I caught the latest Paul Thomas Anderson debacle at a press screening on November 28, well before the critical drum circle had risen to its current “Burning Man” pitch. In the clear light of late autumn drizzle, There Will Be Blood appeared to be no more and no less than what it truly is: a bomb, and an overwrought one at that. It may be a tonier work than the detestable Boogie Nights, but Anderson’s underlying crudeness and his overkill “sensibility” haven’t evolved an iota. (Yes, Virginia, I can hear the jihadists singing in the comments section already.) A friend who hated the movie as much as I did asked afterwards, as we dodged rain in the Oaktree Cinema parking lot, “Did that amount to anything beyond a couple of games of one-upmanship?” I confessed I hadn’t thought of Blood in those terms. Still, her question perfectly encapsulated the anorexic one-dimensionality of the picture, and I had to agree.
First things first: I adore Daniel Day-Lewis. Always have. And while it might be nice to hitch my RV to the Dodge pick-up truck of hosannas greeting his Blood work, I must counter that Day-Lewis, in rendering the Texas-for-Central California scenery to mucilaginous mush, turns in the worst performance of his career to date. Granted, Scorsese-phobe that I am, I haven’t subjected myself to Gangs of New York, yet I fail to see how it could be ghastlier than the one-note, one-scale Sean Connery brogue that Day-Lewis affects as wildcatting oilman Daniel Plainview, a frontier charlatan gobbling up all available land, circa the early 1900s, in order to drill, to uglify the landscape and thus line his pockets with filthy lucre.
Second: Anderson remains as naïve as ever about big business. (By extension, so must the uncritical critics who are lauding/anointing this trash—anointing it with oil?—as the best film of the year.) Blood has two or three set-pieces devoted to the tycoon’s flamboyant lack of scruples, the most noteworthy and memorable being a Sunday prayer meeting in which Plainview falsely converts to Christianity in order to secure a land deal. I have to ask what is so insightful or novel about showing us that a businessman will say or do anything to get what he wants. Anderson serves up this chestnut of predictability (i.e. espousing religion to fleece the faithful) as if it were nouvelle cuisine, an exotic dish we’d never tasted, instead of trite gruel worth spitting in the screen’s direction.
Third: I’m quite fond of Paul Dano, although, no, I haven’t seen Little Miss Sunshine and don’t intend to. Dano left indelible impressions both in Fast Food Nation, an uneven yet worthwhile film, and in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a sublime, almost completely unheralded masterpiece from Rebecca Miller. In Ballad, Dano and Day-Lewis played adversaries, as they do in There Will Be Blood. The antagonism between them in Miller’s movie rang true: Dano’s slacker punk Thaddeus deflowered Jack’s teenage daughter Rose (an exquisite Camilla Belle); you could feel, perhaps share in, Jack’s rage. When he struck Thaddeus, the violence grew organically out of the situation. Dano and Day-Lewis, despite the vast differences in their experience, their training, their ages, were believable, perfectly natural with each other. In Anderson’s movie, since nothing makes a damn bit of sense anyway, and as Dano is miscast, and therefore not remotely convincing, as an evangelist, the conflict between the caricatures they’re asked to play feels like some sort of dubious parlor game. More on that anon. Suffice to say, I had looked forward to seeing Dano in an extended role, in a “grown-up” part, as opposed to his usual now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t, anti-establishment young curmudgeons. But because the writing is so flat, so unsurprising, and because all Anderson as a director knows how to do with actors is to get them to be loud or louder, Dano flails around discombobulatedly. He’s never disgraceful, exactly—he just can’t inhabit the skin of a backwoods preacher. (Then again, Anderson has conceived the role so disingenuously, so shallowly, that even an actor with a few more rabbits in his hat would be unlikely to stoke a flame into this emberless fire.)
Dano, nonetheless, relishes playing Eli Sunday; that’s obvious enough when Plainview smacks Eli around in a dirty puddle, sullying him with black goop, and hours later Eli remains caked with dried mud whilst seated at his family dinner table—perhaps the lessons absorbed from his humiliation will lend his complexion a rosy glow. Just because Dano relishes the challenge of the role, however, doesn’t mean he’s up to it. Circling his clapboard pulpit, Dano’s Eli lacks the charismatic qualities of a true, faith healing huckster. Dano reads his lines tentatively in the early scenes, as if from cue cards, and although the actor livens up as the action becomes more outré, a scene in which the black-garbed Eli “casts out demons” from an elderly villager’s arthritic hands doesn’t transcend the meaningless exorcism theatrics. (Again, bad direction.) Furthermore, Eli’s short hair, while suitable to the time and place, isn’t particularly flattering; it emphasizes the moon-shape of Dano’s face, his brutal nose, the odd sheen of his cheekbones.
