What was Paul Thomas Anderson thinking? In his new movie, There Will Be Blood, the auteur filmmaker is taking a lesser known novel by Upton Sinclair, Oil!, and turning it into a long, boring rumination on… well, that’s part of the problem, He never really gets around to making a point. Instead, he chooses to spend almost three hours giving us the life of a disagreeable wildcatter named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) without ever scratching below the obvious.
The plot follows Plainview from his humble beginnings as a miner, showing his grit and determination through some fairly large hardships, to his success as a millionaire oilman and then to his fall, living among his personal demons in a beautiful house but away from the fields he knew so well. It’s a slice of life, certainly, but like a cheese pizza, there’s very little spice or differentiation of taste.
And yet, I will wager I’m going to be in the minority of critics here. Anderson, of whom I will admit I am not a fan, is the kind of filmmaker who confuses intensity with art. He never gives us any reason to care what happens to Plainview or anyone around him. Anderson spends all of his time flirting between showing us a Plainview who is obsessed with money and a Plainview who is obsessed with power. What we never get is a Plainview who is a complete, well-rounded human being. It doesn’t matter if the character is good or evil if he doesn’t have anything else, he’s a cardboard figure being moved around at the whim of his writer/director.
I’ll sit and watch a film about a bastard of a human being (see Raging Bull) and enjoy it immensely, but I want to know I’m in capable hands. With Anderson, I get the feeling he knows as little about Plainview as he shows us and that’s just frustrating. Plainview comes across as a caricature, a one dimensional figure that has been created to serve a point of view, not a character designed in service of a story. Of course, the up-shot of this is that we, as an audience, never have anything to latch onto, anything to care about. I’m not saying we need Plainview to be redeemable, not at all, but we should, at least, have a basis for understanding his actions. We should care if he lives or if he dies. The way Anderson has set Plainview up, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. We can’t hate him because we’ve never liked him. He’s the same man, from beginning to end and for me, that makes him boring.
Oscar winner Day-Lewis is normally very good, but here, he loses the handle midstream. He starts off fine, but by the end of the film he’s hamming it up so much he’d give Porky Pig a run for his bacon. Paul Dano, who plays Eli Sunday, Plainview’s primary nemesis, is credible but is given very little to work with. I’m sure someone much smarter than I will come up with a theory explaining how these two are both sides of the same character, that Eli’s devotion to God and Plainview’s devotion to greed makes them irrevocably intertwined but you know, it doesn’t work. We’d need more depth to truly grasp the intricacies of this relationship.
That said, there are some redeeming qualities to the film. The landscapes are beautiful and the design of the early 20th century oil fields is stunning. This is where I think P.T, Anderson falls down. As a filmmaker, he’s quite talented. What he’s not is a good writer or a decent story-teller. He is much more concerned with getting his message across, often at the expense of he story and characters, than he is with creating a film which will entertain while making a statement.
Ultimately, I was bored while waiting for There Will be Blood to get around to telling me something, anything, which would make me want to stick around.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)