Thursday, July 31, 2008

Film Review: There Will Be Blood

Dramatists and illustrators. That's how the late cartoonist Gil Kane categorized the practitioners of his art. A dramatist is focused on realizing the subject material as fully as possible. These artists have considerable technical mastery, but they never flaunt it. Form is subservient to content, and technique is subsumed in the work. An illustrator, on the other hand, is devoted to displays of technical virtuosity; the subject matter is of secondary concern. An illustrator's energies are all but entirely dedicated to inspiring admiration for his or her skill. Kane's binary is certainly applicable to artists in other media. I was reminded of the distinctions while watching Paul Thomas Anderson's highly acclaimed There Will Be Blood, a strikingly directed film that, for all the fluency of its staging, camerawork, and editing, is dramatically inert. Once one is done admiring the skill of Anderson (and star Daniel Day-Lewis), there's not much of interest.

There Will Be Blood is not a coffee-table book of a movie, like Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Anderson isn't obsessed with the pictorial; he's caught up in the cinematic rendering of the material. He favors long takes, with the staging of the action elaborately worked out; extended tracking shots are not unusual. The film begins with a long, largely wordless sequence covering several years. We are introduced to Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) in the year 1898, when he's a silver prospector toiling alone in a small mine. The film quickly establishes him as a man of indomitable will. He breaks his leg in a fall down the mine shaft, and then hauls himself without help to the ground above. From there, he crawls on his back across the wilderness to the nearest town. He refuses to see a doctor about his leg until a chunk of silver is assayed and cashed. In the years that follow, he converts the silver mine to an oil well and hires men to work it for him. When one is killed in an accident, he adopts the man's motherless son as his own. This opening section, about twenty minutes long, is an expertly executed piece of visual storytelling. Anderson's assurance raises one's expectations for the rest of the picture. But while Anderson may be caught up in the cinematic presentation of the story, he often appears lost in the challenge of bringing it to life. Whenever he needs the actors to do more than follow stage directions, the film just lies there.

One quickly loses confidence in the picture. The first scene after the prologue shows Plainview a decade down the road, making a pitch to a rural community to allow drilling leases on their land. But the controversies among the locals that derail Plainview's offer are murky, and the feeling of clarity Anderson has established collapses. The scene that follows is even more disappointing. A young drifter, played by Paul Dano, offers to sell Plainview information about his family's farm, where oil has been discovered seeping to the ground. The scene on paper must have seemed a crackler: a tense thrust-and-parry between Plainview and the drifter, with Plainview using his considerable skills as a con-man to get the information at minimal cost, and the drifter holding the information close to the vest, knowing that once he lets it go, it's gone, and whatever he has when he gives it up is all he'll get. But on film the scene is tepid and slack: it begins, it goes on for a while, and it ends with Plainview setting off for a small town in northern California. There is next to no tension or suspense. Most of the other dialogue scenes are equally flat. They don't seemed shaped for effect. One wonders if Anderson knows why he included them, beyond solving the mechanical story problem of getting from point A to point B.

Part of the problem with the dialogue scenes is Anderson's staging: the actors often seem posed in the shots, and the pauses in the exchanges are generally a beat or two too long. This gives the film a stilted quality, and a good deal of the time it feels as if the actors are hanging suspended from the ceiling. The other major problem is the casting. Apart from Daniel Day-Lewis, none of the performers has a strong presence. Perversely, they seem to be have been selected for their mildness; every potential antagonist for Plainview is played in the same low-key, unassuming manner. Day-Lewis, on the other hand, plays Plainview as a force of nature--he's the dark side of the American ideal of self-reliance--but he isn't given much of anyone or anything to play off. The performance has nowhere to go.

The one hope for dramatic conflict comes from the drifter's twin brother (also played by Paul Dano), who's a preacher and faith healer. Plainview sets up drilling operations near the town, and the preacher is a nagging, scolding thorn in his side. The preacher takes every misfortune that befalls Plainview--the death of a worker, an underground oil fire, Plainview's adopted son H. W. becoming deaf--and uses it as an opportunity to harass Plainview into donating money to his church. Their mutual animosity leads to the film's funniest scene. A local farmer forces Plainview into joining the church in exchange for the use of a key piece of land, and Plainview has to repent his sins before the congregation. Because of H. W.'s condition, Plainview has sent him away to a boarding school for deaf children. The preacher exploits Plainview's guilt to the fullest. He exhorts Plainview to repent "abandoning" H.W., and Plainview forcefully does so. The irony and drama in the scene comes entirely from Day-Lewis's performance; he easily puts across that Plainview isn't repenting anything, and the vehemence with which he expresses "repentance" comes entirely from his anger over having to humiliate himself in front of the town. Day-Lewis's Plainview may be yelling "I have abandoned my boy!" at the top of his lungs, but one can tell that he's brimming with the desire to tear this upstart preacher apart limb by limb. But any hope of a grand conflict between the preacher and Plainview comes to nothing. This minister is a twerpy charlatan. Paul Dano, despite his character's bellowing and gesticulating, made more of an impression playing the introverted, willfully mute son in Little Miss Sunshine.

Anderson's previous films, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, demonstrated that he likes and knows how to work with large casts. Why would he let this film seem so empty of characters and give Day-Lewis no one to play against? One answer is that he expected Day-Lewis to give a capital-G great performance as Plainview, and he didn't want anything getting in the way. Nothing should distract audiences from the genius of Day-Lewis's interpretation. If this was the strategy, it backfires for two reasons. The first is that a great performance needs strong performances around it to create contrast and give it definition. Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara would be nothing without Clark Gable's Rhett Butler; Marlon Brando would have been nowhere without Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire; and Jack Nicholson was tremendously benefitted by the distinctive supporting cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The second reason is that Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the last major actor I would describe as an audience-pleaser. He inhabits his characters brilliantly, but he's so earnest about it that he's probably the most humorless name actor in the history of film. Day-Lewis can be great when he's able to fit his work into a director's conception, but he doesn't have enough to give as a performer when the director tries to shape things around him. Nothing makes a movie more turgid than when a director tries to convey awe for an actor to an audience. One might say Day-Lewis does to Paul Thomas Anderson what Meryl Streep did to Alan J. Pakula and Sydney Pollack back in the Eighties.

There Will Be Blood is a film to admire at times. Unfortunately, admiring is all one can do. I can appreciate the distinctive details of Day-Lewis's performance, such as the bold John Huston voice he gives the character, or the almost obsessive determination in his movements. And I can appreciate Paul Thomas Anderson's fancy blocking and show-off camera moves. (His chops in these areas are conspicuous enough to almost conceal how much he lets the character scenes go to hell.) I just wish they'd given me a story to enjoy. After I get that I'll be delighted to study how brilliantly they pulled it off. In short, I wish Anderson and Day-Lewis had dramatized There Will Be Blood, instead of illustrating it. And that Anderson had maintained enough perspective about Day-Lewis to know when the illustrations were coming up short.

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