There are, in this 158-minute film, a few effects, mainly photographic, that go right: a white cloud overhead reflected in a pool of oil; a neat, economical cut of a boy and girl playing outdoors, then standing at an altar, as young adults, exchanging their vows. In a prologue of Plainview’s solo silver-mining expeditions, Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit evoke a sense of the physical difficulty, the loneliness, the extremism of the pursuit. Down in the pit, a bearded, grimy Plainview hacks away at a rock wall. When he emerges above ground, into brightest day, it is into sunlight as harsh and punishing as the dark inside the earth.
Minor virtues, welcome as they are, cannot begin to salvage There Will Be Blood. Anderson directs nearly each shot of the baked brown earth, the dusty rubble of the landscape, as if staging a requiem, which may account for his overuse of a florid, funereal score by Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead, writes music as if he learned everything he knows about composing by taking a brickbat to hornets’ nests. Endless pizzicato, in other words, complete with slide-down-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach glissandi for a crazed string quartet. What’s worse, Anderson rosins up the soundtrack with this horror bowing even when there’s no connection between it and the images on screen. (The awful sounds match the Gothic typeface Anderson insists on for title credits, but that’s all.) Of course, Anderson wants us to be prepared, well in advance, for the inevitable. When rickety 1902 oil-derricking equipment collapses, two men are buried alive in the well of a gusher, an event that finds the director still slathering it on, as in his days of Boogie Nights, lingering over the icky misfortunes of the newly dead.
I cannot thoroughly go into what makes this film such a stale milk-dud without revealing the ending. So herewith you have one of the ever-popular “spoiler alerts.” After decades of conniving, wheeling, dealing, and stealing, Plainview ends up as an old, drunk, embittered businessman, a dispenser of gratuitous cruelty who, having attained every material good, in reality has nothing. He’s empty inside. What a revelation! (Perhaps here Anderson shows steadfast faith to his source material, Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! Be that as it may, the director has found no angle to “make it new.”)
So wealthy has Plainview become that he’s had a bowling alley installed within the bowels of his impressively gloomy mansion, and it is here that Blood’s dreadful, self-consciously “iconoclastic” finale unfurls. Plainview and his much younger, physically smaller enemy Eli Sunday reunite in what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of hoisting a jackhammer to swat at a fly. The men indulge in a mind game, of which Plainview has an easy victory, and then arrives the thwacked-by-bowling-balls climax, wherein Plainview torments Eli from lane to lane before beating the evangelist face down into a pool of blood, the “holy” man’s head bashed with a nine-pin. A servant, oblivious to the corpse on the floor, motions to remove Plainview’s dinner plate: “Are you finished, sir?” “Yes, I’m finished,” quacks Day-Lewis. Cue the third movement from the Brahms Violin Concerto (its resplendent orchestral sweep defamed to the level of a punch line) to accompany the closing credits. The end!
It’s a tacky, indefensibly stupid conclusion to an aggressively pointless film. And in it, Anderson nakedly reaches for mythmaking, for old Hollywood (i.e. the 1970s), for what Pauline Kael might have termed the visceral poetry of pulp. Only it’s a sham. Anderson wants us to applaud his swashbuckling bravado, yet how can we when it isn’t a fair match? It’s redundant for Plainview to kill Eli. There’s no sting in seeing the faith healer destroyed because he was never a threat, merely an annoyance. It’s a cartoon version of the Chinatown finale, but instead of being shaken by the ruthlessness of evil, Anderson’s flippant, ironic-celebratory undercurrent means we’re supposed to feel triumphant. Which I suppose is how a schizophrenic or a bully—or a smug hipster—thinks a movie should end. Anderson dedicates There Will Be Blood to the memory of the late Robert Altman who, in death, now conveniently serves as the patron saint for phonies everywhere. Much more so than Altman, Anderson’s studied pose here reminded me of what I wrote in 2004 on seeing another atrocious film, David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. Somewhere, Russell had been quoted as saying, “I think the most daring thing about [Huckabees] in a way is its optimism.” Between Russell’s so-called optimism and Charlie Kaufman’s pessimism, it now bears repeating, we are stuck with a cinema of absolute zero, the illogical regression of which moves the medium ever closer to a series of blank screens. Three years later, I take the stunning moral and aesthetic failure of There Will Be Blood (as well as the bowling ball subtlety of the praise that surrounds it) to be dismal proof of precisely that.
House contributor N.P. Thompson writes about film for Willamette Week and Northwest Asian Weekly.