Thursday, January 24, 2008

There Will Be Amazement

[Possible spoilers ahead]

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For weeks now, my choice for the best American film of 2007 had been the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. A metaphysical vision of a universe in which death stalks us all and people either rage against it or despairingly accept it, No Country is not only one of the most brilliantly made films I've ever seen---every shot, cut and sound effect is just about perfect---but also one of the more genuinely resonant of our current national malaise. It's also probably my second-favorite Coens film (behind The Man Who Wasn't There), and, as I tried to argue in a recent post, certainly a lot more soulful and serious---and appreciably less snarky and condescending---than the backlash (headed by the likes of Mr. Dave Kehr and his taste for linoleum floor tiles) suggests. It really floored me at the time, and I predicted in that earlier post that it would probably make my top 5 of the year...

...until I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, a little movie entitled There Will Be Blood.

Let's put it this way: There. Will. Be. Amazement.

And struggle.

And ambivalence.

All I know is, no other movie this past year has gotten me wrestling it---as much with its successes as with its shortcomings---as much as this one. Certainly not No Country for Old Men, as great as it is.


I finally saw the film a couple of weeks ago and staggered out of it stunned---mostly by its ape-shit final scene---yet not quite sure whether I had seen a genuine masterpiece or just an impressively made, overreaching attempt at one. (As Boogie Nights and Magnolia proved, the latter is an area Anderson is very much familiar with, for well and ill.) And yet I had certainly seen something.

Now, even with a film like I'm Not There---which is so dense and complex by its very design that it pretty much demands multiple viewings (whether one feels it's ultimately worth the effort or not)---because of real-world concerns like saving money, I'm usually content to simply wait for the eventual DVD release to revisit a film I've been puzzled by in a theater. So There Will Be Blood marks a first for me: the first time I've found myself so challenged by a film that I've paid to see it twice on a big screen. The argument I had over the film in my head so overwhelmed me days afterward that I felt I had to see it at least one more time to decide where I stood on the film.

What bothered me about the film the first time? Well, as much as I couldn't help but marvel at Anderson's sheer confidence and Daniel Day-Lewis's amazing tightrope-walk between stylization and caricature, there was a feeling that lingered in me of something missing on a dramatic level.

There Will Be Blood has been described as an epic, and it is in one sense: much of the atmosphere in the film has been heightened from mere realism to near-Biblical allegory. This story has ambition and retribution on a grand scale. But if you expect an epic drama to also have a reasonably large cast of major characters and feature big character arcs, then the film might come off as rather half-baked. This film is basically all about Daniel Plainview, the greedy capitalist who isn't above hypocrisy and manipulation to achieve his riches, and Anderson trains his focus almost solely on him, at the expense of anyone that might complicate Plainview's ruthlessness and pessimistic point-of-view. When he, in a rare moment of soul-baring candor, utters to someone, "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking," I couldn't help but be bothered by the fact that, up to that point, we hadn't been given much of a clue as to why he would feel that way toward his fellow man. None of the townsfolk is shown to have done anything particularly duplicitous to Plainview---with the exception of the young preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the townsfolk are mostly easy, religious pushovers who don't know any better. In fact, we don't hear or see much from the townspeople in general as to what they ultimately come to think about this man who has taken over their community for his own selfish ends; the only indication we get as to possible unrest comes from Eli, when he blows up against his father for letting Plainview trample all over them (and Eli may well just be taking out his embarrassment at being publicly humiliated by Plainview the scene before). And of course there's Eli himself: Anderson sets him up as Plainview's nemesis throughout the film, but it's more of a battle between two selfish individuals---one more one-dimensional than the other---rather than between good versus evil. In short, There Will Be Blood, as viscerally gripping as it is, felt rather one-dimensional itself, lacking the complexity and richness of, say, Orson Welles's more humane portrait of a capitalist run amok in Citizen Kane, in which many different character bore witness to Charles Foster Kane's various sides. As filmmaking, it's indubitably tops---Anderson's use of long takes and wide shots is particularly masterful---but in other ways---in emotional range, in its critique of capitalism---it felt disappointingly limited. Perhaps once again Anderson had bitten off more than he could actually chew---that his skills as a filmmaker couldn't quite overcome limitations as a dramatist.

And yet...that last scene---in which Plainview, who has just lost a son (not physically, just mentally), turns Eli's preacher-man schtick against him as ruthlessly as he pillaged properties for oil---really got to me in a way that made me think that perhaps I was looking at the film in the wrong way. When Plainview starts crazily taunting Eli and shouting things like "I am the Third Revelation," I got a genuine chill in my body---the feel of a man's own personal religion, money/power, reveal itself in full, revelatory force. Maybe Anderson has made a film that should be seen as something different from the standard historical epic---a genre known for dramatic arcs, novelistic details and broad canvases---and thus should be taken on its own terms rather than on what it doesn't have---thus, by extension, what it's not. Maybe it's not your typical historical epic at all---maybe it's more of a religious horror movie in which the religion being examined is strictly a secular one. Anderson's vision became so apparent in that astounding final scene that I began to wonder if my criticisms of the film after that first viewing were, in fact, results of failures of imagination on Anderson's part at all. Instead of dwelling so much on the characters it doesn't explore, for instance, would I be able to accept the movie on its own terms and perhaps come close to embracing it wholeheartedly?

