Expectation is a terrible thing. Expect too much and you’ll be disappointed, expect too little and your liable to be proven right, expect exactly right and you will walk away basically satisfied but never surprised. The best you can do is to expect nothing. Because when you expect nothing, everything is a windfall. With Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), expectations were sky-high. I was told that whatever good qualities The Master (2012) could claim, There Will Be Blood multiplied in quantity and quality. While a single viewing of Anderson’s movies is categorically insufficient, I found There Will Be Blood to be very good, very very good, but not the mind-blowing excellence promised.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an oilman. In 1898, Daniel was digging for gold and found it by himself. In 1902, he dug for oil with a small team of men. They struck and Daniel found himself with more than a fortune in oil. He also got H.W. (Dillon Freasier), a cute baby that would grow into a cute boy whose father died in an accident in the oil well. By 1911, we have dialogue and Daniel is a moderately successful oilman with his partner Fletcher (Ciarán Hinds). A young man named Paul (Paul Dano) gives Daniel a tip for $500 to go to Little Boston and drill the oilfields there. In Little Boston is Paul’s twin, Eli (also Paul Dano, obviously), who is a religious zealot. Pride, vulnerability, intensity, meanness, family, success, failure, and Oil!
I do my own drilling.
The main imperfection of There Will Be Blood is the cinematography (Robert Elswit) that doesn’t have the kind of control or intensity that you find in The Master (Mihai Malaimare Jr.). If a movie is going to take its time, then I expect it to be beautiful. There Will Be Blood really waits until the finally third of the movie to really highlight the look of it. I don’t think they put as much thought into the look of this movie as they did for The Master. Maybe they wanted to stay grounded and real, but that means it’s dark and that means the lines are softer and lack clarity. It’s perfectly reconstructed, but at some cost.
There are also some story issues with Daniel. In the last third of the movie, Daniel really starts to lose his mind but explains it in such a way that suggests he’s always been a bit broken. This arc is bumpy and the ending is rushed through with a Giant (1956) jump in time and story. Anderson gives his audience a lot of credit, and you’ve got to love that in a writer/director, but there’s a balance to be struck between an unelucidated sixteen year jump and overloaded dialogue that explains every little detail. (Not until the near end that explains the character.) What’s strange, though, is that Anderson misses a lot of opportunities to provide depth to the HW character. The bulk of the movie is taken up in showing an oilfield being developed and a rather minimal story being told. It feels as though the movie is a bit unbalanced on the score for a Anderson movie.
The performances, as you might expect, are exceptionally good. I think that a bit too much of the oxygen is taken up by Day-Lewis, but there’s no questioning his abilities for which he was awarded his fourth Best Actor nomination and second win. Freasier as Daniel’s “son”, for how little he speaks, is very good. The support, especially Ciarán Hinds, is quite good. I’m not big on Paul Dano and I think he was rather miscast in this role, but he does well enough. But, as I said before, Day-Lewis and his character take up a lot of narrative and emotional space that could have provided opportunities to these other actors to deliver something terrific.
Music by Jonny Greenwood was evocative–it evokes discomfort. It isn’t something you’d listen to independently, but that’s admirable in a way. It’s all there to establish or heighten the mood. But there’s no alchemy to it, if you see what I mean. If you took it away, you’d still have the acting and the look of it and when you bring in the music it adds as much as the music can provide. Just the sum of its parts.
Maybe that’s really my main problem with There Will Be Blood, it’s just the sum of its parts in a way that No Country for Old Men (2007) is greater than the some of its. No Country for Old Men folds together very neatly in the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the narrative is neatly self-contained. The Paul Thomas Anderson movies that I’ve seen are all about something else–Boogie Nights (1997) is about the porn industry and the people in it, The Master is about Scientology and the people behind it, There Will Be Blood is about the oil industry and the people who inhabit it. Something is to be learned in the movies. No Country for Old Men is about a simple (though very capable) man with a serious problem. It isn’t a character study. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is the manifestation of a philosophy, not someone to analyze. Anderson is ambitious, that’s what you get with him. That’s pretty great, but it does tend to keep perfection at bay.