Thursday, February 21, 2008

There Will Be Blood: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Being a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, my expectations were high for this flick, but alas, it did not deliver. Brilliantly directed by Anderson, with a phenomenal central performance by Daniel Day Lewis, I think the problem with the film is at a fundamental and conceptual level. The work is ambitiously themed, but Anderson hasn’t taken the time—or perhaps didn’t have the desire—to draw us into the story or the characters. Magnolia was an epic, ambitious work also, but it was on a human scale, and Anderson never seemed to be reaching for his effects. There Will Be Blood is another matter: it’s all reaching, but it comes back empty-handed. Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel, the film tells the tale of oil man Daniel Plainview, a man without substance, and apparently without heart or soul, driven by mysterious forces (forces that are never revealed), whose only passion is for oil. Plainview doesn’t appear to be all that interested in profit, even, and although he is a ruthless businessman, the impression the film gives is that this is more a point of principle than actual greed. We are never given a clue as to what might be behind such a principle, however, or behind the character’s stubborn, almost inhuman drive.

The trouble with There Will Be Blood is that, if you place a hollow man at the center of your movie, you are likely to wind up with a hollow movie. Daniel Day Lewis carries the film on his sinewy shoulders, and he keeps us gripped by the sheer magnetism of his presence; but the script doesn’t provide much context for his performance, and the character seems to be almost entirely the actor’s creation. Long as the film is (158 minutes), Anderson doesn’t use the time to establish his characters, or appear to care about building suspense. He seems to consider such conventions beneath him, and the result is fuzzy, muted, shapeless and meandering. Individual scenes are often strong—the film is gorgeously photographed—and there’s certainly a dark poetry and lyricism to the film; but because there’s no central thread to tie the scenes together, and without much narrative or character drive, the various episodes just hang in a void. Since we have no clue as to what drives the central character, there is nothing to drive the scenes forward either. Violent confrontations—between Plainview and the preacher, Ely, between Ely and his father, and the final murder—should be intensely disturbing but somehow fail to move us. Anderson doesn’t make us feel the tensions that lead up to these scenes, so they appear to come out of nowhere; they seem overwrought, faintly ludicrous. Inside such a dramatic vacuum, Lewis’ performance—intense as it is—often becomes blackly amusing: Plainview seems not only psychotic but absurd. Yet we can’t tell if he’s meant to seem that way or not.

For such a bleak and violent work, Blood is almost devoid of tension. And for all the care that has gone into the film’s look, and despite the central performance, it’s rather slack, even tedious. It’s clear Anderson is aiming for something big, but I think the ambitiousness of his concepts has undone him (though this is presumably why the film is being praised so extravagantly). He’s trying to paint the portrait of a soulless man, driven by greed or unfathomable obsession, whose complete lack of feeling for anyone or anything besides oil turns him, by steady degrees, into a psychopath. And he’s probably aiming at a parable for our times, in which insane corporate greed strips the Earth of its blood and man of his soul. But the film may be too finely conceived: Anderson has forgotten to take the trouble to draw us into the story and make it dramatic, meaningful, and what’s on the screen are his lofty intentions, but not much of a movie.

There Will Be Blood left me entirely cold. I felt nothing for the characters, and besides Plainview there are no characters, really. There is the preacher Ely, who is faintly despicable but otherwise less than substantial, and Plainview’s son, who barely says a dozen words throughout the film. The rest are shadows, and Anderson seems to have intended it this way (he has cast the film almost entirely with unknowns). And although Daniel Day Lewis is mesmerizing throughout, there is only one scene which gives us a glimpse of what is going on inside Plainview and allows us to see him as a human being (the scene when he admits to hating people). Mostly, he is like some relentless force of nature, a golem, driven by sheer hatred. But there’s nothing to account for this hatred: like everything else in the film, it seems to exist in a void.

There Will Be Blood is a tale told by a genius, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Critics may beg to differ, but if so, I suspect they are responding to the film’s intentions more than what it actually achieves. Since Anderson’s film appears to be about something, even though it never connects with us emotionally, it’s being treated with awe and reverence (with repeat comparisons to Citizen Kane). But I think this is Anderson’s weakest film, and except for one or two scenes (such as when Plainview’s son is deafened in a rigging accident), it’s almost entirely lacking in the compassion, the humanity, which made his previous films so remarkable. There Will Be Blood appears to be a case of a filmmaker getting carried away by the grandiosity of his vision, being too busy mapping the forest to remember to plant the trees. It’s the sound of one hand clapping.


Anonymous said...

Yeah but tell me that wasnt a totally apocalyptic film. I feel as though there were a great many scenes that were wholly symbolic of Satan coming up out of the pit to be unleashed on the earth and in what better way than for him to be an oilman? I needed to go back and see the film again and upon second viewing and put into proper context its right on the money.

Anonymous said...

Why do I need to feel anything for the characters? Are you familiar with Bertol Brecht? According to him and his theiry of epic theatre a play(or film) should not cause the spectator to emotionally identify with the action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage(or screen). He believed that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to use this critical perspective to identify social ills at work in the world and be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change. I often find that movies that have the greatest effect on me are often the ones that make me think or theorize rather than feel. Not to say there isnt a place for that too mind you, but its not necessary for me to admire the work. It makes me think of alot of Kubricks films as well, which have often left me "feeling" cold or Cronenbergs Crash but have left me thinking and analyzing and in turn created a new critical perspective for me.

jake horsley said...

MD, i see your point - Plainview as Satan - and it does make the film a little more intriguing. I thik this could have been brought out far better, earlier in the film, however, to give us an idea of how to read the character. But maybe a second viewing would improve it, i did get that feeling at the time, yet it's not a film i'd be in an hurry to see again.

jake horsley said...

anonymous: not esp. interested in the Brechtian film technique you speak of. To me Kubrick's later films were devoid of value or even interest for this reason, and ditto CRASH, which i found utterly dull. Movies as intellectual exercises to provoke "rational self-reflection" or social change are not movies but polemics: Godard pulled it off, but Godard loved movies and even when he was being didactic, he was being playful. Kubrick didn't have a playful bone in his body and that is why his later movies are so soulless.

jake horsley said...

on second thoughts - if the film was about the devil, then that's no reason for the character not to elicit our caring: i would have thought not just even but especially Satan deserves sympathy. And the idea that a work can somehow be art without making us care about the characters is just nonsense, might as well posit great music that fails to move us, it's all in the head, and this desire to separate heart from head and posit works that are devoid of feeling as somehow "above" such things is symptomatic not only of a failed movie or artwork but what is wrong with the species as a whole. The reason you need to feel something for the characters is because not to do so is to be worse than dead: a machine (rather like Plainview himself?). Human experience is defined as much or more by feeling as by thinking, and to imagine that one can exist without the other is just an intellectual exercise, a conceit.