Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 7: There Will Be Blood

In the short two years that its been out I’ve already watched There Will Be Blood more then I have any of the other Anderson movies, possibly combined. As I love me some PT Anderson, that’s saying quite a bit. There Will Be Blood is hypnotic filmmaking on a literal level. Like Brazil, The Red Shoes, Goodfellas, Strangers On A Train, or The Big Lebowksi its one of those films that is impossible for me to pull away from once I’m stuck in its orbit. If I chance upon There Will Be Blood, no matter the circumstances I’m watching it until Plainview bellows he’s finished and finally gives me permission to leave.

But I can’t help but wonder why.

It’s not like There Will Be Blood carries the giddy surprise that Boogie Nights had, nor though I’m in awe of its filmmaking it doesn’t delight me with its dexterity the way Nights does. Nor does it reduce me to a twitchy ball of exposed nerves the way Magnolia does. It is a film that I in fact have one pretty big issue with. But that all seems beside the point somehow, the film is simply immutable.

I know that I’ve felt this way since I first saw it. When I stumbled out of the theater for the first time, dazed two old ladies walked out next to me and I heard the following exchange.

“I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that.”

“Dreadful film.”

“We should have gone to see The Bucket List.

“Oh The Bucket List is such a wonderful film.

Now I’m proud to say that I have never punched an old woman in the face, but I came close oh Lord I came close.

Part of what makes Anderson such an affecting filmmaker is his extraordinary humanism. Not since Hal Ashby has there been a director as merciful as he, washing away his characters sins time and time again with pop music (is there a montage that feels more like a breath of fresh air then the God Only Knows one that ends Boogie Nights). So to be delivered with a film as cold and unforgiving as There Will Be Blood from him was a great shock, like being punched by someone you trust absolutely, you just don’t see it coming. It’s a bone hard film.

Its all there from the opening sequence with Johnny Greenwood’s score buzzing like the screams of the damned. A hard man mining a completely unforgiving land. Huddled against a small fire against the howling winds, before clawing out of a grave and dragging himself on his back across the vast desert (The pan that shows just how expansive the area is is one of the most stunning shots in the film). The opening with its wordless images of the wilderness, death, children, blood, and oil, is as utterly primal of a scene as I’ve seen in film. It taps into something deep and reactive playing almost like the cinematic version of the test in The Parallex View. It’s a wordless sequence because there are no words for what Anderson is conveying. He’s reaching that rarified cosmic level that only Herzog and Malick hold dominion over.

And when the words do come into it they’re very harsh ones indeed. In the justly famous opening monologue Plainview is like an old testament God. Laying out to the towns folk just what they have to gain by following him, what they have to lose for disobeying him. Finally throwing up his hands in disgust at their small minded bickering before punishing them terribly (Interesting too that he offers up his son as proof of his love). It’s a brauva sequence for Lewis showing Plainview at his smoothest and then how quickly the mask will fall.

While we’re on the subject of theology, I should point out that its here in where the rub lies with me. The central conflict in There Will Be Blood (at least if you ask most critics) is between God and Business. Represented in their respective corners by Plainview and the snaky Eli Sunday in the other. The problem is that I don’t believe that Sunday makes that good of a representative.

Now when I say that I’m not saying I’m annoyed that Eli isn’t a “Good Christian” or that the film shows Christian’s as backwards easily lead. That’s not problematic for me. What is problematic is I think to a certain extent Eli always comes off as faking it. He’s manipulating the beliefs of his followers for his own personal gain as surely as Plainview suspects he is. It’s the same problem I have with Breaking The Waves, with Von Trier making God a literal big scary voice, and turning Bess’s struggle into one of madness rather then faith. If Eli with all his flaws and vices intact had been a true believer rather then a transparent charlatan I feel the central battle of the film would have been a lot stronger (This isn’t to say that the Paul Dano’s performance isn’t strong because he. He was in fact that only actor I had trouble excepting in Where The Wild Things Are given the strong impression he made.) It also takes a great deal of the punch out of what should be the film’s thematic conclusion, the possibility of union between the two symbolized by the union of HW and Mary Sunday.

It’s a shame because a lot of the scenes dealing with the theme are the films strongest particularly the one where Eli comes to the jobsite and starts pulling away laborers literally taking souls from one camp to the other.

Still it’s ultimately a minor issue when your watching the movie itself. Which unfold mesmerizing. If there is such a thing as an intimate epic Anderson has surely made it. The rhythms of the film, the dialogue, abstract score, editing, and golden though thoroughly ominous cinematography combine to create an experience quite unlike any other. There are sequences in There Will Be Blood, The opening, the well disaster, Eli’s Beating, the Kubrickian ending, that inspire awe no matter how many times they are viewed.

In the end it all comes down to Daniel Plainview and the enigma that he represents. Plainview remains one of the few modern movie characters who is truly inscrutable. In an age when “realism” demand we know the inspiring instant between each psychological quirk, Plainview remains almost defiantly unfathomable. We’re never quite sure what he’s thinking. Particularly in his final sequence, I’m still not sure whether he really is just getting in one last bit of curdled cruelty, or if he’s performing some perverse act of fatherly kindness giving HW the last bit of ammunition he will need to break from his Father forever. Though given what proceeds afterwards I consider the latter to be more and more likely with each passing viewing.

The way most movies are made we would know exactly what drives Daniel Plainview. That his ambitions are a reaction to his feelings of powerless stemming from the time his mother spanked him when he was three. I don’t know where it comes from, but movies feel the need to explain everything about people nowadays. They forget that we are fundamentally unknowable to eachother, that as Cather said in one of her finer moments, “The heart of another is a dark forest, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” Anderson has no trouble about this truth, perhaps because his movies are all fundamentally about people who are alone.

Think of Frank TJ Mackey illuminated on the stage isolated in the light from the crowds of venial men he preaches to. Think of Barry outside, alone, listening to his sisters tear him apart his rage finally boiling over isolating him even further. Think Julianne Moore and Heather Grahamn trying to forge a desperate familial bond out of pure will between lines. Phillip Baker Hall lonely life spent skulking in the backs of casino’s.

The tragedy of There Will Be Blood, is that there’s no one to save these people. No Beach Boys to blow away the damage, no John C. Reilly to draw out that final redemptive smile, or Emily Watson to give them “the love that makes them strong”. The characters in There Will Be Blood are doomed by their own natures their own very special hell. Its all the more a shame because of how nakedly Plainview enjoys such connections, their are moments with his "son" and "brother" where he is truly happy, and when both disappoint him in different ways he falls further and further into himself sealing his fate.

Though I always liked Paul Thomas Anderson a whole lot, I always thought of him as a magpie that put Tarantino to shame. I couldn’t look past the fact that he was “doing” Scorsese in Hard Eight, or Altman in Magnolia and Boogie Nights, or Ashby in Punch Drunk Love, ignoring the fact that the ability to speak in all those voices would be quite a feat on its own. But There Will Be Blood is just such a stunningly singular vision that there was no possible way to ignore the fact that Anderson is perhaps the greatest filmmaker of his era and this is his crowning achievement.


Neil Fulwood said...


You have just enunciated everything I love about this singular and utterly compelling movie. And yes, I too came close to walloping some plebian who left the cinema gassing about what a disappointment it was.

'There Will Be Blood' is Anderson's first great (ie. non-derisive) movie.

Bryce Wilson said...

Glad you like it Neil. I have to admit I'm quite happy with this piece (which is rare).