Thursday, July 31, 2008

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood

Dramatists and illustrators. That's how the late cartoonist Gil Kane categorized the practitioners of his art. A dramatist, such as Robert Crumb or the late Charles M. Schulz, is focused on realizing the subject material as fully as possible; these artists have considerable technical mastery, but they never flaunt it. Form is subservient to content, and technique is subsumed in the work. An illustrator, on the other hand, is devoted to displays of technical virtuosity; the subject matter is of secondary concern. An illustrator's energies are all but entirely dedicated to inspiring admiration for his or her skill. Kane's classification of cartoonists into these groups is certainly applicable to artists in other media. I was particularly reminded of the distinctions while watching Paul Thomas Anderson's highly acclaimed There Will Be Blood, an often strikingly directed film that, for all the surface fluency of its staging, camerawork, and editing, is dramatically inert. Once one is done admiring Anderson (and star Daniel Day-Lewis)'s skill, there's not much else of interest to watch.

There Will Be Blood is not a coffee-table book of a movie, like Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Anderson isn't obsessed with the pictorial; he's caught up in the cinematic rendering of the material. He favors long takes throughout, with the staging of the action within the shots complexly worked out; extended tracking shots are not unusual. The film begins with a long, largely wordless sequence covering several years. We are introduced to Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) in the year 1898, when he's a silver prospector toiling away alone in a small mine on a deserted tract of land out West. The film quickly establishes him as a man of indomitable will: we watch him break a leg in a fall down the mine shaft, haul himself without help to the ground above, and then crawl on his back across the wilderness to the nearest town, where he lies waiting on a dirt floor for a chunk of silver to be assayed and cashed before going to a doctor to have the leg set. In the years that immediately follow, he converts the silver mine to an oil well and hires men to work it for him, and when one of them is killed in an accident, he adopts the man's motherless son as his own. This opening section, about twenty minutes long, is an expertly executed piece of visual storytelling, and Anderson's assurance raises one's expectations for the rest of the picture. However, while Anderson may be caught up in the cinematic presentation of the story, but he often appears lost in the challenge of bringing it to life. Whenever he needs the actors to do more than follow stage directions, the film just lies there.

One loses confidence in the picture quickly. The first scene after the prologue shows Plainview a decade down the road, making a pitch to a rural community to allow drilling leases on their land. But the controversies among the locals that derail Plainview's offer are murky, and the feeling of clarity Anderson has established collapses. The scene that follows is even more disappointing. A young drifter named Paul Sunday, played by Paul Dano, offers to sell Plainview information about his family's farm, where oil has been discovered seeping to the ground. The scene on paper must have seemed a crackler: a tense thrust-and-parry between Plainview and the drifter, with Plainview using his considerable skills as a con-man to get the information at minimal cost, and the drifter holding the information close to the vest, knowing that once he lets it go, it's gone, and whatever he has when he gives it up is all he'll get. However, on film the scene is tepid and slack: it begins, it goes on for a while, and it ends with Plainview setting off for a small town in northern California, with next to no tension or suspense. Most of the other dialogue scenes are equally flat. They don't seemed shaped for effect, and one wonders if Anderson knows why he included them, beyond solving mechanical story problems of getting from point A to point B.

Part of the problem with the dialogue scenes is Anderson's staging: the actors often seem posed in the shots, and the pauses between the actors as they deliver their lines are generally a beat or two too long. This gives the film a stilted quality, and a good deal of the time one is left feeling the actors are hanging suspended from the ceiling. The other major problem is the casting: apart from Daniel Day-Lewis, none of the performers has a strong presence. Perversely, they seem to be have been selected for their mildness; every potential antagonist for Plainview--the drifter, a Standard Oil representative who offers to buy Plainview out, Plainview's apparent half-brother, as well as his adopted son as an adult--is played in the same low-key, unassuming manner. Day-Lewis, on the other hand, plays Plainview as a force of nature--he's the dark side of the American ideal of self-reliance--but he isn't given much of anyone or anything to play off of, and the performance has nowhere to go.