That was the rationale behind Viewing No. 2---whether I could put aside my misgivings and simply go with the movie's flow. After watching it a second time and reflecting on it more, I think the answer is a still-qualified yes.


The best way, I think, to approach There Will Be Blood, then, is as a kind of character study/horror movie with perverse religious overtones. It is historical only in the sense that it takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Really, though, it takes place in Paul Thomas Anderson's feverish vision of a wide-open Hell on American soil, in which profit is the new religion and land is there mostly to be taken. Thus, the visuals---brilliantly shot by Robert Elswit---complement this vision: wide shots of the American landscape, darkness that shrouds faces in hard shadows, night scenes that blaze fiery orange on the sides of the wide (2.35:1) frame. Adding to this otherworldly feel is Jonny Greenwood's dissonant, Penderecki-inspired score, lending menace to the visuals with buzzing strings and rattling percussion that suggest some kind of apocalyptic chaos on the horizon. Then there are some of the film's images: a baby being daubed with oil on his forehead; a low-angle shot of Plainview holding up a hand filled with oil, in preacher-like fashion; a long shot of an oil fire whose flames fill the night sky. See a pattern? Oil is the lifeblood of the main characters, and oil thus informs the substance of the images. (A man who is killed by Plainview is even buried in a pit of a liquid that, if it's not oil, might as well be, as gooey and viscous as it seems when the body rolls into it.)

In such a context, then, perhaps one can accept the relative two-dimensionality of the characters---no one necessarily expects richly nuanced characters in Bible stories, and the major characters of There Will Be Blood are likewise conceived and performed on broadly. Not that this approach makes the characters mere thesis positions: P.T. Anderson has always been known for his generosity towards actors, and both Day-Lewis and Dano find nuance and human detail to flesh out their parts. Listen to Day-Lewis declare "I have abandoned my child!" in a fake-baptism sequence---fake because Plainview, up to that outburst, clearly doesn't mean what he says---and the sense of shame in his voice is apparent, even as he tries to mask it as his usual conniving. Other such details abound, but the point is: even in a film as bleak as this, its characters rarely feel like mere allegorical stick figures---not to me, anyway. We're probably not meant to sympathize with any of these people, but neither is the film so distant that it becomes a cold or inhuman experience. It's both detached and passionate. Stanley Kubrick---one of Anderson's many and varied influences---was able to pull off this tricky combination often, notably in A Clockwork Orange, which focused on a mostly reprehensible protagonist and dared us to take him seriously as a human being. Of course, Kubrick also made that job a bit too easy by making many of the characters around him grotesques (thus making it easier to sympathize with him as he suffered revenge after revenge in the film's second hour)---but that didn't make the film an implicit endorsement of Alex's violent past any more than P.T. Anderson's focus on Daniel Plainview makes There Will Be Blood a celebration of ruthless capitalism. The tone is too detached to be complicit, the violence too shocking. Plainview may be unlikable in many ways, but he's so convincingly human that you can't take your eyes off him---even when he, in the end, achieves his ironic triumph by beating an opponent to death.

What does the movie add up to, in the end? The best way I can explain it right now is: There Will Be Blood depicts the quest for money and dominance, at the expense of love and human connection, becoming the prevailing religion of the land. Original and profound? Not exactly, I suppose. And yet I take to hear Roger Ebert's famous saying: It's not what the movie's about it, it's how it is about it. The force with which Anderson put over this dark vision is astounding enough that it might fill you with a profound sense of despair, mixed in with exhilaration---despair over the senseless tragedy one has just witnessed, exhilaration at the skill with which the filmmakers have enacted this tragedy.

I don't think I'm done with this movie quite yet, because the more I think about it, the more my initial misgivings fade away and the chilling, amazing whole remains. That doesn't meant there still aren't problems I have with the film---at times, I still wish Paul Thomas Anderson had gone the extra mile to fill in blanks like the other townspeople or the source of Daniel Plainview's misanthropy. And, of course, I reserve the right to perhaps change my mind on this film later on (which I hope doesn't get me labeled as a flip-flopper). The more I reflect on it, though, the more they seem to matter less and less in the context of what the movie actually achieves. Besides, let's take Pauline Kael's oft-quoted maxim to heart: "Great movies are rarely perfect movies." I'll take freshness, revelation and passion over absolute perfection, at least in this particular case.

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