The Ponzi-Schemes of "There Will Be Blood"
By Russell Brown
Jan 7, 2008
One of the joys of great art is that there's always more to be found in the nooks in crannies. A perfect example is a masterpiece like Citizen Kane, which can be watched countless times, because upon each viewing, you'll find something new to stimulate your mind. I saw the film again a few months ago, and one of the quiet moments really stuck in my memory. Kane and his wife sit across the table from one another reading the newspaper at breakfast, and in a series of dissolves, time passes and their expressions towards one another become increasingly bitter, and in just these silent few moments, you perceive that their entire marriage has collapsed. It's a pivotal moment in the film, because as it happens, you also intuit the entire demise of Kane's soul -- from a man who is warm, courageous, ambitious and brilliant, to one who is isolated and driven to misery by his own success. Of course, it all relates back to his early trauma of being separated from his mother, the moment in life when his entire future was defined without him having any notion. Kane is one of the most tragic characters in the movies, mostly because he's essentially good, but ends up harming people, almost against his own will and nature. The interplay of this character's singular life journey and these small moments of humanity set against the exploration of the emptiness of success, wealth and the "American Dream" is what, as we all know, makes Kane a great work of genius.
Perhaps it is my great reverence for Citizen Kane -- my deep love and respect for that film -- which conjured such a negative reaction to Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which many have compared to Kane and which has received positive reviews across the board. For me, the film contains no such moments of subtlety or wisdom, and is the most baffling example in recent memory of over-adulation by the critical community; it makes me seriously question whether the marketing departments of studios have finally determined the perfect formula on how to market a film as the one that "should be liked" because the shortcomings of this movie are, for me, so obvious and extreme.
Most confusing are the wrongly praised performances at the center of the film. Daniel Day-Lewis has delivered many memorable roles in the past, but like many great actors, he's one that needs strong direction to guide him away from indulgence. As is often (maybe too often) reported, he is a genius at inhabiting the skin of a character -- perfecting the mannerisms and tone of the voice in a very technical sort of way -- but in this movie, the bigger picture seems to have gotten lost in the details. From moment one, we know exactly who Daniel Plainview is and what he represents -- and that perception doesn't change throughout the entire run of the story. Scene after scene of him doing the exact same thing continues without any glimpse into another side of his humanity: Watching an animal be an animal for two hours is not interesting. By the end of the film, we know as little about him as we did at the beginning. Even more painfully, one never forgets that we are watching Daniel Day-Lewis acting (which a capitol "A") because every gesture and movement is so exaggerated. As one friend pointed out to me, "just watch the way he eats that toast -- he's not going to let you forget that he's EATING TOAST." Furthermore, as some critics have noted, the characterization has been cribbed from John Huston in Chinatown, so much so that the entire performance borders on imitation. (Some have rationalized this by saying that he is "creating a link" to Chinatown and thus elevating the film to an even higher metaphorical plateau. It baffles me why people so easily let him off the hook. For me, it was annoying and lazy.) I've still not yet been given a satisfying explanation about what is so mesmerizing about this performance, and its comparison to Orson Welles's Kane is sacrilege.
The other central performance is Paul Dano's preacher/healer, Eli Sunday, who is the thematic stand-in for organized religion. Amongst many I know in Los Angeles, there has been collective confusion about why Dano played two parts in the movie, and whether or not the implication was intentional that these brothers were the same person, or that Plainview thought they were the same person when he first arrived. Once you get past this bafflement (it took me around 15 minutes), we are asked to believe that Sunday has the charisma to fool an entire community (and, subsequently, a vast radio audience) into following him? I didn't buy it for one second. As with Plainview, every scene played in exactly the same way, and we really learned nothing about this person. He seems like a fake preacher at the beginning, and that perception carries us through right to the final denouement. How is this a "performance"? Who is this person in real life? What drives him? What demons does he face? What makes him laugh? Who does he care about? For me, there was nothing there.
But then again, how can you give a meaningful performance when the bones of the story and character motivations rarely track? So many character beats arrive and depart without explanation. Why does Plainview not bless the well? Why does Sunday never confront Plainview about not blessing the well? Why does Sunday's brother arrive and provide Plainview with the location of the oil? Why does Anderson imply that Sunday and his brother are the same person? How does Sunday get the money to build the new Church, if Plainview never gave him the $5,000? Why did Plainview never take his son to be healed, and then get angry at Sunday for not being able to heal him? Why did Plainview adopt the baby? Why does the grown up son suddenly hate his father so much? Why does the street-smart Plainview so easily accept a stranger as his brother? And then why does he suddenly turn and kill him, one scene after he discovers the truth? Why does Plainview's son try to burn down the house? Why does the son read the diary upside down? Why does Sunday tell us that the Bandy's son is handsome and wants to be an actor in Hollywood (is Sunday now gay?) If Sunday is such a successful radio preacher, is it really plausible that he would turn to Plainview after the stock market crash? Why does Sunday not age a single year over the entire run of the film?
I suppose many may forgive these points as minor in service of the greater theme of the movie. But honestly, what is so original or thought-provoking about these ideas? Here are the major themes in the movie, as far as I have determined: Greed corrupts the soul (duh), the Church is corrupt (duh), religion is a business and business is a religion (duh). I'm not quite sure what the epiphany is that people are having at the movie theater. Aren't all of these ideas well-worn? What's the new information that we're getting here that we haven't already received in Greed, Night of the Hunter, Wall Street, Elmer Gantry, Citizen Kane, A Face in the Crowd, etc etc. The only difference is, in those films, there are real people at the center of them, dealing with real life relationships and real life emotions. In There Will Be Blood, everyone is a stand-in for an idea, and it's all so painfully obvious.
All of this builds towards what is one of the more embarrassing closing scenes that I can remember. As Daniel Day-Lewis chewed up the wood of the bowling alley, sputtering nonsensical dialogue, and weird plot threads are suddenly introduced and then abandoned, you come to realize that the entire movie is a ruse. There's no truth in it, no introspection, nothing but a series of big things piled on top of one another (a big performance, a big theme, big music, big cinematography) that all add up to very little. You sense that Anderson desperately wants to be thought of as a filmmaker who is saying something, but in reality has nothing to empart about these people, the world in which they lived, or how their story is relevant today.
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