Sunday, January 13, 2008

There Will Be Boredom

Sometimes the crush of rave reviews is so overwhelming that you just have to attend that play, or listen to that album, or buy that book, even if it you normally wouldn’t. To that end I finally succumbed to There Will Be Blood, the newest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, which is currently tracking sky-high on both Metacritic and RottenTomatoes. Anderson, who made his mark with the torpid Boogie Nights, has always received such generous praise that it brings to mind the famous maxim by that other PT, to the effect that there’s a sucker born every minute. But what’s ten bucks and a couple hours if the payoff is a great film?

That’s a question that I can’t answer. There Will Be Blood is not a great film. It’s not a good film, either. It’s a mess. Certainly it has some dazzling moments, but those moments are so few that their aggregate effect can’t possibly lift the movie above its mediocrity.

The story of There Will Be Blood, to the extent there is one, is based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, wherein a brooding, resentful oilman makes a small fortune, then makes a bigger one at the turn of the 20th Century when he starts drilling in a remote California hamlet. At the end of his life, he sits, unshaven and alone, in his stately pleasure dome, having alienated all his friends and family in the ribald quest for wealth.

But all that is ancillary to the main thrust of There Will Be Blood, which, like Anderson’s other films, is less concerned with story than with its characters. How they interact. How they change (or how they don’t). That’s a perfectly fine narrative device, provided you have a stable of interesting personalities to play with. Here, though, aside from Daniel Day-Lewis’s rapacious oilman and Paul Dano as his preacher-foil, the characters are paper-thin. Day-Lewis’s son is little more than a wide-eyed afterthought, who speaks so little that even when he becomes deaf-mute, the change is scarcely noticeable. There’s also a long-lost brother that gets shoehorned into the movie halfway in, who doesn’t add anything to the movie except minutes to its runtime.

What you get, then, is a universe where everyone and everything exist simply to be subsumed by the oilman. Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview as such an inexorable storm that his apotheosis is all but inevitable. Given the movie’s source material, perhaps that’s unsurprising. Upton Sinclair has never been known for his narrative subtlety, preferring to denounce the greed of the status quo rather than offer deep introspection, and that sentiment pervades There Will Be Blood. As Day-Lewis grows richer, he abandons his son, destroys the village identity, and undermines Dano’s religious conviction. For Anderson (and Sinclair), black oil always stains more than clothes.

But it’s hard to care. His son is a cipher. The village is nondescript. And while the film’s most magical moments, the scenes between Dano and Day-Lewis, crackle with an energy that leave one wondering what a great experience There Will Be Blood could have been, they are inexplicably abandoned for great lengths of time. Instead, we get to see Daniel Plainview act predictably, as the corruptive forces of money blah blah blah. We get it. Robber barons are bad. Money is pernicious. It’s been done before, and done better.

We’re coming up on 100 years of cinema, yet some still haven’t grasped that a novel and film are separate beasts. A novel will engross you for weeks and so can incorporate many themes, issues, characters; a cinematized novel at 2 hours will necessarily suffer if it is trying to replicate its source material perfectly. Anderson tries to do that here, and the result is that there are so many half-explored themes and unessential characters it feels like a product of a freshman film class.


Steven Simunic said...

It took me about 3 minutes to figure out a way to shoehorn "apotheosis" in there for Darryl's benefit.

You're welcome.

Darryl said...

A followup comment on the film by Brendan can be found here

scoot rose said...

i saw TWBB for much the same reason - so much praise from friends and critics i respect outweighed my own disinterest in the previews - and was similarly let down.

oh, and nice Kane. very apt.