Monday, January 07, 2008
The View from the Tank: There Will Be Blood (2007)
I love reading movie reviews. I love going through multiple reviews of movies I've seen, to compare my take with that of the professionals. I'm almost always impressed with how well my favorite critics (Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott, Kenneth Turan) can break down the movie at hand, how precisely they locate its influences and debts, how unfailingly they locate the fatal flaws. I often enjoy the bad reviews the most.
Sometimes, however, something goes incredibly wrong in this process. The reviews I read of There Will Be Blood were uniform in their unrestrained praise for the movie. Manohla Dargis, in the NY Times, called the film "a consummate work of art," and wrote that Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Daniel Plainview was "among the greatest [she has] seen . . . ." Someone writing in Time called it "[o]ne of the most wholly original American movies ever made." Other reviews declared that the film had lifted Paul Thomas Anderson into the ranks of Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppolla, and D.W. Griffith.
After reading this heady stuff, I went into There Will Be Blood with the very highest of hopes. I had loved Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, though the rest of that movie was mostly a mess. I was primed and ready to love this film.
I emerged, two hours and fort-five minutes later confused and deeply disappointed. What didn't I get? What had I missed?
There are a few things that don't need to be argued about: the cinematography was excellent (though not earth-shattering); there were fantastically executed scenes of action and event; Johnny Greenwood's score was indeed interesting and often quite compelling.
But There Will Be Blood was by no means a masterpiece -- far far from it. It was a simple -- perhaps simplistic -- and incredibly narrow and sketchy portrait of a purportedly "complex" character, weighed down by tendentious and somewhat overblown themes saying something about American capitalism and evangelism (from what I could tell, that both were sort of bad).
Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainfield, we are meant to believe, is deeply complicated and troubled. We are meant to understand this because he grunts often, drinks heavily, breaks out into violence, sometimes weeps, and has a complicated relationship with his adopted son. But that adopted son, all of the characters around Plainview, and even Plainview himself, are the most simplistic, uninteresting, one-dimensional cartoon characters.
In a telling symptom of the movie's half-baked, unthought-through nature, there is no depth to any of the supporting characters. They are uniformly cardboard and flat. (Paul Dano, terrifyingly out of his depth and embarrassingly overacting as Eli/Paul Sunday, is the saddest example of this -- Dano is at the level where he would be a competent gueststar on Law & Order: SVU or maybe Monk.)
But the really fantastic problem here is that the supposedly deep and profound character at the center of this film, Daniel Plainfield, is equally one-dimensional and empty. Yes, Day-Lewis makes Plainfield ruthless, cunning, edging toward madness, full of an air of menace, and tingling with violence. He makes him, in other words, almost exactly the same character he played in Gangs of New York, Bill the Butcher, just with slightly different clothes (no hat), and the "Brooklynese" that Day-Lewis created for that role exchanged for a bizarre John Huston impersonation in this role. You know how this goes: he looks crazy and dangerous and menacing when he's walking (will he come over here and kick us in the face?), when he's drinking a glass of milk (will he smash the glass and carve his name into our chest?), when he's caressing his son's head (will he continue to caress the child's skull or bash it in?), when he's sleeping (will he wake and rip out our tongues?), when he's eating chocolate cake (will he stuff the cake into the eye-sockets of his business partner?). This provides the cheapest of thrills, and it is not great acting. It is simply one-note. He plays crazy all the time, and it is a cartoon. Should we be surprised when he breaks into absurd craziness at the end?
Yes, Day-Lewis is to be commended for his somewhat creative interpretation of American accents and pronunciation. Again, he does the same thing here that he did in Gangs of New York. He will be on the floor, moaning, writhing, in pain, making animal noises, heaving, etc., and then will emerge from this beastly mess to say, in his perfect historically-appropriate diction, "Yes, thank you very much, that is very kind." It's a darkly comic trick that he worked well in Gangs, and we see in this movie that Day-Lewis has fallen a little in love with this trick of his. Indeed, watching Day-Lewis, one feels that the actor is simply in love with this mad, menacing always about to explode into glittering insane rage generic, all-purpose character -- perhaps this is who Day-Lewis is? -- and that he will stuff this character into the time-appropriate clothing and accent and inflict it upon us time and again in film after film.
Despite all the sturm and drang, the glittering, menacing stares, the craggy features, the funny pants and boots, we aren't made to care about Plainview. We don't know anything about him -- though Anderson would surely smugly tell us that this was part of the point; but still, we don't care when he hurts (e.g., when Day-Lewis has him hunched over and howling, lying on the floor sobbing), we don't feel any of his pain, we don't feel anything for him. We don't feel anything for any of the characters, because they are the most simplistic sketches, given no depth or background. We don't care about this movie.
You get the sense that Anderson realizes this. His attempt to make up for what the story lacks in complexity or depth is to simply turn up the volume and literally smash the movie into our faces. When it comes, it's a little like a pie fight breaking out in a Three Stooges short.
In the end, we are left with little to think about. There is an issue about the mysterious Paul Sunday and his relation to his twin brother Eli Sunday. You could spend time wondering about this issue, but it wouldn't matter or change your view about the movie. This is representative of the other mostly throw-away details and developments in the movie. You could wonder a little about how Plainview's son, H.W., feels about things, but it wouldn't get you anywhere and wouldn't affect your interpretation -- Anderson clearly hasn't put much thought into it.
The great themes that are bandied about here -- to no real effect -- and Day-Lewis's madness without origin or end have driven many to conclude that this movie must be a classic American film. I am sad to say that this appears to be the type of movie that only true Hollywood insiders could see as profound and deep -- in a sort of Pavlovian response to the stimuli of Anderson, a Johnny Greenwood score, a remake of a classic work of American literature, and zaniness from Day-Lewis: push a button, get a response. What we get is the drool of worship for a half-understood, barely fleshed out ideas, and an empty story.
I do regret being as harsh as I am here. I applaud Anderson for his ambition here, and I do think Day-Lewis is a great actor. I just don't think there's much here, and it troubles me that so many critics seem to think otherwise. It seems to suggest a type of insider groupthink, and perhaps a desperate wishful thinking.