shadeless light by his own clear apprehension of things, his essential honesty and the scary fount of his anger. Everything that happens draws him farther away from the celestial valley. What makes him vigorous is what keeps him savage. Watching the movie you get an awesome sense of gristle, of what it took to take a giant terrain and blast it into-par-with-Europe modernity in not many years, what sort of self-aware animals it took to do it. I don't mind admitting the sort of bias I reveal: the weaker needed melodrama to prop them up. I haven't read Oil! but i know that in The Jungle it's only the recent Swedish (?) immigrants who keep their sweetness and mild religion intact, and in the end they are ground down to nothing. It takes rage (Plainview), timidity/submission (Father Sunday/Henry) or false fervor (Eli) to live that life.

* He’s not a ‘good’ man but our standards of good would be foreign then. I think it’s flat out silly to say that he either must be a total evil capitalist or a good father/family man- he’s such a real character. He takes the kid and loves him while he can talk to him and when he can’t anymore he just doesn’t know what the hell to do and he takes the bewildered cowards way out. He’s real. I don’t get why anyone would want to take a real character and turn him into someone who was either good or bad. I think the filmmaker was trying to say this is the sort of wild conflicted person who built the county, look at him, and does any of this seem familiar?

* We aren't meant to like Daniel, but we like him a hell of a lot more than Eli. Eli is a powerful weak person, and Daniel a powerful person whose will be eaten by himself. Daubed in grease, lit with flames, as yet unaware that his son can’t talk to him anymore Daniel doesn’t need Eli or satan, there’s dark majesty in his life without him having to get it on Sundays. He's Batman with no cape and nothing to save. He's Nick Nolte in Ang Lee's Hulk (which was a great movie about anger, and to anyone who wants all super hero movies to be faithful representations of comics and not riffs, i say for gods's sake, why?), he's Clint Eastwood with no style/ethics/Ennio Morricone. He’s not apocalyptic at all- he might be epic, but he stays human. He’s Tom Berenger in Platoon, fatal and upright, very alive.

* If I thought Daniel transcended being american-oil-rush-man, I don’t think Eli got quite so far away from being american-religion-man. That could be me. It wasn’t Paul Dano, who I thought was very good- despicable but not over the top, so that you felt that your dislike was organic. Eli‘s supposed to be over-acting but Dano doesn‘t overact it. This is why Eli’s preacher scenes weren’t taken to their limit- the film doesn‘t want to say that Eli’s animus is equal to Daniel‘s. I also thought I was going to see some hair raising invocation in the first preaching scene but it was played for development of the character rather than DeNiro anything, and for that reason it tinges ridiculous at the finish. You never really wonder whether Eli is for real. You‘re let know he‘s not. It’s because he’s not that Daniel’s arc is what it is. If you showed Eli really getting picked up by the spirit and thrashed around or being powerful in any way then Daniel would either have had to dismiss him as crazy/possessed, no conflict in that; or be resistant to a real, powerful religion; and the movie watches him starve for something to work against the hate. He tries to get it with H.W, he tries to get it with Henry, and he even tries for a second when he is baptized: one of those yells was genuine and anguished. Then Sunday hits him and he starts to laugh. In the end he gives up. He consigns the only person he ever loved to the status of antagonist and knocks himself out of the salvation game with a bowling pin. He’s finished and is relieved only that his struggle is over.

* ‘I got a real bone to pick with god/od, but I need him/it,’ stories are not new (Jude the Obscure and The End of the Affair are very british takes on the theme)- but what makes Plainview’s dilemma so american is the violence and the striving and the fact that he loses. The harnessing of that theme to the bloody capitalist western makes the movie amazing.

Geoff Klock said...

Thank you Erin. This should be its own post maybe. You make some serious points here well.

brad said...

I need to weigh in. I'm not a critic. I'm just a guy. A guy who avoids all press and reviews for a movie he wants to see. I thought the movie was brilliant. It took me on a journey in a way that few movies that I've seen have. It's unfortunate maybe that movies need to be about something, because as a film for film's sake, this was a work of genius.

Geoff Klock said...

I would never argue with anyone that this is not a formal masterpiece.

Anagramsci said...

I think Erin's dead on target here--and her evaluation of Plainview as a character may go some way toward explaining the genesis of the misleading trailers/expectations that Geoff speaks of...

Actually, Plainview gives us most of what we need in that little speech he delivers (on the beach is it?), shortly before he kills Henry...

Daniel has "an envy" in him--he makes a competition with everyone he meets... in fact, he IS competition... the only people he can get along with are those he can conceive of as extensions of himself (his son; his "brother"--who, despite his seeming fitness as a companion, CANNOT be a friend; even the townspeople, as long as they're workin' on that oil problem)... this is why familial tropes are SO important to Daniel (i.e. always the main triggers of his rage--"don't tell me how to raise my family"; you're not my brother so I natually HAVE to kill you; you're not working for me anymore, so you CANNOT be my son; Eli: you represent a puerile religion that I hate, and you're making claims upon me based on ties of kinship? I have to kill YOU to!)

of course--I DO have to disagree with Erin when she claims that Daniel is "real" (i.e. in the sense that he unpredictable/not an allegorical embodiment of anything), because, as I say, I interpret him as insanely consistent--the personification of competition from the beginning to the end (his tenderness--while certainly "real"--being the natural result of an intense self-love breaking the beyond the limits of Daniel's physical person)

but one thing that Geoff (as a Bloomean) should love is that one could argue that Daniel's reading of the world as a competition is such a strong piece of misprision that he forces audiences, trailer-editors, and even PTA himself (if some of the interviews are to be believed) into believing that there's some kind of an apocalyptic duel going on in this movie, when, in sober hindsight, it becomes clear that NO ONE in There Will Be Blood constitutes any real threat to its protagonist