THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, 158 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK, FILM CRITIC
Like a booby-trap designed to ensnare film buffs with the evanescent bait of familiarity, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film references so many iconic American classics that it takes on the momentum of one of those zingy montages they use on the Turner Classic Movie channel. Playing like a Tarantino film with more prestigious references, There Will Be Blood rarely lets a scene go by without nodding to John Ford, Orson Welles, or John Huston (he even shot the darn thing in the same town George Stevens’ made his oil epic Giant). With this sort of bluster, Anderson is demanding to be taken seriously — yet beneath all its thunderous portent, There Will Be Blood seems to be missing something fundamental: namely a coherent story to tell.
The surprise is, even though Anderson seems clueless on what to do with the metaphoric chess pieces he lays out across his dusty Southern California landscape, so much of the film still dazzles. There’s striking work by Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, making the craggy countryside look like another planet, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood lays down a haunting and spare score and a fine group of weather-beaten character actors fill out the cast but it is Daniel Day-Lewis who owns this film like the DuPont’s own Delaware. His performance as the early 1900’s oil baron Daniel Plainview is like discovering actual footage of Paul Bunyan, his presence is so mythologically large. Recalling his work in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis again exhibits an ability to grow to whatever size tank in which he is left to swim. Placed upon a huge and rocky plain, the tyrant Plainview expands to such colossal dimensions that it seems only nature itself could wrestle him to the ground.
Unfortunately no one else in the film is up to the task. As the wool-suited Plainview travels across the land with his deaf orphan son, only the faith-healing Eli (Paul Dano, who also plays his twin brother Richard in another metaphoric dead end) presents any serious threat to his power. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, once again they’ve sent a boy to do a man’s job. As a performer and as a threat, Eli never summons the gravity necessary to counter Plainview’s aura of irresistible domination, no matter how game Dano (who previously battled Day-Lewis in Ballad of Jack & Rose) might be in the role.
But the way Day-Lewis dominates the film is the least of its problems. The elephantine running-time of much of Anderson’s previous work obscures the fact that as a storyteller he is primarily an anecdote-spinner at heart. Boogie Nights and Magnolia in particular are mainly collections of small scenes strung together like colorful beads. This makes his films perfect for watching distractedly at parties — even if you start talking and miss a few scenes — some kitchy little compact moment is sure to be starting momentarily. That’s why his characters are often simple schmoes like Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler or the goofy cop John C. Reilly plays in Magnolia, people who can be summed up quickly and put into service of some little epiphany. This might work for an approximation of the scattershot style of Robert Altman but if you’re creating an epic character study like Giant or Citizen Kane the job demands a carpenter, not a collage maker. Anderson introduces twins, long-lost brothers, the birth of the American oil industry, curses from Hellfire preachers and an old west vision that’s teeming with allegorical possibility. All the elements needed to create a classic.
And if it looks important and feels like it is important than it must be a duck right? Nope. Anderson botches it like the Eagles in the fourth quarter, seemingly clueless on what he would want to say about the birth of the twentieth century or what these creations might really mean. Maybe this comes from draining all the politics out of the rabidly political source material from Upton Sinclair, like oil from a car’s oil pan. For these character’s to really grow to the legendary size they’re begging for they need to be connected to larger concepts, ideas that can reflect on something more grand than a turn-of-the-century grudge between a preacher and oil tycoon, because in reality big business and religion never battled one another into submission. When the film finally comes to its ultimate conclusion in a private bowling alley it isn’t an ironic small detail, like Kane’s Rosebud sled, it is just anti-climactic. If you can come away from it savoring Day-Lewis’ must-see performance and the awesome visuals you’re bound to love There Will Be Blood. However, as a modern day classic it seems awfully shallow to be basking in the shadows of giants.