Thursday, January 17, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Too anemic

There Will Be Blood (2007) • View trailer
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.17.08

Some films can be admired, even when they're difficult to enjoy.

Some even resist admiration.

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, right) and his young son, H.W. (Dillon
Freasier), share an unsettling bond that has more to do with opportunism
than actual love: a dynamic that will fracture as a result of events soon to
take place in the dust-worn community of Little Boston.
There Will Be Blood has much going for it, starting with director/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson's all-encompassing sense of early 20th century California, and the hard-scrabble lives endured by the prospectors, entrepreneurs and just plain charlatans who helped create the nascent oil industry.

Production designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer Robert Elswit thoroughly immerse us in the dusty, grimy atmosphere that accompanies both the work and those who endure it; the sense of actually being part of the environment is as strong as in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men.

It's also a fascinating chunk of history too infrequently explored by the motion picture industry, which generally focuses on the preceding era — all those Westerns — or the 1920s onward. Rarely do we settle into this period when civilization clearly has been established, although social decorum and the rules of law, order and justice haven't quite caught up yet.

The film also is fueled by a dynamic and thoroughly compelling starring performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who throws himself into this part, body and soul, with a vigor rarely seen. "Down and dirty" can't begin to describe his work here; his Daniel Plainview — a well-chosen name for a man who prides himself on plain speaking and clear vision — is so much larger than life, so much more vibrant than anybody else, that he seems to stride in blazing color through an otherwise sepia-hued cast of characters.

Unfortunately, There Will Be Blood also is grindingly dull, aggressively unpleasant and populated by amoral, opportunistic individuals with little if any redeeming value. Granted, this tale deliberately focuses on people seeking any available means to exploit each other, but the tapestry includes an entire small community; despite this, we're not given a single character to care about. The one possible exception — Plainview's son — remains a mostly mute phantom, used as little more than an appendage when Plainview wishes to convey his "family values."

And, because this is a Paul Thomas Anderson epic, things inevitably turn weird in the final act. He doesn't get as indulgently freakish as the rain of frogs that climaxed Magnolia, but he certainly concludes this story with a bit of giddily exploitative violence in a setting so intentionally bizarre that it feels like something borrowed from Sweeney Todd.

Even if you've floated along up to this point, buoyed by Day-Lewis' admittedly riveting acting, this final sequence can't help but leave a sour taste.

There Will Be Blood is the sort of film that I'd tag as a critical darling: It has been reviewed superbly, made all sorts of Top 10 lists, and seems certain to garner Academy Award nominations for Day-Lewis (deserved) and co-star Paul Dano (absolutely not deserved), along with the technical artisans who gave the picture its authentic look.

Despite all this adulation, though, it'll be a nonstarter with mainstream viewers who'll be thoroughly put off by its tone and Anderson's thuggish view of humanity.

The story, very loosely based on Upton Sinclair's Oil — a surprising utilization of a vintage source for which, in fairness, Anderson should be applauded — begins with a brief prologue that introduces Plainview as a struggling silver miner who accidentally falls into two permanent careers: oil prospector and surrogate parent. The latter event occurs when one of Plainview's associates loses his life while doing this dangerous work; the man was sole parent to an infant son subsequently adopted by our protagonist.

It may be Plainview's one reasonably selfless act, although even here we see glimmers of how he plans to use the boy.

This opening sequence, which covers several years, runs nearly 20 minutes with almost no dialogue: It's pure visual storytelling. Based on this prologue, Anderson's filmmaking talent cannot be denied; I only wish his artistic attitude were as compelling as his technique.

Time passes; Plainview becomes wealthy enough to travel from one dusty California town to the next, presenting himself as an "oil man" who can bring prosperity to communities savvy enough to accept his involvement. He shies away from discord; he wishes to be viewed as a town's sole savior.

And so Plainview and his now adolescent son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), roll into dust-worn Little Boston, on the trail of a potentially huge strike. Plainview quietly begins buying up farmland, quickly obtaining enough to begin his operation. (Alas, he isn't as thorough as he might be, and this will later return to haunt him.)

Unfortunately, Little Boston already has a self-annointed messiah: Eli Sunday (Dano), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who holds forth at the local church, and exploits his flock in a manner that'll eventually be employed, half a century later, by dozens of televangelists. Dano plays Sunday as an oddly dignified little twerp: a scoundrel just as vain and opportunistic as the oil entrepreneur who has just rolled into town.

Both men are anything but what they publicly profess: Sunday is no more a man of God than Plainview is a beacon of family values. Little Boston has room for only one of these characters, but neither is willing to yield. The resulting confrontation begins innocently enough — when Plainview makes a point of denying Sunday a chance to bless the drilling operation, just before it starts — but soon turns quite ugly.

Anderson apparently wishes us to believe that these two men bring out the worst in each other, as positive attributes such as love, hope, community, faith, ambition and even family ties are imperiled and then trampled by corruption, deception and greed. And yes, too much wealth — achieved too quickly — has a way of fracturing morality.

But I reject that notion. Even left to their own devices, were they never to encounter each other, Plainview and Sunday are manipulative monsters who'd exploit and even kill as casually as drawing the next breath. Both are inherently dishonest and inclined to behave only according to their own self-interest.

And the conflict at the core of this story is flawed, because it's a clash of unequals. Day-Lewis' Plainview is unquestionably charismatic: a smooth-talking snake oil salesman — cunning enough to deliver just enough on his promises, to keep folks in line — who could twist just about anybody into doing his bidding.

Dano is no match. He's physically insignificant, emotionally fragile — frequently looking and sounding as if he's about to burst into tears, despite a pretense of tough talk — and utterly unpersuasive as a supposedly captivating ecclesiastic. I couldn't believe this meek little clown would attract a flock of six, let alone inspire his town to build ever bigger and better churches.

Anderson, as screenwriter, may want us to accept that Sunday is just as powerful as Plainview, but the very thought is ridiculous. Were the oil entrepreneur to truly behave as Day-Lewis has built this character, Plainview would have arranged for Sunday to have a fatal "accident" about two days after arriving in Little Boston, and that would have been the end of that.

Instead, we watch as Plainview and Sunday slowly, inexorably grind at each other, escalating their behavior into situations and verbal duels that provide the film's comic relief. It's surrealistic and oddly uncomfortable comedy: precisely what I'd expect from Anderson.

Two side distractions pad out the film's wearying 158-minute length: the unexpected arrival of Plainview's half-brother, Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor); and an accident that profoundly changes the dynamic between Plainview and H.W. The growing bond between Daniel and Henry is intriguing; the ruptured relationship with H.W. is a baffling, since we never learn enough about the boy to understand his rather abrupt change in personality (even though the reason is obvious enough).

Ultimately, your tolerance for all this folderol will depend on your willingness to follow Plainview's descent into total insanity. Day-Lewis makes the journey quite intense, but Anderson's screenplay isn't nearly as carefully crafted as this film's sense of time and place. Too many questions keep popping up.

And I frankly lost interest in wondering why they weren't better dealt with.

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