The one hope for dramatic conflict comes from the drifter's twin brother Eli (also played by Paul Dano), a preacher and faith healer in the the town where Plainview's been told he can find oil. Plainview sets up drilling operations there, and the preacher is a nagging, scolding thorn in his side. The preacher takes every misfortune that befalls Plainview--the death of a drill worker, an equipment failure that destroys a derrick and causes an underground oil fire, Plainview's adopted son H.W. becoming deaf--and uses it as an opportunity to harass Plainview into donating money to his church. The animosity between the two characters leads to the film's funniest and (easily) most dynamic scene. A local farmer forces Plainview into joining the church in exchange for the use of a key piece of land, and Plainview has to repent his sins before the congregation. Because of H.W.'s condition, Plainview has sent him away to a boarding school for deaf children, and the preacher exploits Plainview's guilt to the utmost. He exhorts Plainview to repent "abandoning" H.W., and Plainview forcefully does so. The irony and drama in the scene comes entirely from Day-Lewis's performance; he easily puts across that Plainview isn't repenting anything, and the vehemence with which he expresses "repentance" comes entirely from his anger over having to humiliate himself like this in front of his employees and the town. Day-Lewis's Plainview may be yelling "I have abandoned my boy!" at the top of his lungs, but one can tell that he's brimming with the desire to tear this upstart preacher apart limb by limb. But any hope of an apocalyptic, Nietzschean priest-versus-the-powerful conflict between the preacher and Plainview comes to nothing. This minister is a twerpy charlatan, and Paul Dano, despite his character's bellowing and gesticulating before one and all, made more of an impression playing the introverted, willfully mute son in Little Miss Sunshine.

I've only seen one other film from Anderson--his 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights--but on the basis of it, I'd say he's no slouch with actors, and in light of both it and Magnolia, he likes large casts. Why would he let this film seem so emptied out of characters and give Day-Lewis no one to play against? The only answer that might make sense is that he expected Day-Lewis to give a capital-G great performance as Plainview, and he didn't want anything getting in the way--nothing should distract audiences from the genius of Day-Lewis's interpretation. If this was the strategy, it backfires for two reasons. The first is that a great performance needs strong performances around it to create contrast and give it definition. Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara would be nothing without Clark Gable's Rhett Butler, Marlon Brando would have been nowhere without Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Nicholson and De Niro were tremendously benefitted by the distinctive supporting casts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver. The second reason is that Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the last major actor I would describe as an audience-pleaser. He inhabits his characters brilliantly, but he's so earnest about it that he's probably the most humorless name actor in the history of film. Day-Lewis can be great when he's able to fit his work into a director's conception, but he doesn't have enough to give as a performer when the director tries to shape things around him. Nothing makes a movie more turgid than when a director tries to convey his or her awe for an actor to an audience; one might say Day-Lewis does to Paul Thomas Anderson what Meryl Streep did to the likes of Alan J. Pakula and Sydney Pollack back in the Eighties.

There Will Be Blood is a film to admire at times; unfortunately, admiring it is all one can do. I can appreciate the distinctive details of Day-Lewis's performance, such as the bold John Huston voice he gives the character, or the almost obsessive determination in his movements. And I can appreciate Paul Thomas Anderson's elaborately fancy blocking and show-off camera moves. (His chops in these areas are conspicuous enough to almost conceal how much he lets the character scenes go to hell.) I just wish they'd given me a story to enjoy and an experience to savor; after I get that I'll be delighted to study how brilliantly they pulled it off. In short, I wish Anderson and Day-Lewis had dramatized There Will Be Blood, not illustrated it. And that Anderson had maintained enough perspective about Day-Lewis to know when the illustrations were coming up short.

1 comment:

Tim Reynolds said...

Very perceptive review. My take on the film's faults is that the script is simply not sharp enough to support the scaffolding Anderson constructed. As far as the screenwriting is concerned, his reach is bigger than his grasp. With a good script, everything else would have fallen in place. As it stands, the ending he concocted is one of the flattest and most curious in recent movie history. Paul Dano's performance was another major problem. He was far too young and inexperienced for the role. Things were forced way too much. It would have been better to use someone with enough gravitas capable of holding their own against Lewis. Another thing is that Dano played the religious part at times too mockingly, to the point of being cartoonish. This approach is not original. It would have been better to play things straight and allow any comedy to bubble up naturally. Here's hoping that Anderson gets a real screenwriter for his future projects. Magnolia remains his best film, as imperfect as it was.