Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lonely And Appropriately Epic, There Will Be Blood Is Engaging, But Lacking Spark.

The Good: Acting, Pacing, Most of the plotting
The Bad: No pop, Unlikable characters or characters we fail to empathize with.
The Basics: There Will Be Blood illustrates that P.T. Anderson can deliver an adapted screenplay that makes amazing use of the screen, but the film still lacks some of the zest and originality of his other films.

Shortly after my wife and I moved into our new apartment last year, P.T. Anderson released a new film. I was excited; I have generally loved his works, especially Magnolia (reviewed here!) and I was eager to see his latest film. So, for my birthday, my wife treated me to a trip downstate to the nearest theater we could find that was playing The Master (reviewed here!) and, unfortunately, it was a tremendous waste of time, money, and enthusiasm. Prior to that trip, I had picked up the two-disc version of Anderson’s prior film, There Will Be Blood, but after The Master, it was hard to convince my wife to crack the case open and let us watch it. Now, over a year later, she was in the mood for something different and I had let the sting of Anderson’s lone cinematic failure fade, so I figured it was a good time to put in There Will Be Blood.

There Will Be Blood is almost everything that it is hyped to be: it looks beautiful, the acting is incredible, and the themes in the story are smart and sweeping. But watching the film, I found myself waiting. I was waiting for the movie to pop, I was waiting for the intellectual engagement to click and for the movie to become something I was actually enjoying. Anderson’s first work, Hard Eight (reviewed here!) features characters that one is almost instantly able to empathize with as they haplessly stumble about trying to do the right thing and in Punch-Drunk Love (reviewed here!), Anderson managed to make Adam Sandler’s character into an utterly heartbreaking figure who is betrayed by everyone he trusts in such wrenching ways that it is virtually impossible to look away. After a five minute opening sequence without a single line, Anderson adequately sets the mood for There Will Be Blood, but the movie never evolves into anything more than a history lesson of sorts. The two principle characters have a battle of wills and their motivations are clear for the most part, but they lack either an epic significance or a deeply personal humanity that Anderson’s characters usually possess. As a result, There Will Be Blood is essentially two titanic egos facing off.

Starting in 1898, in California, Daniel Plainview is an oil prospector who suffers an accident in one of his mines while searching for oil, breaking his leg. Years later, having successfully struck oil, he is running a rig when one of the workers is killed by a piece of falling equipment. Daniel takes H.W. as his own son and uses him as a prop when selling the family nature of his drilling business as he heads west. Eager to buy up land to grow his business, Daniel, his assistant Fletcher, and H.W. hear out a prospect from Paul Sunday, a young man who believes there is oil on his family farm. Arriving at the Sunday farm, Daniel and H.W. find a young man who looks identical to Paul, who seems resistant to having the oil company lease the land. Working out an arrangement where Daniel will help fund Eli Sunday’s church and help sway some of the local landowners to lease land for the oil company to drill on, Daniel and his son begin to change the landscape of the otherwise barren township.

Over the years, the tensions between Eli and Daniel rise. Daniel snubs Eli when it comes to opening the well (Eli wanting to perform a public blessing on the rig) and when Daniel’s plan to make an oil pipeline to the Pacific forces him to negotiate with a holdout in Eli’s parish, Eli manipulates Daniel into getting baptized at his church. Daniel’s life spirals into rage and drunkenness when H.W. is wounded during a rig explosion. Sending H.W. away leads to resentment, tension, and an ultimate conflict that leaves Daniel alone with only his spite and massive oil interests.

Daniel Plainview is played by Daniel Day-Lewis and the performance is so masterful that one would never guess that he’s a Brit from the role. Day-Lewis carries his character’s limp through the entire film and speaks in a slower, lower drawl than in his other roles, clearly distinguishing Plainview from anyone else he has ever played.

The rest of the performances are equally impressive. Paul Dano is so good as Paul and Eli that, until the ultimate revelation that they are twins, the character could easily be a young man suffering from a multiple personality disorder. The ever-masterful Ciaran Hinds may be relegated to a bit role, but he plays it with enough gravity to consistently draw the eye. Kevin J. O’Connor steals every second he is on screen as Daniel’s “brother from another mother” Henry. O’Connor plays the role with more confidence than his usual characters and that is refreshing to see. Even child (not, as it turns out) actor Dillon Freasier is impressive in the role of H.W.

But where There Will Be Blood has a tendency to fall down is in the character details. Why does H.W. burn Henry’s bed? Why doesn’t Daniel move on from the one set of rigs when his oil empire expands? How the hell does P.T. Anderson expect us to care about the climactic events between Daniel and H.W. and Daniel and Eli when some fifteen years elapse in the narrative?!

Anderson makes There Will Be Blood move along, despite long stretches without dialogue. And There Will Be Blood looks beautiful. The film is shot with great framing, wonderful scenery and special effects that look entirely real. In fact, I cannot think of a film in recent memory I have looked forward to watching the bonus features for as much as There Will Be Blood. But is it Anderson’s best? Not by a long shot. Fortunately, it is nowhere near his worst, either.

For other works with Paul Dano, please check out my reviews of:
12 Years A Slave
Cowboys & Aliens
Knight And Day
Where The Wild Things Are
Fast Food Nation
Little Miss Sunshine


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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