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.