THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) : P.T.Anderson : 7/10

Published on: February 5th, 2008

Yesterday these golden rewards were heavy in his hands, today the magician Death has breathed on them and lo! they are there no longer. Thus Death laughs at the world, for he makes failures of us all. With the grim tax-gatherer there is no question of percentage. He takes all. Even of genius he leaves only a memory.
       Bishop Francis C Kelley, funeral oration for Edward L Doheny
       Los Angeles, September 1935

   If we define 'masterpiece' as a work of exceptional and outstanding merit, the vast majority of film-makers go their entire careers without ever coming close to making even a single one. But between 1997 and 2002, Paul Thomas Anderson consecutively delivered three in relatively quick succession: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love – the latter a radical departure from (and, for this viewer at least, improvement upon) pretty much everything the medium had produced up to that point.
   With Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson brought the unbridled experimentalism of the avant-garde to bear upon Hollywoodish material: an ostensible romantic-comedy with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. He reportedly went through dozens of takes for every scene, and in post-production eschewed anything which remotely resembled "conventionality". The result, though only 90 minutes long, was a financial catastrophe – and a quantum leap beyond anything he'd achieved before, (notwithstanding my view that both Boogie Nights and Magnolia are among the most remarkable and enduring films of their decade.)
   And now we have what Anderson calls his fourth feature (his "debut", Sydney was taken away from him, recut by the studio, and released in 1996 as Hard Eight.) Oil-business saga There Will Be Blood has been embraced even by those who resisted PTA's earlier movies. Previously – and conspicuously – 'tepid-shouldered' by AMPAS (a pair of writing nods), he's now been nominated for Best Picture (as producer), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (script freely based on sections of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!).
   Indeed, There Will Be Blood (a phrase which is conspicuously absent from the dialogue, and seems to have been borrowed from Saw II's poster, of all places) is the most-nominated film of the year – equal with Ethan and Joel Coen's No Country For Old Men. Some critics have compared it with Citizen Kane and the finest achievements of Griffith and Ford. It's easy to see why: There Will Be Blood looks like a masterpiece, sounds like a masterpiece, feels like a masterpiece, presents itself – swaggeringly – as a masterpiece. And therein lies the rub.
   Anderson has, quite simply, overreached himself. That may seem an odd thing to say about a director who, I still fervently believe, is responsible for the greatest film I have ever seen. But just because he's capable of transcendent genius, that doesn't mean he's capable of everything. Genius and versatility aren't habitual bedfellows, and it's noticeable in retrospect that each of Anderson's masterpieces is set in the director's backyard (obscure corners of suburban Los Angeles, in or near the San Fernando Valley), in time-frames through which Anderson himself has lived, and touch on major issues only obliquely (if at all).
  
Set in dusty New Mexico and rural California, There Will Be Blood spans 1898 to 1927 and deals with the grandest of themes: politics, economics, psychology, and so on. The film is constructed around the extravagantly larger-than-life figure of Daniel Plainview – a barnstormingly vivid performance from Daniel Day-Lewis which will, barring accidents, be rewarded with an Oscar (even if Tommy Lee Jones' quieter work in an inferior film – In the Valley of Elah – is arguably more deserving.)

   The Plainview figure in the novel – who bears a different name – is a thinly-veiled portrait of real-life oil baron Ned Doheny, a major figure in the 'Teapot Dome' financial scandal of the 1920s which helped to bring down President Warren Harding. Anderson is clearly aware of this provenance – he filmed the concluding episode of The Will Be Blood in Doheny's actual mansion – and it's tempting to interpret his movie as a commentary on American history, an exploration of themes relating to oil, exploitation, capitalism, religion and (presidential) power which remain painfully topical today.
   Except, to steal a line from Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Anderson just doesn't have "the ingredients." There are many directors of current and recent times who would have been able to craft a searching parable from  Plainview's progress: perhaps Robert Altman (with whom Anderson collaborated on A Prairie Home Companion, and There Will Be Blood's dedicatee.)
   Anderson's vision is much too eccentric, however, to be able to sustain any kind of allegorical or forensic analysis: he's all about getting inside his protagonists' idiosyncratic worldview (a task accomplished with bravura brilliance in Punch-Drunk Love). And he has turned Plainview into such a monstrous grotesque, and given Day-Lewis (who at times seems to be channelling John Huston, at times Huston's dad Walter*, at others Phantasm's Angus Scrimm) such leeway, that the film becomes a vortex of monstrous grotesqueness – horribly infatuated with its protagonist's increasingly unstable behaviour. Anderson's previous pictures have been, to greater or lesser extents, ensemble pieces – he's never had to cope with the protean, dominant likes of a Day-Lewis before, and at times it seems as though it's the actor, not the director, who's taken main charge of the picture's energies.
   Gleefully demonic in his misanthropy, Plainview – as hot-tempered as a Begbie, as Olympian as a Chigurh – is a nutzoid caricature of frontiersman independence. And although his opposition in the film is religion – personified by simperingly-sanctimonious young preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) – you couldn't exactly call him atheist (even if Anderson seems to hold religion scathing contempt). It isn't as if he ever had much of a soul to lose on his road to riches (nor is he much troubled by conscience – he's the heaviest sleeper in cinema history). Plainview is simply infuriated by anybody and anything who dares to interfere with his plans – to the point of homicidal mania.
   Any wider points that Anderson might want to make (and how perverse to present an American arch-capitalist who's opposed to evangelical religion – in the book his foe is "organized labor") are sublimated as we penetrate Plainview's psychosis – culminating in a scene of near-farcical violence in his private bowling-alley. "I'm finished!" he announces, blasphemously semi-echoing Christ on the cross.
   The experimentation that served Anderson so well before – let's try thisand this and this! and this!!! – takes him down some unproductive dead-ends here, and it's evident that he's regarded as such an enfant terrible by his collaborators and studio "bosses" that nobody wanted to interfere with an 'artist' achieving his 'vision'. Much of what he attempts comes off, and comes off brilliantly – there's a forced-baptism-cum-exorcism sequence which ranks alongside anything Anderson has done before – but too often his creative choices go waywardly astray.

