Have you ever had a loved one whom you completely adored, yet once in a while they aggravated you to the point where you wanted to scream? Thatís how I felt about There Will Be Blood, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of my favorite filmmakers who is also responsible for Magnolia, Boogie Nights and the overlooked Hard Eight. This sprawling two-and-a-half-hour epic is nothing less than brilliant for over four-fifths of its running time. Itís the last 15 or 20 minutes that threw me. I canít stand it when people take something wonderful, then find the one little imperfection in it and focus on that, so I want to make it clear that this is an incredible film you should absolutely see. If this review seems to focus on the bizarre ending, itís not necessarily a criticism but rather a reaction to a provocation. Anderson is in the business of making movies that jolt you from viewing complacency; he does an A+ job of doing that on this go-round.
Loosely (very loosely) based on Upton Sinclairís novel ďOil!Ē There Will Be Blood opens magnificently, with a completely wordless fifteen minute sequence set in 1898 in which a man named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) crawls down into his hand-dug well to mine for silver and instead discovers some oil. Itís a great extended scene that shows the hazards of this line of work.
Then we cut to a few years later. His young son ďH.W.Ē in tow, Plainview fashions himself as a ďfamily friendlyĒ oil baron, convincing naÔve landowners to sell him drilling rights on their property. He hits the mother lode in a small valley known as Little Boston. Thereís so much oil in this region that itís seeping up to the surface. Plainview establishes a drilling operation in the town, but meets some resistance from Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young evangelical preacher who wants him to help pay for a new church. Eli asks to bless the well before itís put in use. Plainview blows off the request, then comes to regret it when one accident/tragedy after another occurs.
To summarize the plot does little to describe the experience of watching There Will Be Blood. Itís not a plot-heavy film; however, it is very theme-heavy. Anderson shows the day-to-day workings of an oil operation in the early part of the 20th century. We see the backstage politics that go on. For example, Plainview not only has to buy the land, but he also tries to negotiate the construction of a pipeline through his land with a larger oil company. We additionally see how dangerous this line of work was. In the filmís most riveting sequence, an accident causes a massive fire and a critical injury to one key supporting character.
In the midst of all this is a competition between Plainview and Eli Sunday. They neither like each other nor trust one another. Yet they are continually thrust together in various situations. At some level, Plainview is just as skeptical of Eliís holiness as Eli is of Plainviewís business integrity. They view one another with contempt, even though they are essentially two sides of the same coin. This animosity turns physical at one point and, at other times, into an attempt to humiliate and downgrade each other. In this sense, the film is one of the most intriguing character studies Iíve seen in a long time.
During the final 15 minutes of the picture, the two men are brought together again, years later. Their lives have changed in some ways, remained hopelessly stuck in others. Without revealing what happens or why, Iíll just say that the film suddenly goes way over-the-top, with a semi-abrupt resolution that, dare I say, almost borders on camp. Viewers who thought the ending of No Country For Old Men was confusing will really be scratching their heads this time. There Will Be Blood is like a gymnast who flawlessly executes a complicated routine, then sticks the landing. Everything about the movie is superb: the acting, the writing, the cinematography, the music, etc. And then it all goes gonzo at the end.
It is not surprising that P.T. Anderson walks right up to the edge and then jumps over; this is, after all, the guy who had it rain frogs in Magnolia. The difference is that, perfectly Anderson-ian as the ending may be, it doesnít fit with the tone of everything else. I could buy the frogs in Magnolia or some of the more extreme elements of Boogie Nights because those pictures were somehow slightly otherworldly to begin with. They contained many realistic elements, yet also had other elements that were clearly exaggerated. There Will Be Blood, in contrast, has a certain calmness and restraint to it that makes the loopy ending feel that much more jarring.
I have some mixed feelings about Daniel Day-Lewis. On one hand, heís a great actor. He physically and mentally transforms himself in each movie. As Daniel Plainview, he hides behind an oversized mustache and speaks in a guttural drawl. There is something about the way he carries himself that makes you forget you are watching Daniel Day-Lewis and simply get lost in the character. Itís amazing to watch. Then again, can he play a normal guy? Day-Lewis always specializes in playing characters who are larger than life: Gangs of New York, My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans. He doesnít ever really play your average Joe. Watching There Will Be Blood, I was reminded of Frank Langellaís brilliant performance in the recent Starting Out in the Evening, where he played an ordinary man, yet found a wide range of emotions within that role. There was no need for a physical transformation or a fake voice; he simply disappeared within the character. Could Day-Lewis do that?
Okay, perhaps Iím being a bit disingenuous here. The fact is that Day-Lewis is marvelous for most of this film; I only bring the question up because, in the flawed ending, his performance suddenly starts to seem mannered. Perhaps if he had reined it in a little bit, the strangeness of Andersonís finale might have been a little less off-putting.
I focus so much on the ending because I think this is what Anderson wants. Everything else in the picture leads you to this moment, yet it doesnít give you what you expect or what you want. I admire that. What you take from the last 15 minutes probably depends on your worldview. Some people will love it, others will loathe it, still others (like me) will take it as grippingly weird, like a puzzle waiting to be solved. Personally, I think it all has to do with the occasional human tendency to sell out oneís beliefs for something else. This eventually leads to a type of insanity, which Plainview and Eli are both clearly in the hold of. I also think itís no coincidence that Eli is a preacher; thereís something inherently religious in this story, as though the battle for menís souls is fought in a field of oil.
Strange as it may seem, the feeling of disorientation that There Will Be Blood leaves you with is part of what I like about the film. Itís thrilling to see a movie that takes risks, whether they all work or not. Yes, Anderson could have found an ending that was more in sync with the rest of the film, and he certainly could have found one more conventionally satisfying. But he didnít. That was a purposeful decision on his part. Itís also why I havenít stopped thinking about this film since I saw it. This is a picture that challenges the audience, encourages them to explore the elements within it, and rewards them for being open to possibilities. There Will Be Blood is flawed for sure, but I embrace that flaw, and one thingís for sure: there will be a second viewing of this movie.
( 1/2 out of four)
There Will Be Blood is rated R for some violence. The running time is 2 hours and 38 minutes.
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