2007 – A movie about oil prospecting, inspired by an Upton Sinclair novel but somehow even less exciting.
While watching the 2.5-hour-long There Will Be Blood, I kept wondering: how can movie with so much time to convey its message still manage to say virtually nothing? Why are the performances so overblown? Why is the direction so ham-handed? Then I realized: it was a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
All my questions were immediately answered.
Paul Thomas Anderson made Magnolia, which ranks as my least favorite movie of all time. This movie – the story of a guy who starts out as a ruthless bastard and ends up exactly the same way – isn’t quite as bad, but it’s still not good. The only possible reason to see it is to watch Daniel Day-Lewis doing his funny-voice-and-walk thing, but even his performance is… well, I’ll get to that.
So there’s this guy named Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis, really flexing his acting chops by playing a guy named Daniel). He’s your standard turn-of-the-century businessman, which – as anyone who has taken an American history class in the last 20 years knows – means he’s a just a real meanie. He has an orphaned kid who he calls his son (Dillon Freasier) so he can say it’s a “family business.” He attempts to pay people somewhat less than their land is worth. He pretends to be more religious than he really is. He drinks alcohol.
Clearly this Daniel Plainview character can take his rightful place in the villainous pantheon right next to Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.
As part of his most ruthless scheme to date, he starts buying up oil-rich land near some middle-of-nowhere town. Horribly, this results in the dirt-poor town being able to afford bread and send their children to school. Damn you, Plainview!!!
But conflict – surely potentially bloody conflict – is on the horizon. Local minister Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) can somehow sense that Plainview isn’t such a great guy, and this initiates an epic power struggle. On one side is a wealthy, ruthless man with hundreds of henchmen, while on the other side is one wimpy bitch of a guy and the old ladies from his church. WHO WILL WIN?!? Along the way (and by that I mean over the next hour and 45 minutes of film), Plainview’s “son” goes deaf, and he meets a guy who claims to be his brother (Kevin J. O’Connor).
Throughout the viewing, I kept having to ask myself what kind of movie this was. It’s an incredibly long film, but it’s not an epic or a biopic. It’s shot like it’s a big, important movie, but the most important thing that happens is a guy drilling for oil. The real focus is the guy himself, Plainview. So it’s gotta be a character piece, right? It’s gotta be Citizen Kane, a classic rise-and-fall story.
The only problem is, there’s very little rise and no discernible fall. Plainview is an interesting character, yes, but he’s the same character for the entire movie. He doesn’t get an epiphany or a “Rosebud” moment. He’s challenged by the Sunday character, sure… but if you’ve taken an American history class in the last 20 years, you’ll know that Sunday is one of them hypocritical FAKE ministers anyway! So the real conflict is which guy is more of a jerk, and it’s the guy we know is the biggest jerk all along.
Daniel Day-Lewis seems to specialize in assignments like this. Don’t get me wrong: he’s a great actor. Take Lincoln (a movie that has a lot of the same flaws, come to think of it): he plays Abraham Lincoln to the hilt. But it’s almost as though he becomes so mired in becoming these characters that they get locked in stasis. Abraham Lincoln goes shuffling off to Ford’s Theater pretty much the same man he was in the opening scene. When There Will Be Blood mercifully ends, we’re nowhere closer to knowing what makes Daniel Plainview tick than we did when we first saw him. He’s a fascinating collection of mannerisms, but you need more than that to make an actual character.
For a movie where the very title promises abundant blood, there is a disappointing lack of it. They should have called it There Will Be Long-Winded Speeches, because that’s what about 80% of the dialogue is. Imagine a Shakespeare play comprised entirely of soliloquies – that’s There Will Be Blood. In those rare instances where real action does take place, it comes out of nowhere or makes virtually no sense, and it’s over so fast you’re left wondering what the heck happened. [Insert your own Bill Cosby joke here]
Someone should have told Paul Thomas Anderson that just because it’s filmed like an epic and acted like an epic, a movie can still be a complete snooze. There Will Be Blood has been in my Netflix queue for a long time, and it’s better off left there. No Country For Old Men is better.