   Casting Dano as identical twins – Eli and his brother Paul – smacks of whimsical perversity, while allowing an actor as talented Ciaran Hands (as Plainview's right-hand man) to fade so quickly from sight is unfortunate – especially as his is one of the few relatively normal inviduals in the whole picture. But the main source of annoyance is Jonny (Radiohead) Greenwood's score – an artsy mish-mash of periods and styles featuring extracts from, among others, Arvo Part (a composer who's become grindingly ubiquitous among the works of young wannabe-auteurs over the past half-decade). There's a time and a place for such discordant, atonal stylings – and this particular film most certainly isn't it: the vast majority of experiments, let's not forget, end in (illuminating) failure.
   Script-wise, Anderson doesn't seem to know whether he's writing an opera or a soap-opera – many of the subsidiary characters whirling around Plainview (brothers who may not be brothers, sons who may not be sons, etc) seem inspired by the wilder fancies from Thomas Hardy novels, and it's especially difficult to know what to make of Plainview's little lad H W (Dillon Freasier) – especially after he's deafened by an oil-derrick accident which leaves him (implausibly) mute and also seems to render him immune to the ageing process (although any Tin Drum spectre is mercifully allayed when we see the fully-grown H W at the picture's end).
   In conclusion, There Will Be Blood is, by any measure, worth seeing: it's a big, epic, unusual, bizarre picture, made by a supremely talented individual and dominated by one of the more remarkable performances in recent cinema. But on closer inspection it's really just another overlong exercise in sub-Terrence-Malick atmospherics: Days of Hell, if you like. And if one of those is what you're after, you'd honestly be better off the other 2007 release edited by Dylan Tichenor: Andrew Dominik's James/Ford.
   Anderson has perhaps listened to all of those critics who – myself included – have been raving so noisily about his genius, and decided to go full-bore towards proving us all right (reminding us, once again, that the one sure-fire way to not make a masterpiece is to try.) Maybe we're all at fault, to some extent, for the disappointment that is There Will Be Blood. When I met him in Rotterdam a couple of years back, I almost immediately told him to his face what I thought of Punch-Drunk Love. He seemed utterly horrified. Apologies. Mea culpa. Consummatum est, OK?

Neil Young
8.Feb.08


* I wrote this review before discovering that Paul Thomas Anderson's favourite film is apparently The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), in which John Huston directed his father to the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

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USA
158m (BBFC timing)

director : Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, etc)
editor : Dylan Tichenor
   1996  Jazz '34  (Robert Altman) [co-editor Brent Carpenter] #1
   1997  Boogie Nights  (Anderson) #2
   1998  Hurlyburly  (Anthony Drazan) #3 
   1999  Magnolia  (Anderson) #4
   2000  Unbreakable   (M Night Shyamalan) #5
   2001  The Royal Tenenbaums   (Wes Anderson) #6
   2003  Cold Creek Manor  (Mike Figgis) #7
   2005  Brokeback Mountain  (Ang Lee) [co-editor Geraldine Peroni] #8
   2007  The Assassination of Jesse James 
                    by the Coward Robert Ford
 
(Andrew Dominik) #9
                    [co-editor Curtiss Clayton]
                                # 10 : There Will Be Blood

seen 5.Feb.08 Newcastle (Empire cinema : press show)


further reading

Vern //
"that last part is all an opium dream or takes place in purgatory or it's a vision reflected in the piece of silver he finds in the opening scene or there's a tiny world inside his mustache"

Michael Sicinski //
"Anderson draws on Kubrick and Welles most clearly; some have identified strains of Malick, but Anderson's engagement with the primordial materiality of the earth is anything but mystical here. It is brute, obstinate, a challenge to the will, but unlike Malick's Heideggerian naturalism, There Will Be Blood never once presents the earth in an unmediated state. It is always already owned, a sullied, for-money proposition."

Mike D'Angelo // 
"The titular blood is largely metaphorical; There Will Be Deoxyribonucleic Acid just doesn't have the same ring."

Daniel Kasman //
"It is not that the film moves at a montage-like clip as does much of Anderson's two mega movies, but rather the narrative touches down at telling details, small and large, to suggest something of Daniel Plainview and the world he represents, and then moves on to another idea."

David Walsh //
"Putting the best interpretation on it, Anderson is simply way in over his head, with ultimately disastrous artistic consequences."

David Thomson //
"Anderson has said that after Punch-Drunk Love (2002) he was deeply tired in a medium where there is currently all too little understanding of great work. It was only when he was engaged as a cover director (for insurance reasons) on Altman's A Prairie Home Companion that some taste for work came back to him."