Sunday, April 20, 2014

There Will be Blood (contains spoilers)

It goes without saying that There Will be Blood (dir Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) is epic and boasts some incredible acting; the cinematography is superb (by Robert Elswit who also worked with the director on Boogie Nights and Magnolia) and it is a haunting story, boldly rendered.  In my opinion however, this is not a great film and certainly not a masterpiece.  I think it lacks a clear central idea and I wonder if some of the essential story-building blocks were lost in the edit?  

Daniel Plainview is a despicable man - a monster - even more stubborn than he is greedy, but we never see his motivation. Why is he so full of hate? We get no real indication of whether he has ever been hurt (emotionally) or why he is so far from home, so disinterested in women, so single-minded...etc  I understand that some of his behaviour can be explained by the fact that he is an alcoholic (but is there a reason?), probably in physical pain and that he descends into madness (possibly from being so detached from other people). I completely 'get' the idea that he is capitalist greed personified. I can see the parallels between him and Eli Sunday and the 'progress vs the church' theme.  To me though, there is just no real cohesion to the story.  

There are brilliant individual scenes, fantastically photographed, but they just seem to exist without narrative context - it feels hollow, possibly because it is based so tightly around such a heartless central character.  DDL is in every scene, except for when Eli attacks his father and in the montage leading up to HW and Mary's wedding. None of the other characters are likeable (or even interesting, bar Eli Sunday) and I did not develop an emotional connection to anyone, which I think is a real failing of the film.

It is also too long and too slow in places - for instance when DDL is talking with Henry, when he first arrives, and even the final scene in the bowling alley.  This is particularly pronounced because there is not enough tension and emotion created. I will happily sit through long scenes if they are blisteringly tense and powerful but there is no point to a lot of this screen time - it is not developing characters, not revealing anything useful and not pushing the narrative further along. Without the context or narrative road-map or the emotional connection for the viewer, it is easy to fall out of the film and Day-Lewis suddenly comes across as just being over-wrought.  

The score (composed by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) adds a great deal to this film. In fact, it creates interest and tension over some very boring shots of anonymous people on horses and working the oil field machinery, which indicates how powerful a tool this can be.  

There is no dialogue for about the first fifteen minutes - just diegetic sound and then some incredibly intense music when Plainview's ankle is broken. As the camera pans back, we see how big and tough the terrain is for him to navigate across back to civilisation.

The moment when HW goes deaf is also brilliantly done - very subtle and without slowing down the pace of the action, but conveying the muted rushing sound the boy must be hearing after the explosion.

This is a visually stunning movie from beginning to end.  Anderson uses some brave techniques. There are quite a few shots when the character in focus is partially blocked by something or someone in the foreground - it adds a very authentic feel. In lots of scenes we do not get close ups of the faces of anyone except the main characters (eg when they first arrive at the Sunday ranch).  There are also lots of long shots (eg when HW comes back from boarding school).

There are many panning shots (almost too many for my taste) and "trucking in" to the depth of set, as if we are following Plainview and his men on this unstoppable journey.

Memorable touches include DDL's devil face when he is covered in oil in the dark, and is just lit up in red by the fire from the derrick.  I also loved the scene where Plainview drunkenly tells Mary that there will be no more beatings and the camera moves round to show that her father Abel is sitting right next to them and is within earshot.

Things I didn't like
  • Plainview chasing Sunday around the blowing alley looked like slapstick to me - took away a lot of the drama from the moment 
  • We get mixed messages about how Plainview feels about HW - whilst I am all for complexity, this doesn't quite gel for me
  • The final murder would have been much more powerful if he hadn't already killed someone else earlier in the film
  • I found it a little confusing that we aren't we told that Paul has an identical twin - for a while I wondered if Paul was just pretending to be Eli in front of his family
  • There are no women to speak of and no sense of a community (except via the church congregations)
  • We are never really given a convincing reason as to why HW sets fire to the cabin
  • Eli Sunday has not aged at all when we see him again in 1927
  • There are few clearly defining moments or character development

Things I did like

  • There is a great deal of subtlety (perhaps too much!) and this works very well in a lot of scenes. Anderson doesn't feel compelled to show us everything - (eg it would have been tedious to see every stage of DDL getting out of the shaft when he has been injured at the beginning)
  • His relationship with HW is very complex, never fully explained and this works (to a degree - hence my comment under 'Things I didn't like') 
  • The early part of the film seems very elemental and almost feels like it is symbolic of the quiet beginning of the industrialised world (or at least the beginning of America)
  • The ending "I'm finished" is open to a number of interpretations
  • The two fake conversion sequences
  • Some of Plainview's behaviour is very quirky ("I drink your milkshake!") and this helps to film to be unique and thought-provoking
  • The portrayal of hypocrisy and corruption is convincing
  • Daniel Day-Lewis is astonishingly brilliant in this (as in everything) - a faultless performance

Interesting elements

  • The names in the film have not come from the book by which it was loosely inspired. Could 'Plainview' be an assumed name, designed to make him seem more trustworthy to the landowners? Is Paul so named because he 'converts' from religion to capitalism?  Eli is a high priest/judge in the Bible. Is the father being called Abel important?
  • Another religious reference is Plainview calling HW "a bastard in a basket"
  • The name of the film is from the Bible (Exodus 7:19). Is it supposed to be ironic that Plainview has no family (blood) ties?
  • The (biblical?) title font is called Blackletter
  • Apparently the director was obsessed by the Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, allegedly, watched it every night while filming
  • The original ending was for DDL to bludgeon Dano to death with a tumbler and then throw him through the bowling pins
  • It was filmed in Marfa, Texas at the same time as No Country for Old Men (the derrick fire actually caused a delay in production for the Coen Brothers). NCFOM is, I believe, a masterpiece

1 comment:

  1. I don't agree with all of your dislikes, but this is a concise and well thought-out critique.