Sunday, February 8, 2009

There Will Be Blood

Shockingly, for a movie with a ton of press coverage, and Oscar nominations, I knew precisely two things about There Will Be Blood. One, it starred Daniel Day Lewis, who is both a very good actor and a can rock a mustache like nobody else. Two, oil was involved somehow. Otherwise, I was going in blind, expecting something containing good acting, and oil. So I suppose I can say it delivered on both my expectations.

This doesn't actually mean it's any good, however.

It's a tricky position to take, since it gathered its fair share of critical acclaim, along with Oscars and other awards. It has very good acting, Daniel Day Lewis gives the main character, Daniel Plainview, great emotional depth, beyond what's in the script. Paul Dano is very good as the preacher Eli Sunday, and I dare say he didn't get nearly enough credit. When they're both on screen, the film sparkles with energy and life that few films can actually achieve.

I can't even complain about the story. Daniel Plainview's rise from fairly crappy gold miner to highly successful oil man and entrepreneur is often compelling, and his ambition clashing with those around him and especially Eli Sunday is a story that most films could do a large amount with. I'd love to see another film take on this material.

It's even quite well filmed. The cinematography is excellent, the images are well composed and the production values are top notch. I could even mention how the costume design is strangely effective, the sets are nicely executed, and the makeup is, near as I can tell, very good. One cannot complain about the technical aspects, or the basic premise, or the cast. Hell, on paper, this should be one of the best movies you'll see.

So, then, why don't I like it very much?

The first place to start is the score, composed by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. Sometimes, it's quite good. Sometimes it's in the wrong movie. At the beginning, it makes heavy use of a scary dissonant noise, used in conjunction with an image of mountains. So...the mountains are evil? Huh? Then it has a lengthy wordless sequence of Plainview mining, and injuring himself. And then the mountains and scary music comes back. Huh? Did the mountains attack him? Why is this music and image there? It seems to be making some sort of point, but there's no real indication of what the point is, or even why it's relevant to the subject at hand. In the scene in question especially, there's nothing especially ominous events other than the score. Soon after, we're treated to similarly ominous music during oil exploration, which does eventually lead to Daniel Plainview's wild ambition and one or two early demises. So, I suppose the score is being used to make a point about that, but it's so ham-fisted and obvious. The film itself is supposed to be an exploration of how greed can corrupt, so why do we need this scary foreboding music constantly reminding us of this? Eventually the score becomes more appropriate to the picture, but by starting with the horror soundtrack it gives an indication of the real problem with the movie, which is that the director - Paul Thomas Anderson, if you're curious - doesn't quite know what he wants to do.

Take Eli Sunday, a highly ambitious and theatrical preacher. His ambition is explored in a few scenes, often among the best in the movie, and there's a simmering cruelty beneath the polished and carefully presented persona. The clash of ambitions between him and Plainview are pretty much the heart of the film. They both make their fortunes through deceit and clever manipulation of the people around them, and their clash of wills belies the fact that they're essentially the same behind their separate ventures. Their greed is simply channeled through different ways, God above or the oil below. While watching this, I couldn't help but think how much of a movie could be made out of these two characters, instead of frequently dropping Eli and focusing on Plainview just sort of meandering through the film in search for another scene that matters.

Which brings me neatly to my main problem with the film, which is that there is a whole lot of nothing surrounding the important scenes. It took almost an hour to get to a scene that did anything more than setting up the basic premise. The opening sequence which is lauded in many reviews, to me, was a nicely shot and acted waste of time. We gain little insight into the character, and what little information we do glean from the sequence could have been much more easily conveyed in a much shorter sequence. About the only reason for the scene is to build a mild curiosity, and for Anderson to show the world that he's an artist for making prettily shot wordless sequence. Only an artist would take 10 minutes when one would do, which seems to drive Anderson's entire directorial style for the film.

I'm not going to decry slow pacing, as I've enjoyed a great many slow movies in my time. But I can't really abide movies that move slowly for no reason other than to move slowly. I began to resent wading through scenes that don't really convey any information, that don't build on any characters, that do nothing but look good and bump the running time. I got annoyed by subplots that didn't get any attention and were shuffled in and out of view at whim. I became bothered by scenes that were very good, effective, well acted, well shot, and frankly should have come from a fantastic movie, but here were the stray nuggets spread between the empty dull rocks of the rest of the picture.

I want to like a film that can have a scene like the very last one. One that can have a scene like when Eli assumes he will be giving a blessing and is snubbed. I want to like something that can have a sequence like the rig fire, so effectively shot and sharing a lot more about Daniel Plainview's character than the entire first freaking hour of the movie. But on the other hand there is no way I want to sit through the 2 and a half hour running time just to see the brief glimpses of genius hidden deep within the muck.

It felt, in effect, like the opening. It was long, it was tedious, and while there was gold to be found, the price in the end wasn't worth the pittance received.


  1. Ha ha poor Jonny Greenwood. Well I guess his real talent is making scary music for Radiohead.

    This film looked like it would be pretty good, I might still check it out. Good to hear a voice of dissent for once though!

  2. I suppose I was being a little mean to ol' Johnny Greenwood. He was probably told to make the wrong music. Some of the songs are pretty good except in the wrong movie or scene.

  3. Yeah, I suspect someone just told him to make music and that's what he did, and then probably all the filmmakers got was the scary music so they had to figure out where to put it all. Then again, if I know Jonny Greenwood, he would have made that kind of music no matter what anyone told him!